Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Some Thoughts on the LaCour Scandal

So as I've learned this week, apparently there is at least one thing that will get me sucked back into reading and writing and thinking about academic work and the controversies therein. And that one thing is an instance of research fraud so massive that it almost defies imagination.

I mean......really, Michael LaCour? You published a huge study in Science with a fancy glittery co-author, and it turns out that you completely fabricated your data? And apparently didn't even bother to get IRB approval for a face-to-face survey until after you already "carried out the interviews?" (Scare quotes intentional, obviously.) And then you faked a few grants and a teaching award, just because the research fakery wasn't enough? And you even stopped to falsify a document of research integrity along the way?

Wow. Wow. That's...astounding.

(For those who don't know what I'm talking about, here is a good overview of both his fraud and of the excellent work by the grad student who uncovered it.

Or just google LaCour's name. Even if you think you're done reading about academia, this scandal might just suck you back in for an hour or two or ten. Or maybe that's just me.)

Anyway, many people smarter and more engaged in these issues than me have done great work writing about the underlying issues about research ethics and coauthor relationships, etc., that are related to this fraud. I don't have much to add on those issues since I haven't done research in almost five years, so I'll leave it to others to dig in on those important and relevant topics.

I do have a few things to say about this scandal, though, from the "postacademic, cynical-about-academia" side of the aisle.

First, I hope that perhaps this scandal can reassure those of you who are still in academia that you aren't the worst grad student out there. There is now a clear winner of that prize. :)

Seriously, though, I want to take a few minutes to place a little bit of focus on academic culture when we're talking and thinking about this scandal. Let's stop and think for a minute about how academia has evolved in recent years, and let's consider whether a fraud scandal is really that surprising when we think about what grad students and new faculty are now expected to do when they're readying themselves for the (R1) academic job market. And let's take a few minutes to think about what young scholars have to do (and how lucky they have to be!) if they want to become true academic stars, as LaCour was before his fall.

Now, please don't misunderstand me as you read this piece. LaCour is first and foremost to blame for what he's done to himself, without a doubt. Academic culture did not make him completely fabricate a study. The pressure to publish in a top journal did not force him to bypass IRB approval and to spend time creating false "realtime" survey results to show other grad students on his iPad at conferences. Whatever is going on with this guy that made him behave in this way, I hope that he is able to get the professional help that he so clearly needs.

But to be honest, in a way I am not particularly surprised that some type of fraud has been uncovered in academic research involving a young (star) scholar. As expectations about the level of research productivity and success that young scholars are expected to have achieved before they ever get tenure or even go on the job market increases, I honestly would not be surprised if we continue to see instances of research fraud (or embellishment, or exaggeration, or whatever) increasing...especially among the category of students and young scholars who will be labeled as the overachieving stars of their discipline.

And it's not because I think that the young star scholars are sociopathic liars or anything. It's because academic culture has gone batshit in the direction of demanding insane levels of productivity and groundbreaking results...while not putting enough safeguards in place to ensure that researchers aren't fudging their results to help them achieve those ends.

The blogger Lisa Schweitzer touches on what I'm talking about here:
Experiments like the one LaCour described take years, years that nobody wants to give you in graduate school ("How long, exactly, did it take you to finish?" and "Are you finished yet?") or later. Work that has depth takes time, and nobody is supposed to need time. Hurry up, be a star! What's taking you so long, again? This other guy here, he's a star already! What are you doing! There are no long-term investment[s] in young scholars even though they spend a long time investing themselves.
I'm not trying to make excuses for LaCour; I am, however, not willing to pile on the schadenfreude of gawking at his wrongdoing and pretending to be mystified--utterly mystified!--at how somebody could do what he did. I get it. The incentives in the academy are not to seek and craft knowledge, particularly for somebody like LaCour who craves status, earned or unearned.
I don't want to dig too deeply into my anecdotal memories of my time in grad school and the research records of the faculty and grad students I worked with in my department...mainly because I can't be sure if my memories are accurate. But (correct me in the comments if I'm wrong), it really seems as if the research expectations that many academic disciplines now hold for matriculating grad students and brand new faculty have absolutely exploded over the last 5-10 years.

It's no longer good enough to go on the academic job market with a pub or two and some teaching experience and maybe one paper under review at a top journal. No, no...if you want that R1 job, you had better have already published something in a top journal. At least one thing. More than one, if you can do it! Oh, but of course it's better if your paper gets some media attention. So your results better be groundbreaking! (And boy, they sure would be if you just dropped those five responses that are bringing your results in JUST under significance, wouldn't they? Hmmm....)

Oh, but don't forget that "grants won!" section on your CV! You can't forget that! Sure, it's true that grant applications take almost as long to put together as a draft of a paper for publication. And also, that winning a grant is a crapshoot. You still need to demonstrate that you can get outside funding. (Too bad you can't just add in a random extra grant to spice up your CV, huh? Would anyone really notice??)

Now sure, if you're shooting for a SLAC job, you can probably send in your CV with a couple of low-level pubs without being laughed off of campus. But of course, when it comes time to make hiring decisions, you're going to be competing for those jobs with the people who aren't quite stars...who "only" managed to get one second-authored top-3 publication and who "only" got one grant. And sure, you might be super dedicated to teaching and ready to mentor your students and hopefully they search committee at your SLAC will notice....but did you read that other candidate's ASR article? It got a writeup in the [insert name of fancy newspaper here]!!

