It would be difficult to find a professor in the field of business ethics who had not cited her research. Francesca Gino, a Harvard professor, gave us the studies with results that businesses put into practices.
Her research concluded if you have folks sign an attestation of truthfulness on insurance forms at the top instead of the end, they are more honest in their responses. Another study concluded that having folks read the Ten Commandments before a test makes them more honest. The research did not include a warning of EEOC wrath that would would result from forcing a tenet of Christianity on test-takers.
Dr. Gino, along with co-authors, including Dan Ariely, burst onto TED talks, best-seller lists, and speaking tours with their nouveau science. They were mixing behavioral research with economics to provide insights into decision-making processes.
Two years ago, Harvard received a notice from Data Colada, the blog that checks social science research for its validity. The blog concluded that there was fraud involved in the Gino research. Gino denies the allegations. Dr. Ariely is even more adamant that there is no fraud. Noam Scheiber, “A Dishonesty Expert Is Labeled a Liar,” New York Times, October 1, 2023, p. A1.
Nonetheless, the bloggers found evidence that the data had been tampered with to make the results more impressive. They also found that the data had been moved around to support the hypotheses of the research and articles.What we don’t know is who fooled around with the numbers.
Harvard investigated for two years, Dr. Gino is on leave, and she has filed a defamation suit against both the bloggers and Harvard. There are so many folks involved in a single academic research project and resulting publication that “whodunnit” may be a terminal cold case. There can be a dozen co-authors and heaven only knows how many grad assistants processed the data.
Nonetheless, the research conclusions published are not accurate. That we even have a blog called “Data Colada” staggers the imagination. There have been 5,500 faculty publications retracted in 2022. In 2002, there were 119. Granted, we have more tools for detecting, analyzing, and reporting. The bottom line is that one simply cannot trust social science research. Nidhi Subraraman, “Debunkers Bust Bad Scientists,” Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2023, p. A1.
The former president of Stanford, Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, left his position after PubPeer (yet another site that dissects research) criticized the data in his publications. After a Stanford investigation, three of his studies were retracted.
These publications are peer-reviewed — those who know research and the field are supposed to catch flaws. The Barometer has a skeptic screen: If what the author [s] (often a dozen or so) concludes gives you a, “How could they possibly know that that from this study?” then full speed ahead on applying those fraud detection skills. In reporting the Ten Commandments study, the Barometer has added, “It remains unclear how you detect the honesty of those filling out the claim forms unless you had access to insurance company files and cases.” The privacy aspects alone also stagger the imagination.
We now have professors whose expertise is actually fraud detection — in any field. In short, the gatekeepers are slopp so entrepreneurial academics are doing their jobs.
Fun conclusions that make the news are good for authors, their institutions, news, and online hits, likes, and comments. But fun conclusions do not a body of research make. There is an old saying that my first department chair shared with me, “Figures don’t lie. But liars do figure.”
There was another saying that a senior attorney gave to me during my first summer clerkship while in law school. He had found a typo in a brief I had written. I had corrected the typo in reviewing the hard-copy draft, but the mag card operator had neglected to enter it. If you don’t know what a mag card is, tromp down memory lane on the history of technology and word processing. His response to me was simple, “Is your name on this brief?” It was. He then said, “Then it is your mistake.”
So it is with the long line of academic researchers. They may be able to transfer blame and action to others but their names are on it. Taking responsibility and self-correcting is always an alternative to defamation suits.