Alex Holcombe's blog

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2024-04-02 11:00:06

originally published by The Chronicle of Higher Education as “How to Stop Academic Fraudsters” (I didn’t choose that title)

I’ll never forget that email. It was 2016, and I had been helping psychology researchers design studies that, I hoped, would replicate important and previously published findings. As part of a replication-study initiative that I and the other editors had set up at the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, dozens of labs around the world would collect new data to provide a much larger dataset than that of the original studies.

With the replication crisis in full swing, we knew that data dredging and other inappropriate research practices meant that some of the original studies were unlikely to replicate. But we also thought our wide-scale replication effort would confirm some important findings. Upon receiving the “this is not credible” message, however, I began to be haunted by another possibility — that at least one of those landmark studies was a fraud.

The study in question was reminiscent of many published in high-impact journals in the mid-2010s. It indicated that people’s mood or behavior could be shifted a surprising amount by a subtle manipulation. The study had found that people became happier when they described a previous positive experience in a verb tense suggesting an ongoing experience — rather than one set firmly in the past. Unfortunately for psychology’s reputation, social-priming studies like that had been falling like a house of cards, and our replication failed, too. In response, the researchers behind the original study submitted a new experiment that appeared to shore up their original findings. With their commentary, the researchers provided the raw data for the new study, which was unusual at the time, but it was our policy to require it. This was critical to what happened next.

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