Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A postscript of sorts - research ethics and the Zhang lab

Although I don't have evidence that the Zhang lab was involved in any academic misconduct, and I have no intention of making accusations to that effect, I do think that some of the data reporting itself is at best indicative of incompetent reporting. All I can do is speculate, as I am unaware of anyone who has managed to actually look at this lab's data. What I can note is that there is a published record, and that there are a number of errors that appear across those published articles. Given the number of questions I think any reasonable reader of media violence research might have, Zhang and various members of his lab owe it to us to answer those questions and to provide us with the necessary data and protocols to accurately judge what went sideways.

The Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China has its set of guidelines for what might constitute academic misconduct and the process involved in opening and conducting an investigation. Accordingly, Southwest University has its own set of policies regarding research ethics and investigations of potential misconduct. The university has a committee charged with that responsibility. What I am hoping is that enough readers who follow my blog will reach out to those in charge and demand answers, demand accountability. I think a very good case can be made that there are some problem papers authored by members of this lab in need of some form of correction, in whatever form that might take. How that gets handled is ultimately up to what Southwest University finds and to the editors themselves who are in charge of journals that have published the research in question. That will help all of us collectively, assuming Zhang's university and the editors of the journals who published his work do the right thing here.

Science is not self-correcting. It is dependent on conscious human effort to detect mistakes, reach out to others, give them a chance to respond, and failing that continue to agitate for corrections. When errors are found, it is up to those responsible for those errors to step up and take responsibility - and to do what is necessary to make things right. We should not have to hope that someone with just the right expertise is willing to make some noise in an academic environment that is essentially hostile to whistle-blowers, and keep making noise until something finally happens. That is time consuming and ultimately draining.

Once I saw Zhang and colleagues' weapons priming paper, published in PAID in 2016, I could not unsee it. There were questions about that paper that continued to gnaw at me, and led me to read more and ask more questions. Before long, I was neck-deep in a veritable swamp of error-ridden articles published out of that lab. I take some cold comfort in knowing I am not alone, and that there are others with far better methodological skills and reach than I possess who can make some noise as well. Bottom line: something is broken and I want it fixed. Make some noise.

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