What to do when you read a paper and it’s full of errors and the author won’t share the data or be open about the analysis?

Someone writes:

I would like to ask you for an advice regarding obtaining data for reanalysis purposes from an author who has multiple papers with statistical errors and doesn’t want to share the data.

Recently, I reviewed a paper that included numbers that had some of the reported statistics that were mathematically impossible. As the first author of that paper wrote another paper in the past with one of my collaborators, I have checked their paper and also found multiple errors (GRIM, DF, inappropriate statistical tests, etc.). I have enquired my collaborator about it and she followed up with the first author who has done the analysis and said that he agreed to write an erratum.

Independently, I have checked further 3 papers from that author and all of them had a number of errors, which sheer number is comparable to what was found in Wansink’s case. At that stage I have contacted the first author of these papers asking him about the data for reanalysis purposes. As the email was unanswered, after 2 weeks I have followed up mentioning this time that I have found a number of errors in these papers and included his lab’s contact email address. This time I received a response swiftly and was told that these papers were peer-reviewed so if there were any errors they would have been caught (sic!), that for privacy reasons the data cannot be shared with me and I was asked to send a list of errors that I found. In my response I sent the list of errors and emphasized the importance of independent reanalysis and pointed out that the data comes from lab experiments and any personally identifiable information can be removed as it is not needed for reanalysis. After 3 weeks of waiting, and another email sent in the meantime, the author wrote that he is busy, but had time to check the analysis of one of the papers. In his response, he said that some of the mathematically impossible DFs were wrongly copied numbers, while the inconsistent statistics were due to wrong cells in the excel file selected that supposedly don’t change much. Moreover, he blamed the reviewers for not catching these mistypes (sic!) and said that he found the errors only after I contacted him. The problem is that it is the same paper for which my collaborator said that they checked the results already, so he must have been aware of these problems even before my initial email (I didn’t mention that I know that collaborator).

So here is my dilemma how to proceed. Considering that there are multiple errors, of multiple types across multiple papers it is really hard to trust anything else reported in them. The author clearly does not intend to share the data with me so I cannot verify if the data exists at all. If it doesn’t, as I have sent him the list of errors, he could reverse engineer what tools I have used and come up with numbers that will pass the tests that can be done based solely on the reported statistics.

As you may have more experience dealing with such situations, I thought that I may ask you for an advice how to proceed. Would you suggest contacting the involved publishers, going public or something else?

My reply:

I hate to say it, but your best option here might be to give up. The kind of people who lie and cheat about their published work may also play dirty in other ways. So is it really worth it to tangle with these people? I have no idea about your particular case and am just speaking on general principles here.

You could try contacting the journal editor. Some journal editors really don’t like to find out that they’ve published erroneous work; others would prefer to sweep any such problems under the rug, either because they have personal connections to the offenders or just because they don’t want to deal with cheaters, as this is unpleasant.

Remember: journal editing is a volunteer job, and people sign up for it because they want to publish exciting new work, or maybe because they enjoy the power trip, or maybe out of a sense of duty—but, in any case, they typically aren’t in it for the controversy. So, if you do get a journal editor who can help on this, great, but don’t be surprised if the editors slink away from the problem, for example by putting the burden in your lap by saying that your only option is to submit your critique in the form of an article for the journal, which can then be sent to the author of the original paper for review, and then rejected on the grounds that it’s not important enough to publish.

Maybe you could get Retraction Watch to write something on this dude?

Also is the paper listed on PubPeer? If so, you could comment there.

The post What to do when you read a paper and it’s full of errors and the author won’t share the data or be open about the analysis? appeared first on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.