American Idol

Hook EmSome of you may have heard about Science‘s retraction of a fraudulent research article by Michael LaCour, a University of California-Los Angeles political science doctoral student, and Donald Green, a professor at Columbia. The fraud was uncovered by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, two graduate students at the University of California-Berkeley, and publicized in a report written in collaboration with Yale political scientist Peter Aronow. Green, unaware that LaCour had faked responses for a nonexistent survey by copying a data set used for a completely unrelated study, requested the retraction when the results of Broockman’s and Kalla’s sleuthing became known.

LaCour has a long history of deceit. He forged evidence that he had pre-registered experimental research, lied about receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from philanthropic foundations, and claimed to be the recipient of a bogus teaching award, among other misdeeds. Possibly the only accomplishment listed on his now-continuously-edited online c.v. that does not involve lying is his undergraduate performances as Hook Em, the costumed mascot for the University of Texas Longhorns football team.

Two aspects of this situation are troubling from the perspective of political science as a professional discipline. First, LaCour’s lies went undetected for a very long time by well-established experts in the field. His dissertation advisor, Lynn Vavreck, a contributor to the “Upshot” column in The New York Times, apparently never actively supervised LaCour’s research. Neither did anyone else on his dissertation committee. Yet they functioned as references for LaCour’s successful application for a position in the political science department at Princeton. Princeton will almost certainly rescind its offer of employment, just as UCLA will probably refuse to confer the doctorate that was approved of by LaCour’s dissertation committee. 

Second, related to the above, the reputations of those with whom LaCour associated put his own actions above reproach. He had been granted entrée into the small circle that sits atop the academic food chain, and the establishment doesn’t like to apply to itself the standards that it applies to everyone else. Case in point:  Green never closely examined LaCour’s data or analysis, even though the latter’s findings flew in the face of all previously-published work on the subject.

Here is just how narrow that circle can be: Broockman and Kalla were undergraduates in the political science department at Yale while Aronow was a doctoral student there. Aronow was then hired to work there as an assistant professor. Green was a senior faculty member in the same department. He served as Broockman’s undergraduate adviser before taking a faculty position at Columbia. LaCour collaborated with Aronow, Green, and two other political scientists with Yale connections on an entirely different manuscript on sampling. This manuscript referenced the same fake results of LaCour’s imaginary survey that were discussed in the retracted Science article. It was submitted to a journal with Aronow as the lead author but has been withdrawn from review because of “data irregularities.”

The whole incident is a real-world example of the uses and abuses of professional ethics in academic research. Perhaps it could be used as a case study in a methods, political psychology, or senior capstone course.

Update for 6 June 2015: Readers might want to check out New York Magazine‘s “Will Academia Waste the Michael LaCour Scandal? by Drew Foster.

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