April 4, 2013

Of the boy who did almost everything right

A reader sent me a link to an article on Telelopis, an online and print journal published by the Heise Media Group. The Hannover-based company seems to be a tech publisher, with a variety of IT-oriented online and printed publications, including the German edition of Technology Review and an UK open source site.

The Telelopis article by Phillip Hermanns is entitled “Vom Jungen, der fast alles richtig machete.” My German is very rusty, so I put it through Systran, Google and Bing and checked words using the Beolingus German-English dictionary.

Below is my composite translation (with my own attempts at clarification in [brackets]). Some of the links are originals, others are link to translations of the originals; one link in the original article was to this blog and another to the Retraction Watch blog.


Of the boy who did almost everything right
Phillip Hermanns, 26 March 2013

A Mannheim professor was considered the rising star in his field - until statistical errors were found in many of his published works. But instead of the facts quickly educate themselves draw the concerned universities and technical journals published by timid and non-transparent actions. But instead of acting as soon as possible to clarify the facts of the case, the universities and journal concerned are characterised by timid and non-transparent actions.

In 2009, the world was still in order for Prof. Ulrich Lichtenthaler. The then 30-year organization and innovation researcher had just been awarded the Handelsblatt business economists ranking as the strongest research young scientist in German-speaking countries. Solely on the basis of its publication output, he was henceforth only [known] as "the boy who does everything right."

In the following years, Lichtenthaler’s career only knew the way up. By 2011, he succeeded emeritus professor Alfred Kieser at the University of Mannheim. Henceforth, he was owner of Germany’s most renowned chair of organization. Based on its apparent objectivity, the academic rankings knew only one winner.

In the spirit of the utility-maximizing homo economicus had perfected Lichtenthaler actually hitherto almost to exhaust the existing system: 71 articles he published until November 2011. Far more than half of them were there even went through the time-consuming and rigorous peer-review process. To create this was only in a salami-slicing process. Unique statistical survey collected data are then applied with various theories in regard to various scientific discourses - the salami is thus cut into as many small pieces. Often one chooses measurement methods which are used in already published articles and varies only small part of the existing articles, in order to create a new publication; radical scientific progress is different.

The year 2012 however then brought a significant turning point in the career system of the Mannheim professor. The rumors circulating already on Conferences had actually materialized: two articles in the journal Research Policy in early July were withdrawn by the editors, after readers had turned with remarks to the magazine: on the one hand, Lichtenthaler had published similar articles in other magazines, which were not known to the publishers until then and they doubt the originality and novelty of the contributions made. Besides inconsistent handling variables became visible with view of the contributions concerned, which were based on an identical data record. In addition, upon inspection of the affected posts, it became evident [that there was] inconsistent handling of variables based on identical data: while variables in a contribution were classified as important [in one study], these were not taken into account in a parallel publication. Beyond that was it shown - and this seems to be the most serious problem - the articles reported [statistical] significances that are actually non-significant, revealing substantial statistic errors.

Lichtenthaler, who already was in touch with editors [regarding] this publicly announced decision, was alarmed. What immediately followed this information situation, reveals not only a strange understanding of transparency an official paid from public funds, but shows a helpless technology understanding to the workings of the Internet: on the Department website of scanning Licthtenthaler's information about received publication rates and its expert and consulting activities have been deleted first. A little later the entire list of publications and section of information to "Scientists" was taken offline, which the public can no longer reach.

