Ethical collapse at the University of Western Australia
They will do anything to prop up their Warmist psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky and his very odd research methods
The Lewandowsky, Gignac, and Oberauer paper in PLOS ONE has been substantially corrected. I had alerted the journal last fall that there were serious errors in the paper, including the presence of a 32,757-year-old in the data, along with a 5-year-old and six other minors. The paleoparticipant in particular had knocked out the true correlation between age and the conspiracy belief items (the authors had reported there was no correlation between age and anything else.)
Deeply troubling issues remain. The authors have been inexplicably unwilling to remove the minors from their data, and have in fact retained two 14-year-olds, two 15-year-olds, a 16-year-old, and a 17-year-old. This is strange given that the sample started with 1,001 participants. It is also wildly unethical.
To provide some context, let me lay out the timeline:
October 4, 2013: Lewandowsky was alerted on his own website that there was a 32,757-year-old and a 5-year-old in his data.
There was no correction. Recall that he had reported analyses of the age variable in the paper, and that these analyses were erroneous because of the 32,757-year-old.
August 18, 2014: On the PLOS ONE page for the paper, I alerted the authors to the 32,757-year-old, the 5-year-old, and the six other minors in their data (along with several other problems with the study.)
There was no correction.
September 22, 2014: I contacted PLOS ONE directly and reported the issue. I had waited over a month for the authors to correct their paper after the notification on August 18, but they had mysteriously done nothing, so it was time to contact the journal.
August 13, 2015: Finally, a correction was published. It is comprehensive, as there were many errors in their analyses beyond the age variable.
I'd like to pause here to say that PLOS ONE is beautiful and ethically distinctive. They insisted that the authors publish a proper correction, and that it thoroughly address the issues and errors in the original. They also placed a link to the correction on top of the original paper. The authors did not want to issue a proper correction. Rather, Lewandowsky preferred to simply post a comment on the PLOS ONE page for the paper and call it a corrigendum. This would not have been salient to people reading the paper on the PLOS ONE page, as it requires that one click on the Comments link and go into the threads. Notably, Lewandowsky's "corrigendum" was erroneous and required a corrigendum of its own... It was also remarkably vague and uninformative.
A serious ethical issue remains – they kept the minors in their data (except the 5-year-old.) They had no prior IRB approval to use minors, nor did they have prior IRB approval to waive parental consent. In fact, the "ethics" office at the University of Western Australia appears to be trying to retroactively approve the use of minors as well as ignoring the issue of parental consent. This is ethically impossible, and wildly out of step with human research ethics worldwide. It also cleanly contradicts the provisions of the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct of Human Research (PDF). In particular, it contradicts paragraphs 4.2.7 through 4.2.10, and 4.2.12. The conduct of the UWA ethics office is consistent with all their prior efforts to cover up Lewandowsky's misconduct, particularly with respect to Lewandowsky's Psych Science paper, which should be treated as a fraud case. UWA has refused everyone's data requests for that paper, and has refused to investigate. Corruption is serious problem with human institutions, one that I increasingly think deserves a social science Manhattan Project to better understand and ameliorate. UWA is a classic case of corruption, one that mirrors those reported by Martin.
Here is the critical paragraph regarding minors in the PLOS ONE correction:
"Several minors (age 14–17) were included in the data set for this study because this population contributes to public opinions on politics and scientific issues (e.g. in the classroom). This project was conducted under the guidelines of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC). According to NH&MRC there is no explicit minimum age at which people can give informed consent (as per https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/book/chapter-2-2-general-requirements-consent). What is required instead is to ascertain the young person’s competence to give informed consent. In our study, competence to give consent is evident from the fact that for a young person to be included in our study, they had to be a vetted member of a nationally representative survey panel run by uSamp.com (partner of Qualtrics.com, who collected the data). According to information received from the panel provider, they are legally empowered to empanel people as young as 13. However, young people under 15 are recruited to the panel with parental involvement. Parental consent was otherwise not required. Moreover, for survey respondents to have been included in the primary data set, they were required to answer an attention filter question correctly, further attesting to their competence to give informed consent. The UWA Human Rights Ethics Committee reviewed this issue and affirmed that “The project was undertaken in a manner that is consistent with the Australian National Statement of Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007).”
The above may be difficult for people to parse and unpack. Here are the essentials we can extract from it:
1. There was no prior IRB approval for the use of minors. (UWA's review was retroactive, amazingly.)
2. Parental consent was not obtained for minors who were at least 15 years of age.
3. Obtaining parental consent for 13 and 14-year-olds was delegated to a market research company. However, the term "consent" is not used in this case. Rather, the authors claim that the market research company recruited these kids with "parental involvement". It's not clear what this term means.
4. The UWA "ethics" committee is attempting to grant retroactive approval for the use of minors and the lack of parental consent, as well as the delegation of consent obtainment to a market research company. They cite the National Statement of (sic) Ethical Conduct in Human Research, even though it contains no provision for retroactive approvals or cover-ups. In fact, the Statement does not contemplate such absurdities at all.