And meanwhile, your advisors and your family and friends and the people you meet at conferences are talking to you, asking about your research and asking when you're going to be done. Asking what you're working on (and looking bored if your project doesn't sound interesting). "When are you graduating?" "Where are you going to go work?"

(Boy, it sure would be easier to answer those questions if you could speed up the data collection process a bit, wouldn't it? It sure would be easier if you didn't have to actually do all of that data collection or wait for something interesting to appear. It's not like your dissertation advisor is out with you every single time you're doing fieldwork or interviews confirming what you're observing or hearing, right??? Would anyone really notice if you embellished your notes a bit???)

Here's the thing - the stars are driving the expectations for research productivity up, across the board. And even for the stars themselves, it seems that the expectations are increasing. When I first got to grad school, a single top-3 publication was viewed as the Holy Grail of grad school. If you managed to get one of those, you could practically pick your job.

These days, unless you're lead or single-author?.....well, good luck.

And I'll say it...these expectations are getting insane, and I predict that they are going to lead to more fraud.

The average grad student is in their program, actively doing independent research, for what...maybe 5 years? And during those years, each journal will publish 3 or 4 issues a year, with maybe 5 or 6 papers in each, most of which have probably been under review and in press for a year or more? Right? And the people who will be submitting to those journals aren't just grad students from every top program in the country...but also faculty who are trying to get tenure or continue their storied research careers?

So with every paper the wannabe-star grad student is writing, they're competing with hundreds of other submitters for a few publication slots each year. The odds are really stacked against them for ever getting that cherished top publication at all, and especially for getting the type of attention for that pub that will make them a true star ... unless, maybe, they put together a really ambitious and interesting project.

But of course, that ambitious and interesting project still won't get much attention if the results don't turn out the way they want. Papers that show "no effects" might get published, but they won't make someone a star. (Too bad you can't just massage that data a tiny bit, bring it up to significance. That would definitely make people sit up and notice your work. But of course you wouldn't do that.)

And meanwhile, every time you go visit your advisor, he or she is probably helpful and supportive. But they're not usually looking at your raw data, right? They're usually not sitting next to you when you run your significance tests. (Would they really notice if you took those ten observations that are skewing your data and just...disappeared them? Nah, can't do that.)


For the record, the hypotheticals I describe above are clearly and obviously not what happened here. LaCour has carried out a fraud that is so wide-ranging and so egregious that at this point (to quote a friend) I'm wondering when we'll discover that he plagiarized his apology.

But what I can't shake from my mind as this whole scenario plays out is this.

If LaCour was, up until a week or so ago, lauded as a star and hired for a T-T job at Princeton and was proceeding without anyone apparently catching on that he was leaving an Appalachian trail of falsehoods behind can we be sure that the rest of groundbreaking academic research really is fully legitimate? If there were no safeguards in place to catch an apparently pathological liar like LaCour until he was about 60 days away from taking ownership of his office at an Ivy League school, are there really safeguards in place to make sure that there aren't hundreds of other tiny (or not-so-tiny) instances of fraud or error happening all over the place in academic research?

After all, the incentives certainly aren't slanted in the direction of slow, methodical research that takes the findings wherever they lead. And the job market certainly isn't slanted to reward long, careful projects that will slowly advance the discipline and knowledge in general. And faculty - whose careers depend on their own research productivity - often aren't able to (nor may they want to) engage in the type of oversight that will help catch fabrications or exaggerations or honest mistakes when they occur.

So should we really be all that surprised when the next instance of fraud or exaggeration comes to light? Because I bet this isn't the last time something like this will occur.

I'll gawk and gossip with everyone else when it does, but I really don't think I'll be surprised.


  1. Quantity is an easy heuristic. And media accolades are another.

    But the former is a poor proxy for something many academics are not educated to do (they are trained, not educated, in graduate schools. Any education is mostly to be had undergraduately) --i.e., evaluate quality.

    Media attention is even (or as bad as, quantity computation). It encourages demonstration based "research" as opposed to tedious, non-sexy theory-driven additions to an ongoing, systematic examination of a clearly crafted theoretical position (often lacking in the social sciences).

  2. Man, I love this post. By the time the LaCour scandal hit I had already decided to leave academia and was in the process of interviewing for non-academic jobs, and this just exemplified every reason I decided to leave academia. The expectations for young scholars who want positions at top schools are INSANE. I was doing a postdoc at an R1 at the time and it was clear that in my social science field I was expected to have 5-10 publications, some papers under review, and at least a grant under review if not awarded. And oh, better get those publications with a variety of authors to show independence. I was considering stretching my postdoc to 3-4 years because despite having published a bit in grad school, 2 years didn't seem like enough time. 6 years in grad school plus 2 years of a postdoc didn't seem like enough time!!

    In addition to highlighting the issues with expectations for junior scholars, though, I also think this highlights how the competition twists research in a really ugly way. LaCour's fabrication has the potential to do a lot of damage to a hugely important national issue. Nonprofits would design their canvassing campaign on this basis and spend millions of dollars on something that doesn't work . All because he wanted to be a professor at Princeton. And so it is: in grad school and my postdoc I slowly found my reason for research turning from betting the world to bettering myself. Every paper and grant was viewed as a line on my cv and a way to get a job rather than a way to change the world or affect policy or even push science forward. And it seemed all of the really successful people in academia thought that way. It left a bad taste in my mouth.