Jens Forster and the Credibility Crisis in Social Psychology

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Jens Forster was a social psychologists from Germany. He was a rising star and on the way to receiving a prestigious 5 million Euro award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Retraction Watch, 2015). Then an anonymous whistle blower accused him of scientific misconduct. Under pressure, Forster returned the award without admitting to any wrongdoing.

He also was in transition to move from the University of Amsterdam to the University of Bochum. After a lengthy investigation, Forster was denied tenure and he is no longer working in academia (Science, 2016), despite the fact that an investigation by the German association of psychologists (DGP) did not conclude that he conducted fraud.

While the personal consequences for Forster are similar to those of Stapel, who admitted to fraud and left his tenured position, the effect on the scientific record is different. Stapel retracted over 50 articles that are no longer being cited at high numbers. In contrast, Forster retracted only a few papers and most of his articles are not flagged to readers as potentially fraudulent. We can see the differences in citation counts for Stapel and Forster.

Stapels Citation Counts

Stapel’s citation counts peaked at 350 and are now down to 150 citations a year. Some of these citations are with co-authors and from papers that have been cleared as credible.

Jens Forster Citations

Citation counts for Forster peaked at 450. The also decreased by 200 citations to 250 citations, but we are also seeing an uptick by 100 citations in 2019. The question is whether this muted correction is due to Forster’s denial of wrongdoing or whether the articles that were not retracted actually are more credible.

The difficulty in proving fraud in social psychology is that social psychologists also used many questionable practices to produce significant results. These questionable practices have the same effect as fraud, but they were not considered unethical or illegal. Thus, there are two reasons why articles that have not been retracted may still lack credible evidence. First, it is difficult to prove fraud when authors do not confess. Second, even if no fraud was committed, the data may lack credible evidence because they were produced with questionable practices that are not considered data fabrication.

For readers of the scientific literature it is irrelevant whether incredible (results with low credibility) results were produced with fraud or with other methods. The only question is whether the published results provide credible evidence for the theoretical claims in an article. Fortunately, meta-scientists have made progress over the past decade in answering this question. One method relies on a statistical examination of an author’s published test statistics. Test statistics can be converted into p-values or z-scores so that they have a common metric (e.g., t-values can be compared to F-values). The higher the z-score, the stronger is the evidence against the null-hypothesis. High z-scores are also difficult to obtain with questionable practices. Thus, they are either fraudulent or provide real evidence for a hypothesis (i.e. against the null-hypothesis).

I have published z-curve analyses of over 200 social/personality psychologists that show clear evidence of variation in research practices across researchers (Schimmack, 2021). I did not include Stapel or Forster in these analyses because doubts have been raised about their research practices. However, it is interesting to compare Forster’s z-curve plot to the plot of other researchers because it is still unclear whether anomalous statistical patterns in Forster’s articles are due to fraud or the use of questionable research practices.

The distribution of z-scores shows clear evidence that questionable practices were used because the observed discovery rate of 78% is much higher than the estimated discovery rate of 18% and the ODR is outside of the 95% CI of the EDR, 9% to 47%. An EDR of 18% places Forster at rank #181 in the ranking of 213 social psychologists. Thus, even if Forster did not conduct fraud, many of his published results are questionable.

The comparison of Forster with other social psychologists is helpful because humans’ are prone to overgeneralize from salient examples which is known as stereotyping. Fraud cases like Stapel and Forster have tainted the image of social psychology and undermined trust in social psychology as a science. The fact that Forster would rank very low in comparison to other social psychologists shows that he is not representative of research practices in social psychology. This does not mean that Stapel and Forster are bad apples and extreme outliers. The use of QRPs was widespread but how much researchers used QRPs varied across researchers. Thus, we need to take an individual difference perspective and personalize credibility. The average z-curve plot for all social psychologists ignores that some research practices were much worse and others were much better. Thus, I argue against stereotyping social psychologists and in favor of evaluating each social psychologists based on their own merits. As much as all social psychologists acted within a reward structure that nearly rewarded Forster’s practices with a 5 million dollar prize, researchers navigated this reward structure differently. Hopefully, making research practices transparent can change the reward structure so that credibility gets rewarded.

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