A highly-regarded behavioral economics paper on preventing fraud in self-reports, co-authored by two Harvard Business School professors, has been submitted for retraction following allegations that the data itself is fraudulent and fabricated.
The paper, co-authored by Business School professors Max H. Bazerman and Francesca Gino, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2012. The study found that people were less likely to lie if they signed an honesty declaration at the beginning rather than the end of a form. Its findings were used widely by insurance companies, corporate executives, and government agencies to fight fraudulent reporting behavior.
On Aug. 17, Data Colada, a quantitative analysis blog, published a post claiming to have found “very strong evidence” that the data in one of the field studies is fraudulent. Co-authors Uri Simonsohn, Leif D. Nelson, and Joseph P. Simmons urged journals to require publication of data along with the results of studies.
Four of the five co-authors told BuzzFeed News in August that they were not involved in the data collection for that experiment, which was run by an insurance company on its customers.
The one researcher who was in contact with the insurance company, Duke School of Business professor Dan Ariely, wrote in a statement posted on Data Colada that he did not fabricate the data and “was not involved in the data collection, data entry, or merging data with information from the insurance database for privacy reasons.”
The integrity of Ariely’s research has been questioned on at least two occasions before, according to Buzzfeed News. In 2008, he published research claiming that asking test-takers to recall the Ten Commandments before an exam reduced cheating, but external researchers failed to replicate the results. Editors recently added a note to a study he completed in 2004 when he failed to provide the journal with accompanying data.
Ariely told BuzzFeed News that his contacts at the insurer — The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., an insurance and investment company — had no recollection of the data file’s origins or its analysis.
In an email to The Crimson, Boston University professor Nina Mažar, a co-author on the study, wrote that the fieldwork was completed years before her involvement in January 2011. Mažar wrote that Ariely publicly reported results of the field study by 2009, and she received the data in an email from Ariely in February 2011.
“Like the three other co-authors, I had no files or concrete information about the insurance field study prior to the Shu et al. collaboration,” she wrote.
In 2020, the five researchers and two additional co-authors published a paper in PNAS refuting their own findings and noting their inability to replicate the results from the 2012 paper. They published their original data along with the article.
In a statement to The Crimson provided by Business School spokesperson Brian C. Kenny on behalf of Bazerman and Gino, the professors expressed appreciation for Data Colada’s analysis.
“We are grateful to Simonsohn, Simmons, and Nelson for their efforts to improve research in social science and the careful analyses they undertook of our 2012 PNAS paper,” they wrote.
Though he admitted the paper’s flaws, Ariely told BuzzFeed News that he still believes the “principle” behind the 2012 paper is correct.
“It is my understanding that the data file that the Data Colada post examined is the same that all of us coauthors had available since well before our first submission to PNAS in June 2012,” Mažar wrote in an email to The Crimson. “In hindsight, all five of us should have done a better job of scrutinizing it.”
Bazerman and Gino, along with first author Lisa L. Shu, submitted a letter to PNAS editors requesting retraction of the 2012 paper on July 22.
Prashant Nair, a representative of the PNAS News Office, declined to comment on when the 2012 paper will be retracted and if the journal would take measures to prevent fraudulent studies in the future.
“We are aware of the situation and are in communication with the authors,” Nair wrote in an email.
—Staff writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at email@example.com.