- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Florida State University declined to conduct a full misconduct investigation of a prominent professor accused of faking data linking racism to criminal sentencing.

Now the major research university has come under fire for what critics describe as its anemic response to an explosive case of suspected academic fraud, an episode that has rocked the criminology field and resulted in the mass retraction of five high-profile studies.

Sounding the alarm was Justin Pickett, an associate professor at State University of New York at Albany and a co-author of one of the retracted studies with FSU criminology professor Eric A. Stewart.

Mr. Stewart is the academic who provided the survey figures used in all five papers but has never released the complete raw data.

“I think FSU’s decision is regrettable,” Mr. Pickett said in an email. “Universities have a legal and moral obligation to take fraud accusations seriously. When they don’t, they betray taxpayers, who supply the money for scientists’ research, and weaken ethical norms in the scientific community.”

FSU made its decision during the “replication crisis,” which erupted after a 2016 Nature survey found that 70% of scientists tried and failed to repeat another scientist’s results. Academia also was under scrutiny over politicized research and scandals such as the uproar last year at Duke, which paid $112.5 million to settle claims that it submitted bogus data to win government grants.

What stands out in the latest case is FSU’s response, said Brian Nosek, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Open Science.

“In terms of fraud cases in other fields, this would appear to be relatively ordinary in the sense that it follows a similar template of suspicious reporting, apparently non-existent datasets, and a lot of obfuscation when collaborators try to investigate what happened,” Mr. Nosek said in an email. “But, it is decidedly unordinary in the apparent investigative process conducted by the university.”

The FSU episode emerged in May after an anonymous whistleblower contacted several of Mr. Stewart’s co-authors to point out data “irregularities,” which prompted Mr. Pickett to ask for the raw numbers from Mr. Stewart, who was his mentor at FSU.

Mr. Stewart initially agreed to provide the numbers but later indicated his hands were tied by university policies, according to emails that Mr. Pickett posted on the social sciences platform SocArXIV.

“I have to wait until after I talk to the research board,” Mr. Stewart said in a text message. Mr. Pickett then contacted an FSU official, who told him in a June 6 email that “Sharing copies of the data is perfectly okay.”

Gary K. Ostrander, FSU vice president for research, said in a statement that the university “embarked on the first of a two-part process that is divided into an initial inquiry and then an investigation.”

“At the conclusion of the inquiry, the committee felt that there was no need to move to the full investigation as the professor had already been working with the journal’s editors to address any questions they had about the work,” Mr. Ostrander said. “The journal’s process is completely independent from the university, and we respect Professor Stewart’s decision to ultimately request retractions.”

‘Data thugs are after me’

What makes the case all the more arresting is the subject matter of the retracted papers. Two of the papers looked at how whites who live in areas with histories of lynchings were more likely to view blacks as criminals and favor tougher punishments for crime.

The 2011 paper for Criminology written by Mr. Pickett, Mr. Stewart and three others found that public perceptions of Hispanic “ethnic threats” were “strong predictors of public support for use of ethnicity in punishment.”

In his July 6 post on the retraction, Mr. Pickett cited eight problems with the study, including that it reported 1,184 respondents when there were 500, it cited 91 counties instead of 326 and it found the effect of Hispanic growth was “significant and positive, but actually it is non-significant and negative.”

“Many other findings … do not exist in the data,” Mr. Pickett’s post said.

Mr. Stewart did not respond to a request for comment. In the posted emails and texts, he acknowledged problems with the data and said he was working on cleaning up the numbers and making corrections.

He also characterized himself as the victim of the anonymous “John Smith” and “data thugs,” references to research integrity watchdogs Nick Brown and James Heathers.

“For some reason, data thugs are after me. It seems very personal,” Mr. Stewart said in a series of texts. “All of the blame is being directed at me.”

He told school administrators in an email that Mr. Pickett “essentially lynched me and my academic character.” His allegation takes on greater resonance because Mr. Stewart is black.

‘Sham process’

The FSU case has drawn the attention of Science magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Retraction Watch, as well as a chemical engineer turned independent journalist named Stephen who runs the Coffee Break site on YouTube.

Stephen, who keeps his last name anonymous, said colleges have little incentive to risk a public relations hit by investigating and sanctioning their own.

“Universities faced with allegations are often actively trying to find a reason to make the numbers work, which means if research misconduct claims do get taken seriously, it is often in spite of the universities, not because of them,” he said in a Dec. 27 video.

After submitting an open-records request, Coffee Break reported that two of the three FSU committee investigators were “repeat co-authors” with Mr. Stewart, in violation of university rules. FSU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Based on what is publicly available, the university process appears to have been a sham process,” said Mr. Nosek. “I hope that the reporting is off target because the implications of how the university handles research integrity are very problematic.”

The case prompted the American Society of Criminology executive board to adopt Committee on Public Ethics guidelines and principles, as well as draft formal procedures “for how the guidelines apply specifically to our journals,” said ASC President Sally S. Simpson.

“In addition to these measures, the Publications Committee of ASC is investigating other possible mechanisms to assure data quality in our journals such as open data, data archiving, submission of scripts to allow for reproducibility and demonstrated [institutional review board] approval,” she said in an email.

Mr. Pickett accused FSU of evading responsibility for the professor’s conduct. He tweeted last week that the university’s statement amounted to “blaming journals for why his office violated its own policy to sequester raw data.”

“Misconduct investigations are a joke,” he said.

“That sends the message that scientists are above the law, that they can lie, make up findings, and defraud the government without any fear of being caught,” said Mr. Pickett, “because their universities will cover for them.”

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