But this attempt to conceal his own errors, and scientific misconduct came too late. The statistical error in disclosing the allegedly involved and only undercover 20 scientists had done their work thoroughly and seemingly relevant information already sent to other affected journals. In the following weeks and months, more articles were withdrawn by the editors, or at the request of the authors, who could see their own mistakes now all of a sudden. …

The affected Mannheim University responded to the case initially only very hesitantly, but then [actively] exaggerated: "That a professor makes mistakes can happen: even if the allegations are true in whole or in part, there is no question that Mr. Lichtenthaler is a brilliant scientist" proclaimed the then-rector of Mannheimer Hans-Wolfgang Arndt - feels vaguely reminiscent of the "full confidence" Merkel’s coinage. But the case is deeply complex. A commission of inquiry set up quickly secured indeed "full investigation" into the results are announced for the end of 2012, however, are still waiting to be. There will probably be a problem that none of the previously retracted article was created in the time in Mannheim - Lichtenthaler will thus have behaved there official-legally always correctly.

The private University of WHU in Vallendar established a Commission of enquiry: here Lichtenthaler did his doctorate a few years earlier and is then also cumulatively his Habilitation. Most of the withdrawn items are also based on the record that he had raised for his doctoral thesis. If now one has to make a judgment about the scientific misconduct, it is the Wissenschaftliche Hochschule für Unternehmensführung.

But the local commission of inquiry has to date - about 9 months after the appearance of the case - still has produced no results. That a commission of inquiry exists, is [known] only by the University of Mannheim - the usually bustling press office has not yet deemed it necessary to issue a press release at all relating to the case.

How [one] holds the German private university [accountable for] transparency, becomes clear, if one [considers] Lichtenthaler’s supervisor and academic teacher Prof. Holger Ernst. Ernst is a Professor of technology and innovation management. Four of the [Lichtenthaler] withdrawn articles he was involved in as the first or second author. Once the problems to its offspring became known, he seemed to want to lay all blame on Lichtenthaler: when an already accepted for the publication and online made the public available articles he expressly insisted to henceforth be no longer listed as a second author.

Only few days ago is now a first essay was withdrawn under the leadership of Ernst because of statistical problems which had arisen without Lichtenthaler. By now it is clear that the origin of the problem is actually to look not only at the Mannheim professor alone. But the affected Elsevier in its journal Research Policy, the affected contribution was provided for publication reveals some strange behavior. The post was available online after completion of the assessment process and acceptance by the editor since May 2012. Rather than to withdraw the affected article and keep a continued public reference as a "retraction," the Publisher conducted a de-publication called a "Withdrawal". The authors of the study, are given the opportunity of the revision so as the data through this step is a never published - a practice which caused quite some head-shaking in the community.

If one summarizes the past conditions of the things, one remains whether the condition of the scientific integrity of individual individuals and respected universities speechless back. Seven of the eight affected articles were created before Lichtenthaler’s appointment in the year 2011 or were well advanced in the review process. Since these were also published in high ranking journals, they must have played an important role in the course of the appeal proceedings.Therefore, it remains unclear why the University of Mannheim cannot explain why their appointment decision [is] null and void. The same applies to the WHU, which must face the question of how much substance the Licthenthaler doctorate and habilitation actually have, and how much account is due to his supervisor Ernst.

At this point, one should therefore also address the functioning of the current system of science in general. None of the players seem to currently answer publicly the question of how it ever came to be that so many [articles] from accepted professional journals were withdrawn due to statistical error - without the problems being noticed by one of the many disciplinary reviewers and editors. Perhaps a real answer to the question is also hurtful to system: Would she still reveal that statistical results for the scientific discourse of an entire guild are not considered accurate - and then you could replace the same empiricism by theoretical work.

Finally there is the unique case in the German-speaking countries. The whole academic world should look to Mannheim and Vallendar and call for quick clarification. Instead, they seem to look away or to speak only in whispers. But they also the media representatives with their inner logic take a not inconsiderable part in the so far not very wholehearted and speedy intelligence - since the resignation of the Handelsblatt editor [Olaf Storbeck in October 2012], the "fourth estate" has been [conspicuously] non-reporting the case. One must not approve the form of the reporting of the cases Guttenberg Schavan & Co.. But without any media coverage, [there is] barely any public awareness. And science institutions no longer feel obliged [to meet] the standards of conduct imposed on themselves.

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