Diederik Stapel Recounts How He Became One Of Science's Biggest Frauds

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In 2011, prominent social psychologist Diederik Stapel admitted to fabricating dozens of scientific studies. One year later, Stapel published Ontsporing ("Derailment"), a book about his rise and fall in the field of social psychology. Originally released in Dutch, Ontsporting has now been translated into English.


Thanks to the efforts of Nick Brown, Stapel's book has been translated under the title Faking Science, and is, appropriately, free to download. In a recent post at Discover, Neuroskeptic (who was one of the proofreaders on Brown's translation, and is currently working on a review) highlights two passages from Stapel's book – one is Stapel's account of the first time he fudged his data, the other is his account of the first time someone confronted him about the fudged data. Here is the former passage, which begins on page 102 of Brown's translation:

After years of balancing on the outer limits [of scientific integrity], the grey became darker and darker until it was black, and I fell off the edge into the abyss. I'd been having trouble with my experiments for some time. Even with my various "grey" methods for "improving" the data [i.e. 'QRPs'], I wasn't able to get the results the way I wanted them. I couldn't resist the temptation to go a step further. I wanted it so badly. I wanted to belong, to be part of the action, to score.

I really, really wanted to be really, really good. I wanted to be published in the best journals and speak in the largest room at conferences. I wanted people to hang on my every word as I headed for coffee or lunch after delivering a lecture.

I felt very alone. I was alone in my tastefully furnished office at the University of Groningen. I'd taken extra care when closing the door, and made my desk extra tidy. Everything had to be neat and orderly. No mess.

I opened the file with the data that I had entered and changed an unexpected 2 into a 4; then, a little further along, I changed a 3 into a 5. It didn't feel right. I looked around me nervously. The data danced in front of my eyes.

When the results are just not quite what you'd so badly hoped for; when you know that that hope is based on a thorough analysis of the literature; when this is your third experiment on this subject and the first two worked great; when you know that there are other people doing similar research elsewhere who are getting good results; then, surely, you're entitled to adjust the results just a little?

No. I clicked on "Undo Typing." And again. I felt very alone. I didn't want this. I'd worked so hard. I'd done everything I could and it just hadn't quite worked out the way I'd expected. It just wasn't quite how everyone could see that it logically had to be. I looked at the door of my office. It was still closed. I looked out the window. It was dark outside. "Redo Typing."

And again. For a moment I had the feeling that someone was standing behind me. I turned round slowly, fearfully. There was nobody there. I looked at the array of data and made a few mouse clicks to tell the computer to run the statistical analyses. When I saw the results, the world had become logical again. I saw what I'd imagined. I felt relieved, but my heart was heavy. This was great, but at the same time it was very wrong.

[…] I was fed up with my own inability to produce anything interesting from my research. I was going round in circles, each study much like the previous one. They were just variations on a theme. Complex mediocrity. A small effect here, another one there. I'd had enough of the grind.


Some people will no doubt wonder why we're linking to this at all, given Stapel's transgressions, which is fair. Why would anyone want to hear what this person has to say? The obvious answer is that it's hard to resist peering inside the mind of a con artist (even when we recognize that the person giving us the glimpse is the con artist, himself). There are other reasons, too. Personally, I think Brown hits the nail on the head in his Translator's Note when he says that the book amounts to a lot more than a confession:

...some told me it would be a very bad idea to go anywhere near this project, while others strongly encouraged me to go ahead. In the end I sounded out some Dutch psychologists— whose objections, if any, would hold the greatest weight for me—and the vast majority of them were in favor. As one of them put it, "Normally, people who commit scientific fraud deny everything and crawl away. To have Stapel's confession available in English would be really important for science." Personally I think this book represents a lot more than a confession; I will leave the final judgment on that point to the reader.

The appearance of the Dutch version of the book caused quite a lot of controversy. I hope that the fact that the English translation is available free of charge (for which thanks are due to Prometheus, the publishers of the Dutch version of the book) will avoid that, but otherwise, as it says on the tube: if irritation occurs, discontinue use. My aim is not to defend DS—I take no view on whether this book is an accurate representation of the events described within it—but simply to make his story available to a wider audience, and perhaps contribute in a modest way to his social rehabilitation. While I don't expect to see him teaching psychology or conducting research in a university setting any time soon, I think he still has plenty to contribute.

Download the full translation here.

H/t Neuroskeptic


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I was listening to the recent Stuff you should know podcast on the Scientific Method and they mentioned that there are problems with getting real proper peer reviews for new studies. Also they mentioned that there are fewer studies that actually show no results. I wonder if this guy is just the tip of the ice burg.