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Research integrity case studies

It is hard to believe researchers would be anything other than honest. The case studies below relate to instances where researchers have acted fraudulently.

These case studies demonstrate how, despite research and publication structures designed to ensure integrity, fraudulent work can still be published. The case studies are from different disciplines and each demonstrates how dishonest practices have fooled colleagues, co-authors and peer reviewers.

Engineering and Design

IEEE Circuits and Systems Magazine and Plagiarism

In 2007, Abu Baker and three co-authors published a 13 page article entitled “LDPC Decoder: A Cognitive Radio Perspective for Next Generation (XG) Communication,” in the IEEE Circuits and Systems Magazine. However, the following year, an expert committee convened by the magazine ruled that Baker, a doctoral student, had plagiarized material from two other papers in his contribution for the piece. Consequently, in 2008, the magazine replaced the article in its online issues with a ‘notice of violation’ of the magazine’s principles and an apology for the piece in which Baker admitted to plagiarizing the other articles and deliberating introducing slight changes to hinder the detection of the plagiarism (Baker et al., 2007; Baker et al., 2008).

Additionally, the Magazine ran a general editorial on plagiarism and printed a detailed description of the 2008 ‘Guidelines for Adjudicating Different Levels of Plagiarism’ agreed by the IEEE Publications and Products Services Board. The guidelines distinguished amongst five levels of misconduct and urged editors, reviewers, authors and readers to ‘join forces to deal with plagiarisms’ (Chen, 2008).

In common with other case studies in this section of the module, the three co-authors were deemed not to bear responsibility for the misconduct as they had accepted Baker’s work for the paper in good faith, assuming that he had acted with integrity (Baker et al., 2008).

This case also illustrates the lingering effect of the digital footprint of the original, plagiarised piece. The magazine has removed the plagiarised article and issued a request for any references to it to be changed to cite the original papers that were plagiarised by Baker. However, an online search for the fraudulent text reveals multiple, uncorrected references to it, even though the full article is no longer available.

Additionally, the response of the magazine, in which it devotes an editorial to plagiarism and calls on the entire research community to take responsibility for it, is notable.


For more information and other case studies developed for Engineers please see the Engineering ethics in practice: a guide for Engineers published by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Humanities and Social Sciences

Diederik Stapel - Fabricating data in psychology

Stapel was an eminent social psychologist and Dean at Tilburg University until 2011 when he was found to have fabricated and/or manipulated data over many years and in 55 publications (Levelt, 2012; 'Diederik Stapel' Wikipedia).

An investigation into his work, triggered by three early career researchers, concluded that his fraudulent activity also had an impact upon 19 doctoral theses where he had supplied fraudulent data, unbeknownst to the doctoral researchers. The practice in his lab was for him to control the data and to thwart access to any raw data. In some cases, he agreed the development of survey instruments with colleagues but never administered the questionnaires, fabricating datasets instead. In other cases, where data was collected, he altered the dataset in order to conform to certain expectations (Levelt, 2012).

The committees that investigated the case found no evidence that Stapel's co-authors colluded with him; however, they did suggest that they had been insufficiently critical of his work and that there was some evidence of 'scientific carelessness' on their behalf.

Following the case of Stapel and other researchers accused of fraudulent practices, the Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman suggested that social priming (Stapel's area of work) was 'the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research' and he called on social psychologists working in the area of social priming to collectively address issues of fraud and concerns with replicability:

'As all of you know, of course, questions have been raised about the robustness of priming results. The storm of doubts is fed by several sources, including the recent exposure of fraudulent researchers, general concerns with replicability that affect many disciplines, multiple reported failures to replicate salient results in the priming literature, and the growing belief in the existence of a pervasive file drawer problem that undermines two methodological pillars of your field: the preference for conceptual over literal replication and the use of meta-analysis. Objective observers will point out that the problem could well be more severe in your field than in other branches of experimental psychology, because every priming study involves the invention of a new experimental situation' (Kahneman, D. cited in Yong, 2012).

In his open letter, Kahneman goes on to argue that sharing data and methods and undertaking a rigorous programme of replication is a way of ensuring the integrity of work in the field.


School of Management

Ulrich Lichtenthaler - Management studies

Ulrich Lichtenthaler was a young scholar, viewed, until recently, as a phenomenal talent in the field of business studies and invariably described as a 'research wunderkind' (Matlack 2013). However as of 2014, Lichtenthaler had to retract 16 papers. Reasons for retractions included flawed analysis of data (citing some findings as statistically significant, when they were not) and self-plagiarism, including only slight variations of work with the same material in different publications (Matlack 2013; West 2014).

Like other high profile researchers who have been found to be academically dishonest, Lichtenthaler had a meteoric rise in his field and at one point was publishing an article a month.

Following the mass retractions of his published work, Lichtenthaler resigned from his role as Professor of Management at Mannheim University in March 2015 ('Ulrich Lichtenthaler, Wikipedia).

One interesting aspect of this case, observed by blogger Joel West in the Open Innovation blog, is that even after the 16 retractions, Lichtenthaler has a body of work of 35 publications - that at the time of writing were considered methodologically sound. With such a substantive research record, one wonders why it was necessary to act fraudulently, and this perhaps underscores a point made in the video in this section of this module that it's 'better to be honest and not have a paper than to be dishonest and have a paper.'



Jan Hendrik Schön - Fraudulent data in physics

Jan Hendrik Schön was a physicist at Bell Laboratories who published over 20 papers on 'molecular electronics' between 2000 and 2002 in journals including Science and Nature. His research was deemed groundbreaking and his publication rate prolific, with seven articles submitted in November 2001 alone (Reich, 2009, cited in Kaiser, 2009). As Kaiser suggests, 'Everything Schön touched seemed to turn to research gold.'

However, in 2002, following an investigation by Bell Laboratories, Schön was deemed to have committed scientific misconduct in 16 papers. The three categories of misconduct were ‘substitution of data’, ‘unrealistic precision of data’ and ‘results that contradict known physics’ (Kaiser 2009).

Numerous papers authored by Schön have since been withdrawn although his co-authors were cleared of wrongdoing. Researchers were not able to reproduce his work and his PhD from the University of Konstanz was revoked in 2004. When ruling on an appeal brought by Schon in 2011, the judge in the case said that that the University was within its rights to revoke the PhD because the degree implied a high level of trustworthiness which had been violated by Schön’s actions (Vogel 2011).

Significantly (and in common with Diederik Stapel whose work features in the Humanities and Social Science case study in this module), analysts of the case have observed that Schön was able to commit this astonishing fraud despite the peer review process and even when working with co-authors. Significantly, all the papers mentioned above were co-authored and peer-reviewed. Neither the other authors or reviewers spotted fraudulent activity during the writing or reviewing processes.


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