29 June 2020

The Guéguen saga update, summer 2020 edition

Regular readers of this blog may recall seeing a number of posts about the remarkable research of Dr Nicolas Guéguen. In 2017 I wrote here and here (and James Heathers wrote here and here) about several articles with Dr Guéguen as sole author that seemed to have a number of problems, which we summarized here. In May 2019 James and I posted an update in which we reported that the university had investigated and required Dr Guéguen to retract two articles, but that he had not yet done so by the deadline that he accepted. I wrote to the editors of the journals concerned, one of whom did not even acknowledge receipt of my e-mails until I wrote an open letter to him.

A year has gone by, and there have been a few developments. Modest developments, to be sure, but in the error detection business you take whatever you can get...

Radio silence

Dr Guéguen appears to have almost entirely stopped publishing research articles. He has deleted his Google Scholar profile, but by searching with his name I was able to identify only a few articles that have appeared since 2017, and some of those appear to have been submitted some time before that (e.g., this one, which was published online in 2013 but only assigned a definitive journal page number in 2017, in what seems --- unless there is a plausible alternative explanation --- to be rather dishonest behaviour by the journal, which appears to be using a known trick of garnering citations before attributing a final publication date in order to boost its impact factor). There is one article from 2019 with Dr Guéguen listed as last author, which seems to follow a similar design to much of the rest of his research output, but the journal in that case does not seem to report received/accepted dates on its articles, so this one could have been in the pipeline for some time. Apart from that, though, it seems that Dr Guéguen's previously prolific research output, with up to 20 single-authored publications in some years as well as numerous collaborations, seems to have suddenly ceased round about the time that we started raising questions about it. Presumably this is just a coincidence.

Antoine strikes again

Samuel Mehr has been in correspondence with the editors of Psychology of Music about this article:

Guéguen, N., Meineri, S., & Fischer-Lokou, J. (2014). Men’s music ability and attractiveness to women in a real-life courtship context. Psychology of Music, 42, 545–549. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735613482025 (PDF available here)

Readers who have read one or two of Dr Guéguen's sole-authored articles may wonder exactly what the other two authors contributed here, as this study is just like the others: A guy called Antoine is trying to pick up young women. In this study he was either carrying a guitar case, a sports bag, or nothing. He got the woman's phone number more often when carrying the guitar. The usual problems are apparent, notably the perfect response rate and the number of women who would have to have all decided to walk down this particular street on their own on a single Saturday afternoon.

When I started drafting this post a couple of days ago, Samuel told me that his last correspondence with the journal had been in January of this year, when (from what I have seen) they appeared to suggest that some sort of action might be forthcoming quite quickly, after an investigation by the publisher's ethical committee. I initially wrote here "But since then, nothing has been forthcoming". However, today I have been in copy of an e-mail exchange in which the editors of the journal revealed that they are preparing an expression of concern for the article. (I plan to write a separate blog post about the whole question of expressions of concern.)

The awesome power of procrastination (1)

Last time, we reported that, as part of the investigation into his research conducted by the scientific integrity officials at his university, Dr Guéguen had agreed to retract two articles; however, the deadline to do this had passed, and neither article had been retracted. A few months after that blog post, in October 2019, one of these articles was retracted by the journal "at the request of the Université de Bretagne-Sud" (UBS), Dr Guéguen having apparently not honoured his commitment to do this himself. However, as of this writing, the second of these articles still has not been retracted. I have been in contact with the UBS to ask why they apparently did not ask the journal for this second article to be retracted, and the scientific integrity officer there has told me that he will pass on my message to the Presidents of the two universities involved in the scientific investigation (UBS and Rennes-2). Perhaps something will come of this.

I fought the law, and the law went "meh"

One apparently positive development of the scientific investigation (see previous paragraph) is that the Presidents of UBS and Rennes-2 decided to launch a disciplinary investigation into Dr Guéguen. This took the better part of a year to convene, apparently because they had difficulty finding people to serve on the panel. In the end it was outsourced to the University of Angers.

James Heathers and I gave evidence to this inquiry in October 2019. In my evidence I emphasised that Dr Guéguen's principal defence --- namely, that he had naïvely trusted his students to do good fieldwork, despite them having zero training --- did not hold up, because in many cases his articles would have required input from faculty members and the expenditure of budget money (whereas no funding ever seems to be reported). For example, studies where saliva samples are taken require analyses to be performed in a laboratory; even if this is on the university campus these assays will certainly need to be paid for, and even if there is some remarkable system whereby this is done for free in the name of research, there will exist traces of the request for the analyses to be performed.

