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Blogs / ICMA | blog / Research You Can't Trust

Research You Can't Trust

One of the most talked-about social studies from the last year is a fraud: the finding was a lie because the research never happened. Last year, UCLA grad student Michael LaCour and Columbia University political scientist Donald Green published a study showing that door to door canvassing could persuade some voters to change their views on same-sex marriage to be more favorable, especially if the canvasser was gay.

The study made waves in academic circles and in the population at large, both groups receiving the findings as welcome news that it was possible to change the minds of people about one of the big issues that divides the country. Major news outlets jumped on the study and pinned their hopes of a method to change minds on the research findings. Shortly after the study was published in the journal Science, however, Green is calling for a retraction due to “irregularities” in the data that his partner provided.

The irregularities were discovered by two UC Berkeley grad students, David Brockman and Josh Kalla, who had attempted to mount an extension of the study but ran into problems. While Brockman and Kalla began their follow up, they could not reach nearly the high response rates LaCour claimed to have achieved. When the Berkeley students contacted the survey platform, Qualtrics, for information about the study the firm reported having no record of the study.

This is a sobering reminder for consumers of research to question methods and for researchers to show their sources and procedures with full transparency. Replicability is a major tenet of the scientific process, importantly because it allows others to continue to build upon past research and because it instills trust among research consumers. Sound, honest and transparent research practices go a long way to ensure that the  findings of a study can be trusted. Exposure of this kind of fraud, bad as it is for the perpetrators, is good for the rest of us who gain confidence that research findings can be tested and found worthy – or worthless.


James Perkins

The outright falsification/fabrication of data by one of the study’s authors shows just how important it is for researchers to vet their information. Every researcher owes it to the other to insist on valid data collection and these incidents damages the reputation of others in the field when unethical behavior occurs. The other side of this coin is that two grad students recognized issues in the data collection and the co-author called for an immediate retraction of the article. As damaging as this incident was we can be somewhat gratified by the diligence of the two grad students and the willingness of the co-author to recall the article immediately after the discovery of the fabricated data. As researchers we vow to hold to strict data collection and analysis protocols and when that fails a grave injustice is done to the entire field of research.

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