Miltenberg: “The Band of Debunkers Busting Bad Scientists,” Wall Street Journal


An award-winning Harvard Business School professor and researcher spent years exploring the reasons people lie and cheat. A trio of behavioral scientists examining a handful of her academic papers concluded her own findings were drawn from falsified data. It was a routine takedown for the three scientists—Joe Simmons, Leif Nelson and Uri Simonsohn—who have gained academic renown for debunking published studies built on faulty or fraudulent data. They use tips, number crunching and gut instincts to uncover deception. Over the past decade, they have come to their own finding: Numbers don’t lie but people do. “Once you see the pattern across many different papers, it becomes like a one in quadrillion chance that there’s some benign explanation,” said Simmons, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the trio who report their work on a blog called Data Colada. Simmons and his two colleagues are among a growing number of scientists in various fields around the world who moonlight as data detectives, sifting through studies published in scholarly journals for evidence of fraud. At least 5,500 faulty papers were retracted in 2022, compared with 119 in 2002, according to Retraction Watch, a website that keeps a tally. The jump largely reflects the investigative work of the Data Colada scientists and many other academic volunteers, said Dr. Ivan Oransky, the site’s co-founder. Their discoveries have led to embarrassing retractions, upended careers and retaliatory lawsuits … Simonsohn got a tip in 2021 about the data used in papers published by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino. Her well-regarded studies explored moral questions: Why do some people lie? What reward drives others to cheat? What factors influence moral behavior? The three scientists examined data underlying four studies and identified what they said were irregularities in how some entries appeared. Numbers in data sets look to have been manually changed. In December 2021, they sent their discoveries to Harvard, which conducted its own investigation. Harvard concluded Gino was “responsible for ‘research misconduct,’” according to her lawsuit against Harvard, Nelson, Simmons and Simonsohn. The Harvard Business School asked journals that published the four papers to retract them, saying her results were invalid. In June this year, the trio posted their conclusions about Gino’s studies on Data Colada. Data in four papers, they said, had been falsified. When they restored what they hypothesized was correct information in one of the four studies, the results didn’t support the study’s findings. The posts sent the social sciences community into an uproar. Gino is on administrative leave, and the school has begun the process of revoking her tenure. In her lawsuit, Gino said Harvard’s investigation was flawed as well as biased against her because of her gender. A business school spokesman declined to comment. The suit also contends that the Data Colada blog posts falsely accused her of fraud. The three scientists said they stood by their posted findings. Gino, through her lawyer, denied wrongdoing. She is seeking at least $25 million in damages. “We vehemently disagree with any suggestion of the use of the word fraud,” said Gino’s lawyer Andrew Miltenberg. Gino declined to comment. Miltenberg said Gino was working on a rebuttal to Data Colada’s conclusions.

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