Every one of the above four points is revolutionary. This is an ethical collapse. Researchers worldwide would be stunned to hear of this. No IRB approval for the use of minors? No parental consent? A new age threshold of 15 for parental consent, and 13 for participation? Delegating parental consent to a market research company? An IRB acting as a retroactive instrument? An IRB covering up the unapproved use of minors? I'm not sure we've ever encountered any one of these things. Having all of these happen at the same time is a singularity, an ethical event horizon that dims the sun.
Notably, their citation of the NH&MRC page is a sham. The page makes no mention of age or minimum ages. It ultimately defers to Chapter 4.2, which takes for granted that there is IRB approval to use minors, as well as parental consent. (See the Respect and Standing Parental Consent sections.) It does not contemplate a universe where IRB approval is not obtained. It's extremely disturbing that staff at UWA would try to deceive the scientific community with a sham citation.
I contacted UWA about these issues some months ago. As far as I can tell, they refuse to investigate. It's as though their ethics office is specifically designed to not investigate complaints if they think they can escape scrutiny and legal consequences. Mark Dixon of the UWA anti-ethics office said the following in an e-mail:
"However, this project was designed for a general demographic. Surveys targeted to a general population do not prohibit the collection of data from minors should they happen to respond to the survey."
"You are probably aware that the survey written up in the article was an online survey, where consent is indicated by the act of taking the survey."
"Inclusion or omission of outliers, such as the '5 year old' and the '32,000 year old', are reasonable scholarship when accompanied by explanatory notes. However, it would be unusual to actually delete data points from a data-set, so I don't understand your concern about the remaining presence of such data-points in the data-set."
"You expressed concern that the survey “… did not even ask participants for their ages until the end of the study, after participation and any "consent" had been secured". Demographic information is routinely collected at the end of a survey. This is not an unusual practice."
To say that these statements are alarming is an understatement. He thinks research ethics doesn't apply to online studies. He thinks we don't need to obtain consent for online studies, that simply participating is consent. He thinks 5-year-olds and 32,757-year-olds are "outliers" and that it is reasonable to retain them (is he aware that the age variable was analyzed?) He thinks researchers can ask someone's age at the end of a study. This person retains the title "Associate Director (Research Integrity)", yet he appears to know nothing of research or research integrity. The best explanations here are that he has no training in human research ethics and/or he's corrupt. This is such an extraordinary case.
For lay readers, let me note the following:
1. An online study is a study like any other study. The same research ethics apply. There's nothing special about an online study. Whether someone is sitting in front of a computer in a campus lab, or in their bedroom, the same ethical provisions apply.
2. We always require people to be at least 18 years of age, unless we are specifically studyinging minors (which would require explicit IRB approval).
3. We always include a consent form or information sheet at the start of an online study. This form explains the nature of the study, what participants can expect, how long it should take, what risks participation may pose to the participant, any compensation they will receive, and so forth. Notably, the form will explicitly note that one must be at least 18 to participate.
4. We always ask age up front, typically the first page after a person chooses to participate (after having read the consent or information sheet.)
5. We always validate the age field, such that the entered age must be at least 18 (and typically we'll cap the acceptable age at 99 or so to prevent fake ages like 533 or 32,757.) All modern survey platforms offer this validation feature. A person cannot say that they are 5 years old, or 15 years old, and proceed to participate in an IRB-approved psychology study. We can't do anything about people who lie about their ages – either in an online study or an in-person study on campus – but if they submit a minor age, it's a full stop. Because of this, there should never be minors or immortals in our data.
At this point, I think PLOS ONE should retract the paper. We can't have unapproved – or retroactively approved – minors in data. UWA is clearly engaged in a cover-up, and their guidance should not inform PLOS ONE's, or any journal's, decisions. This exposes the structural ethical vulnerability we have in science – we rely on institutions with profound conflicts of interest to investigate themselves, to investigate their own researchers. We have broad evidence that they often attempt to cover up malpractice, though the percentages are unclear. Journals need to fashion their own processes, and rely much less on university "finders of fact". We should also think about provisioning independent investigators. In any case, UWA's conduct deserves to be be escalated and widely exposed, and it will be. This is far from over – we can't just sit passively given the severity of the ethical breaches here, and we won't.
Substantive note: The correction does not address one of the substantive errors in the original. Gender is the largest predictor of GMO attitudes. They never reported this, but rather implied that gender did no work. A lot of times boring variables like age and gender explain a lot of variance, and in this case gender explained more than any other. (Women trusted GMOs less, using Lewandowsky's primitive linear correlations on the scale index. It's unclear whether women actually distrusted GMOs – i.e. where the women clustered on the items. A correlation doesn't tell you this. A bad researcher would say "women distrusted GMOs" given a negative correlation coefficient, without specifying descriptives or their actual, substantive placement on the scale, which could in fact be pro-GMO, just less pro than men.)