“I changed my approach to life completely," Förster wrote on his website.

“I changed my approach to life completely," Förster wrote on his website.

Humboldt-Stiftung/Sven-Müller

Social psychologist relinquishes chair after data manipulation charges

Jens Förster, the German social psychologist found responsible for data manipulation last year, has withdrawn his candidacy for a prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Professorship at Ruhr University Bochum (RUB). His decision was made public today in a statement by the Humboldt Foundation. It's unclear whether Förster decided to relinquish the professorship—which comes with €5 million in funding—because he expects an ongoing investigation to issue a damaging report.

Also unclear is whether Förster can continue to work at RUB, where he currently has a temporary position; a long personal statement published today on Förster's website doesn't directly address that issue. "I will leave the materialistic and soulless production approach in science," the text reads, however. "I am going my own way now.” Förster didn’t respond to e-mailed questions from ScienceInsider about his decision.

The Humboldt Foundation awarded Förster the professorship early in 2014, then suspended it in May of that year pending more clarity about allegations about three studies that Förster published while working at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) in the Netherlands.

In the controversial studies, Förster investigated how "priming" by subtle cues—such as a smell or hearing a poem—can change a person's cognitive response. Suspicions against his work were first raised in 2012 by a whistleblower who filed a complaint at UvA. In June 2013, an integrity committee at the university concluded that data patterns in the studies were “practically impossible,” and recommended the publication of “expressions of concern” in the journals involved.

Förster appealed the findings at the Dutch National Board for Scientific Integrity (LOWI), which ruled in March 2014 that data had been manipulated in one of the three studies, published in 2011 by Förster and co-author Markus Denzler in Social Psychological and Personality Science (SPPS). LOWI couldn't identify which author was at fault, but held Förster responsible as first author; it did not investigate the other two studies. UvA supported LOWI's judgment, and the article was retracted in November 2014 at the request of the university's board. Förster denied the charges, even after e-mails cast doubt on his defense.

In October 2014, after Förster had already left for Bochum, UvA gave in to pressure from the social psychology community to launch a wider investigation. The university asked a statistician to check if any of the papers Förster published between 2007 and 2014—the years he worked in Amsterdam—contained the same highly improbable statistical patterns found in the SPPS study. The results of the new inquiry haven't been published yet, but a UvA source says that the report is finished and that Förster has been informed about the results. A spokesperson for the university tells ScienceInsider that he can't confirm this.

The Humboldt Foundation has canceled deliberations about Förster’s professorship scheduled for the end of this month. “We respect Professor Förster’s decision and hope that the allegations raised against him, which are still a matter of controversy amongst experts, can be definitively clarified,” Helmut Schwarz, the foundation's president, said in today's statement.

Förster currently has a temporary position as a social psychology professor at RUB that expires in September. His statement is unclear about whether he hopes to stay at the university, but parts of the text suggest he does not. “I changed my approach to life completely. I do not further want to chase after publications as was the rule elsewhere," Förster writes. "I will spend the rest of my life on BEING rather than on HAVING," he also says. A RUB spokesperson says that he can't comment on Förster’s position after September.

In the statement, Förster again denies manipulating data and refers to “recent excellent alternative explanations for my results under discussion, proving that such results patterns can be obtained by methods that are not problematic. More statistical analyses will follow.”