The scientific community is in shock after one of the largest scientific publishers, Science, was forced to retract a study on gay marriage; the reason? The data on which it was based was almost certainly fake.

Bad Science

Donald P. Green, left, a co-author of a challenged study by Michael LaCour, right, from Mr. LaCour’s Facebook page.

Science is one of the world’s leading journals, first established in 1880, but even it isn’t spared from the dark side of peer-review publishing. Michael LaCour, a political science researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles submitted a paper which caused a lot of stir: it’s easy to change some people’s opinions on gay marriage – all it takes is a short conversation. Naturally, the media was all over this; after all, it’s interesting, exciting, and very important for our modern society. Other graduate students from the University of California, Berkeley were also impressed. They wanted to conduct an extension of the study, but they quickly found that they weren’t getting the same reaction LaCour was. The more they studied the matter, the more irregularities they found. David Broockman, a future assistant professor at Stanford, decided to test the same method on the issue of transgender equality in Florida, and the fraud became obvious; they actually posted a timeline, from which I quote:

“We report a number of irregularities in the replication dataset posted for LaCour and Green (Science, “When  contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality,” 2014) that jointly suggest the dataset (LaCour 2014) was not collected as described. These irregularities include baseline outcome data that is statistically indistinguishable from a national survey and over-time changes that are unusually small and indistinguishable from perfectly normally distributed noise. Other elements of the dataset are inconsistent with patterns typical in randomized experiments and survey responses and/or inconsistent with the claimed design of the study.”

Image via TCD.

Beneath all the science lingo that spells big trouble. Donald P. Green, a Columbia professor who literally wrote the book on field experiment, agreed to help and oversee his study. LaCour told Green he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money, which is why he got such remarkable reason response rates (which are notoriously difficult to keep up). However, according to The Times, LaCour has changed his story, claiming that he had only offered participants a chance to win a tablet, something which he claimed was enough incentive. However, when others tried replicating this method, it clearly failed. When it was clear that things were fishy, other researchers called the survey company LaCour claimed he worked with, but they found no record of him whatsoever. But it gets even worse – he never showed anyone his raw data, claiming that it was too “sensitive”, and that he had to destroy it after processing. Green said he repeatedly asked LaCour to store the data in a protected databank at the University of Michigan, where they could be examined later if needed. But Mr. LaCour did not.

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“It’s a very delicate situation when a senior scholar makes a move to look at a junior scholar’s data set,” Dr. Green said. “This is his career, and if I reach in and grab it, it may seem like I’m boxing him out.”

Green chose to be a gentleman, but this turned out to be a mistake. His decision was fueled by the passion that LaCour had for the issue. He managed to convince Green that he could do it.

“I thought it was a very ambitious idea, so ambitious that it might not be suitable for a graduate student,” said Donald P. Green, a Columbia University professor who signed on as a co-author of Mr. LaCour’s study in 2013. “But it’s such an important question, and he was very passionate about it.”

As soon as serious concerns emerged, Green distanced himself and asked LaCour to retract the study, regretting the situation and mentioning that this fake study will follow him throughout the entire career.

“Given the negative publicity that has now surrounded this paper and the concerns that have been raised about its irreproducibility, I think it would be in Michael LaCour’s best interest to agree to a retraction of the paper as swiftly as possible,” she said in an interview on Friday. “Right now he’s going to have such a black cloud over his head that it’s going to haunt him for the rest of his days.”

A Black Cloud

Michael LaCour. Image via Saboteur365.

But this episode doesn’t only cast a black cloud on LaCour and his career, it casts doubts on the entire scientific publishing system. The entire situation seems almost surreal – why would people fake results on gay marriage opinions – but it becomes much more understandable when you look at the bigger picture. LaCour seemed to have it all – the great idea, the money to back it up, and the means to complete it. But it’s a dog eat dog when it comes to publishing science, and only interesting results are published. If your results are not positive, or not spectacular, it suddenly becomes much more difficult to publish; and if you don’t publish, you’re no one. We need to somehow ease this pressure from researchers, and make publishing what it should be: a way to communicate your scientific results, not the be all end all of every career.

LaCour had recently posted on Facebook that he would soon be moving across country for his dream job, as a professor at Princeton. That future could now be in doubt. Dr. Ivan Oransky, A co-founder of “Retraction Watch,” which first published news about the retraction puts things into perspective, showing that publishing is much more important than it should be:

“You don’t get a faculty position at Princeton by publishing something in the Journal Nobody-Ever-Heard-Of,” Dr. Oransky said. Is being lead author on a big study published in Science “enough to get a position in a prestigious university?” he asked, then answered: “They don’t care how well you taught. They don’t care about your peer reviews. They don’t care about your collegiality. They care about how many papers you publish in major journals.”

Mister LaCour hasn’t yet given a statement. If it is confirmed that the study was faked, which seems extremely likely at this point, his future suddenly got a lot darker. LaCour’s behavior is unacceptable, and we should be thankful that his fraud was uncovered. But his story is not just about bad science. It’s also about an imperfect publishing system that’s starting to show its limitations.