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Author retracts study of changing minds on same-sex marriage after colleague admits data were faked – Retraction Watch

2015-05-23

In what can only be described as a remarkable and swift series of events, one of the authors of a much-ballyhooed Science paper claiming that short conversations could change people’s minds on same-sex marriage is requesting a retraction following revelations that the data were faked by his co-author.

Donald Green, of Columbia, and Michael LaCour, a graduate student at UCLA, published the paper, “When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality,” in December 2014. The study received widespread media attention, including from This American Life, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post,  The Los Angeles Times, Science Friday, Vox, and HuffingtonPost, as LaCour’s site notes.

David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, graduate students at University of California, Berkeley, were two of the people impressed with the work, so they planned an extension of it, as they explain in a timeline posted online yesterday:

As we examined the study’s data in planning our own studies, two features surprised us: voters’ survey responses exhibit much higher test-retest reliabilities than we have observed in any other panel survey data, and the response and reinterview rates of the panel survey were significantly higher than we expected. We set aside our doubts about the study and awaited the launch of our pilot extension to see if we could manage the same parameters. LaCour and Green were both responsive to requests for advice about design details when queried.  Earlier this month, they began a pilot of their extension. They soon realized that the response rate of the pilot study was notably lower than what LaCour and Green (2014) reported.  When Broockman and Kalla contacted the firm they thought had performed the original study upon which the Science paper was based, the survey firm claimed they had no familiarity with the project and that they had never had an employee with the name of the staffer we were asking for. The firm also denied having the capabilities to perform many aspects of the recruitment procedures described in LaCour and Green (2014).

via Author retracts study of changing minds on same-sex marriage after colleague admits data were faked – Retraction Watch at Retraction Watch

As noted in the article on Retraction Watch, Michael La Cour was a graduate student at UCLA.  He subsequently received a PhD, partly on the basis of his dissertation, which was entitled “When Persuasion Works, Lasts and Spreads: Evidence From Three Longitudinal Field Experiments on Gay Equality and Abortion.”  It is possible that this PhD may be rescinded.  He also was apparently offered a position at Princeton starting in July, although that offer may have been taken back since this revelation only a couple of days ago.

We should note that the retraction isn’t official just yet; it hasn’t been printed in Science, the magazine that published the original piece.  They are publishing an Editorial Expression of Concern, and after they have confirmed the information, they will presumably proceed to an actual retraction.   In addition, LaCour states on his web site that he “stands by” his findings and “…will supply a definitive response on or before May 29, 2015.  I appreciate your patience, as I gather evidence and relevant information…”  What evidence he needs to gather is open to question; it seems to me that he needs merely to search his own mind and remember whether he actually had anything to do with Qualtrics, the company that he claimed he contracted to do the actual survey.

Green stated that LaCour had “confessed to falsely describing at least some of the details of the data collection” but apparently that confession was only for Green’s consumption, not for public attribution.

Here is another fraudulent piece of research, this time quickly discovered and put up for retraction.  In the the Paolo Macchiarini case, some of the doctors involved in the care of the patients raised concerns about his claims.  In this case, researchers who wanted to confirm and extend the study discovered that the data was questionable and confirmed it by contacting the survey firm allegedly used in the study.

In this case, the conclusion is that people who are biased against gay marriage can be convinced to accept it with a brief talk– implying that the bias is either not deeply held or is readily overcome with personal discussion.  This conclusion has lost support because the study claiming to confirm it has been shown to be fraudulent.

In the previous case, an exciting new therapy for replacing organs damaged beyond repair was given support  by false reports of survival after surgery.  This new form of therapy is still in the experimental stages and the false reports leave us without confidence in the technique used– for the moment.

Retractions of published research papers seem to be very common, but according to Retraction Watch, they represent only a tiny percentage of publications– about 600 a year out of 2.5 million papers total.  It seems that retractions are newsworthy and memorable, especially the ones involving fraud, but the ordinary paper that is not retracted just flies under the radar.

Retractions do not always indicate fraud– in most cases, they are the result of mistakes made in the preparation of figures and formulation of hypotheses.  Thus, even when a paper is retracted, it does not necessarily reflect on the character of the authors.  The really newsworthy retractions are the rare cases in which one of the researchers has actually committed fraud or made something up.

These cases are also the most difficult to detect, since an author who has made something up has probably consciously covered his tracks.  Thus, it is possible that there are many more fraudulent papers out there that haven’t been and may never be discovered.  This means that the best way to avoid fraud is to teach the potential authors to be honorable while they are still in college.  Even more important, current researchers tell us, the pressure to “publish or perish” needs to diminish to prevent excessive publications.  Researchers cannot function effectively when they are subjected to this kind of pressure.

PS The originators of the site Retraction Watch have written an “op-ed” piece about research fraud for yesterday’s New York Times.  It has additional explanations for the “epidemic” of fraud and is well worth reading: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/23/opinion/whats-behind-big-science-frauds.html  …I’ll summarize it tomorrow as I have already posted too many times today (there’s a limit?)

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