July 19, 2012

L'affaire Lichtenthaler, Part Deux

Among open innovation researchers, the past 24 hours seem to have been spent discussing Ulrich Lichtenthaler and his three retracted articles, including two in Research Policy.

I’ve only met Dr. Lichtenthaler once, He certainly is a prominent open innovation researcher: Google Scholar says he has published 15 articles with "open innovation” in the title. When I review an OI paper, usually I find 1 or 2 cites to his work, and sometimes as many as four. But the rate at which the news has spread — via Twitter, Facebook, even Skype — hints at the number of people who’ve been waiting for confirmation of what they long suspected (or perhaps hoped).

Today, Olaf Storbeck of Handlesblatt (the German equivalent to the FT or WSJ) reports on the story in a blog article that supplements his German-language news article:
Top-flight German business prof faces severe accusations of academic misconduct

One of the most successful German business professors is currently facing awkward questions about his scientific conduct. Ulrich Lichtenthaler, who is affiliated with the University of Mannheim, has come under suspicion of inflating his publication record using unethical methods.

Additionally, a number of his published papers apparently contain severe mathematical errors and methodological inconsistencies.

In the last couple of weeks, two academic journals – “Research Policy” and “Strategic Organization” – officially retracted three papers by Lichtenthaler. “This is only the tip of the iceberg”, asserted a researcher familiar with the investigations speaking to me on the condition of anonymity. “There is much more to come.”

Several people who looked into the matter are convinced that the whole affair has the potential to turn into a major academic scandal. One academic told me that “Industrial and Corporate Change” and the “Strategic Management Journal” are also preparing retractions.
(The original German article seems to have attracted considerable discussion online.)

Storbeck’s blog posting also included a written response from Dr. Lichtenthaler, as well as oblique references to how “a small group of academics privately started to question this academic flight of fancy,” analyzed his work and sent their findings to various journals. Given the rumors I’ve heard over the past 18-24 months, I suspect I either know some of these academics or know people who know them.

I would disagree that this “has the potential to turn into a major academic scandal,” because (barring some major exculpatory revelation) it seems like we’re already there. How did we get here?

In his paper from the Lundvall festschrift (also presented at Imperial last month) Ben Martin talks about how the field of innovation studies was lucky for a long time:
As a field, we were truly fortunate in our ‘founding fathers’ – individuals such as Chris Freeman, Richard Nelson and Nathan Rosenberg, who, besides making immense intellectual contributions, also shaped the culture and norms under which we operate. In particular, these individuals personified a spirit of openness, integrity and intellectual generosity.
I think when innovation studies was a small community when everyone knew everyone else, there was an element of social norms and sanctions that would deter authors from thinking they could blatantly game the system. (Conversely, more benign forms of gaming the system still seems to be OK: we all know senior respected scholars who’ve been very clever at squeezing one more paper out of a given dataset.)

Certainly the system of letter writing for tenure should catch most abuses. I can think of about 5-10 people senior to me who know my work well, and if they had my papers in front of them, they’d quickly spot any violations. However, not all schools require outside letters for tenure, and this does nothing for hiring decisions, where generalists review the work of a prospective colleague, supported by cherry-picked friendly letters and an occasional phone call to a former coworker.

Storbeck note the irony of some of the previous praise of Lichtenthaler given by Handlesblatt:
The thirty-three-year old used to be the undisputed shooting star of business science in Germany and has an incredible publication record. Since 2004, Lichtenthaler has published more papers in international renowned journals than almost any other German business professor. The database used for the Handelsblatt research ranking lists a total of 50 publications. 21 of them were published in 2007 and 2008. …

Given his amazing productivity, in 2009 the German association of business professors (Verband der Hochschullehrer für Betriebswirtschaftslehre) awarded a prestigious prize for young researchers to him. In the same year, he topped the Handelsblatt list of the most productive business researchers below 40 albeit he was one of the youngest academics in the list. …

In 2009, we published a portrait about Lichtenthaler’s amazing career in Handelsblatt. With the benefit of hindsight, the headline seems to be ironic: “The boy who gets everything right”. He told my colleague Anja Müller that despite his striking research output, he wasn’t considering himself a workaholic and that “academic enthusiasm” keeps him going. …
Alas, what Storbeck doesn’t discuss is the role that Handlesblatt has played in encouraging (if not creating) such behavior. My German-speaking academic friends can quote to me where they stand on the Handlesblatt rankings of business faculty, the ranking of well-known researchers and the date when the next rankings will be published. German (and Swiss and Austrian) deans hire, promote and reward faculty based on this one article that comes out every year.

In the US, strong individual incentives like this gave us Enron, Worldcom, Fannie Mae and numerous other ethical scandals. However, while the MBA rankings (by Business Week, FT, US News and the WSJ) distort the behavior of business school faculty and administrators, they don’t seem to have produced the pressure (yet) that encouraged individuals or an organizational conspiracy to out-and-out cheat.

If Handlesblatt really wanted to get to the bottom of this scandal, it would look in the mirror. Or, as cartoonist Walt Kelley said in Pogo 41 years ago: “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

PS: The reader comments at the bottom of the blog post point out Handlesblatt’s role in creating this problem, but Storbeck vehemently denies any responsibility therein.

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