Since then we have heard nothing official. But I have been told by two people with inside knowledge that a report exists, and that it states that Dr Guéguen did nothing to violate scientific integrity.

The awesome power of procrastination (2)

Also last time, we noted that we had strong evidence that Dr Guéguen's article entitled "Women’s hairstyle and men’s behavior: A field experiment", published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, was, as a minimum, stolen from the work of three undergraduates, with the added twist that these undergraduates might well have themselves fabricated the study.

Following my open letter to Dr Jerker Rönnberg, the editor-in-chief of the journal, he agreed that he would look into the matter. I have written to him a couple of times since then, but there was no reply or acknowledgement of any kind until, in response to an e-mail that I sent on 29 May 2020, I received an out-of-office (from the e-mail address that is listed for contact on the journal's web site) stating that Dr Rönnberg now has the status of professor emeritus and "will only answering questions/e-mails occasionally". This didn't seem like a very satisfactory state of affairs, so I wrote to the editorial assistant of the journal. Dr Stefan Gustafson. He told me that the editors had discussed the matter with the publisher and then contacted the original reviewers, of whom one didn't respond and the other said they thought the paper was fine. No decision has yet been taken about "Women’s hairstyle and men’s behavior", and I got the impression from Dr Gustafson's e-mail that this is unlikely to happen before a new editor-in-chief is in place. <judge_judy_taps_wristwatch.gif>

The past is a foreign country; they do science differently there

In September 2019, the editors of the International Review of Social Psychology (IRSP) received a report that they had commissioned from Hans IJzerman into the six articles by Dr Guéguen that were published in their journal. This report recommended that two of the articles be retracted immediately, two others be given an expression of concern, and two should be corrected. One of the people asked by Hans to verify the accuracy of the report wrote that "the evidence from the blog posts and statistical investigators supports the conclusions ... that research misconduct likely took place".

Instead of issuing any retractions, however, the editors of IRSP issued five expressions of concern and accepted one correction. As part of their reasoning for why no article should be retracted, they stated that, although "[t]he report concludes misconduct", "the standards for conducting and evaluating research have evolved since [these articles were published]". I will leave it up to the reader to judge whether what took place (or, perhaps more relevantly, did not take place) in these cases was reasonable by the standards of social psychology in the period 2002–2011. Perhaps Diederik Stapel will be getting his PhD back soon; after all, this was his most prolific period too.

That open goal looks so nice, it would be a shame to kick a ball at it

To my knowledge, the only other formal action by a journal in the past year, apart from the response by ISRP (see previous point), is the expression of concern that was issued on 16 March 2020 by the editors of Letters on Evolutionary Behavioral Science regarding this article, which we examined in our original report (in which we showed that the claimed pattern of behaviour by participants was highly unlikely in all conditions of the study):

Guéguen, N. (2012). Risk taking and women’s menstrual cycle: Near ovulation, women avoid a doubtful man. Letters on Evolutionary Behavioral Science, 3, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.5178/lebs.2012.17

This expression of concern ends with the following paragraph, which will sound rather familiar to anyone who has been following this, or indeed almost any other recent story of journals' responses to terrible articles:
Although the investigation committee concluded that there is no decisive evidence of scientific misconduct, they still share Brown and Heathers’s (2017) concerns. Moreover, the above errors in statistics severely discredit the scientific value of Guéguen (2012). In sum, we admit that we do not have decisive evidence to retract the publication of Guéguen (2012). However, we would like to advise readers of LEBS to exercise great caution in interpreting the reported results in Guéguen (2012).
The article is still sitting there as part of the scientific record in the journal, its web page does not mention the expression of concern, and the PDF file has not been modified.


At the risk of letting my attempt at a mask of professionalism slip for a moment: FFS. This whole process is like pulling teeth. There has to be a better way to handle cases of obviously shoddy science than this. Four and a half years after James and I started looking at a huge number of studies that cannot possibly have taken place as described, we have a total of one retraction and seven (soon top be eight) expressions of concern (and it is unclear whether any of those represent a prelude to retraction). If the French academic establishment and the international publishing system can't be bothered to clean up a case as obviously terrible as this in a field with almost no conflicts of interest, what chance is there of anything being done about, say, ethical violations in COVID-19 research?