Jens Förster'

Three of Jens Förster's papers have been retracted; more retractions may follow.

Humboldt-Stiftung/Sven-Müller

No tenure for German social psychologist accused of data manipulation

The academic career of German social psychologist Jens Förster, under suspicion of data manipulation, is unraveling. Förster won't get tenure at Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) in Germany, as was the plan when he arrived there in 2014. Yesterday, the university published a job ad for a new professor of social psychology, to be appointed in October 2017, whose research profile is very different from Förster's.

A spokesperson for the university alerted ScienceInsider to the ad this week, but declined further clarification. “It’s a pending procedure and we will not comment about it,” he wrote in an email. But the job description makes it clear that the university isn't planning on hiring Förster. It is seeking a researcher who has done field studies in economic psychology, an area where Förster has virtually no experience. Förster, who has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, did not respond to requests for comment.

Förster won an important European award in 2001 for his "pioneering research in the domains of self regulation, creativity, novelty, embodiment and social cognition." But he came under fire in 2014 after an investigation by his former employer, the University of Amsterdam (UvA), of odd data patterns in three studies. The Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (LOWI) concluded that research data had been manipulated in one study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The journal retracted that paper at UvA's request; LOWI did not investigate the other two. At the time, Förster had just bagged a prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, which comes with €5 million in funding, at RUB. Pending the controversy, RUB offered him a 1-year contract instead, which was later extended until 2017.

A panel of statistical experts from UvA that embarked on a second, more comprehensive investigation found “strong evidence for low veracity” of the results in all three papers, as well as in five others. UvA's board recommended to the journals involved that all eight papers be retracted. After being confronted with a draft of the panel's report in April 2015, Förster withdrew his candidacy for the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. The university decided not to investigate the case itself but to await the verdict of the Court of Honour of the German Society for Psychology (DGPs).

In November 2015, the society settled the case with Förster in an agreement to retract two studies flagged as suspect in the first UvA investigation, both published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The agreement (in German) stated explicitly that Förster didn’t confess to misconduct and that DGPs didn't accuse him of anything. On his blog, Förster appeared to interpret the outcome as a victory: "The suit was discontinued and no sanctions were imposed," he wrote. But the decision may have further diminished his chances of obtaining tenure.

Still in limbo are the fates of five papers that the second UvA investigation marked as probably manipulated but that the German society did not address. The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology tells ScienceInsider that it is “moving toward retraction” of a study published in 2011. The European Journal of Social Psychology says it will publish an Expression of Concern about a 2010 Förster paper, but won't retract it, because there's not enough evidence that the paper's data were manipulated; the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin will add a similar note to a 2009 paper, but is stopping short of a retraction because "corroborating evidence is unavailable." The American Psychological Association says it has yet to make a final decision about a Förster study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 2009, and for another one published that same year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.