Harvard scholar who studies honesty is accused of fabricating findings

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Over the past two decades, dozens of behavioral scientists have risen to prominence pointing out the power of small interventions to improve well-being.اضافة اعلان

The scientists said they had found that automatically enrolling people in organ donor programs would lead to higher rates of donation, and that moving healthy foods like fruit closer to the front of a buffet line would result in healthier eating.

Many of these findings have attracted skepticism as other scholars showed that their effects were smaller than initially claimed, or that they had little impact at all.

However, in recent days, the field may have sustained its most serious blow yet: accusations that a prominent behavioral scientist fabricated results in multiple studies, including at least one purporting to show how to elicit honest behavior.

The scholar, Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, has been a co-author of dozens of papers in peer-reviewed journals on such topics as how rituals like silently counting to 10 before deciding what to eat can increase the likelihood of choosing healthier food, and how networking can make professionals feel dirty.

Findings of fraud
Maurice Schweitzer, a behavioral scientist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said the accusations were having large “reverberations in the academic community” because Gino is someone who has “so many collaborators, so many articles, who is really a leading scholar in the field.”

Schweitzer said that he was now going through the eight papers on which he collaborated with Gino for indications of fraud, and that many other scholars were doing so as well.

Behavioral work is common in psychology, management and economics, and scholars can straddle these disciplines. According to her résumé, Gino has a doctorate in economics and management from an Italian university.

Questions about her work surfaced in an article June 16 in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a 2012 paper written by Gino and four colleagues.

One of Gino’s co-authors — Max H. Bazerman, also of Harvard Business School — told the Chronicle that the university had informed him that a study overseen by Gino for the paper appeared to include fabricated results.

The 2012 paper reported that asking people who fill out tax or insurance documents to attest to the truth of their responses at the top of the document rather than at the bottom significantly increased the accuracy of the information they provided.

The paper has been cited hundreds of times by other scholars, but more recent work had cast serious doubt on its findings.

Gino did not respond to a request for comment, and Harvard Business School declined to comment. Reached by phone, a man who identified himself as Gino’s husband said, “It’s obviously something that is very sensitive that we can’t speak to now.”

Bazerman did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he had had nothing to do with any fabrication.

On June 17, a blog run by three behavioral scientists, called DataColada, posted a detailed discussion of evidence that the results of a study by Gino for the 2012 paper had been falsified. The post said that the bloggers contacted Harvard Business School in the fall of 2021 to raise concerns about Gino’s work, providing the university with a report that included evidence of fraud in the 2012 paper as well as in three other papers on which she collaborated.

A focus on the integrity of social science research
The blog — by Uri Simonsohn of ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Leif Nelson of the University of California, Berkeley, and Joseph Simmons of the University of Pennsylvania — focuses on the integrity and reliability of social science research. The post on Gino noted that Harvard had placed her on administrative leave, a fact that was reflected on her business school webpage, though no reason was given. The Internet Archive, which catalogs webpages, shows that Gino was not on leave as recently as mid-May.

The 2012 paper was based on three separate studies. One study overseen by Gino involved a lab experiment in which about 100 participants were asked to complete a worksheet featuring 20 puzzles and were promised $1 for every puzzle they solved.

The study’s participants later filled out a form reporting how much money they had earned from solving the puzzles. The participants were led to believe that cheating would be undetected, when in fact the researchers could verify how many puzzles they had solved.

The study found that participants were much more likely to report their puzzle income honestly if they attested to the accuracy of their responses at the top of the form rather than the bottom.

But in their blog post, Simonsohn, Nelson, and Simmons, analyzing data that Gino and her co-authors had posted online, cited a digital record contained within an Excel file to demonstrate that some of the data points had been tampered with, and that the tampering helped drive the result.

In interviews and comments on social media, some scholars said that findings in the genre of behavioral research that Gino specializes in, which is closer to psychology, often resemble findings generated by questionable research methods.

One category of questionable methods, said Colin Camerer, a behavioral economist at the California Institute of Technology, is p-hacking — for example, testing a series of arbitrary data combinations until the researcher arrives at an inflated statistical correlation.

In 2015, a team of scholars reported that they had tried to replicate the results of 100 studies published in prominent psychology journals and succeeded in fewer than half the cases. The behavioral studies proved especially hard to replicate.

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