28 June 2023

A coda to the Wansink story

The investigation of scientific misconduct by Ivy League universities is once again in the news at the moment, which prompts me to write up something that I should have written up quite a while ago. (The time I spend thinking about, and trying to help people understand, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made as big a dent in my productivity as Covid-19.)

On October 31, 2018, I sent an open letter, signed by me and 50 colleagues, to Cornell. In it, I asked that they release the report the full text of the report of their inquiry into the misconduct of Professor Brian Wansink. On November 5, 2018, I received a reply from Michael Kotlikoff, the Provost of Cornell. He explained why the full text of the report was not being released (an explanation that did not impress Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch), and added the following:

Cornell is now conducting a Phase II investigation to determine the degree to which any acts of research misconduct may have affected federally (NIH and USDA) funded research projects. ... As part of Phase II of the university’s investigation, Cornell has required Professor Wansink to collect and submit research data and records for all of his publications since 2005, when he came to the university, so that those records may be examined. We will provide a summary of this Phase II investigation at its conclusion. [emphasis added]

The Wansink story faded into the background after that, but a few months ago a small lightbulb fizzled into life above my head and I decided to find out what happened to that Phase II report. So I wrote to Provost Kotlikoff. He has kindly given me permission to quote his response verbatim:

Following my November 5 letter we indeed conducted a comprehensive Phase II analysis, but this was restricted to those scientific papers from Professor Wansink’s group that identified, or could be linked to, support from federal funds. This analysis, which was conducted on a subset of papers and followed federal guidelines, was reported to the NIH and to the USDA (the relevant funding organizations), and accepted by them. I should point out that this Phase II analysis did not include many of the papers identified by you and others as failing to meet scientific norms, as those were not associated with federal support, and therefore was not a comprehensive summary of the scientific issues surrounding Professor Wansink’s work.

I am sorry to say that Cornell does not release scientific misconduct reports provided to the NIH and the USDA. However, I believe that Cornell has appropriately addressed the scientific concerns that were identified by you and others (for which I thank you), and considers this matter closed.

So that seems to be it. We are apparently not going to see a summary of the Phase II investigation. Perhaps it was Cornell's initial intention to release this, but they were unable to do so for legal reasons. In any case, it's a little disappointing.


  1. Could the report to NIH/USDA be made public via a FOIA request?

    1. I don't think so. It was already established back in 2017 that Cornell's e-mails were not subject to FOIA. Cornell is mostly a private institution. There are some publicly-funded schools, such as the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but the core parts are all private, it seems.