June 24, 2013

Of the boy whose infamy crossed the Atlantic

“The boy who did almost everything right” has now been recognized by Business Week, one of the largest business publications in the U.S.

As reported online Monday by its Paris correspondent:
Research Fraud Allegations Trail a German B-School Wunderkind
By Carol Matlack

Ulrich Lichtenthaler was a research wunderkind. The German management professor, an expert on technology licensing and innovation, published more than 50 journal articles, was a visiting scholar at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and won a business school department chairmanship—all before he turned 34 last August. The newspaper Handelsblatt in 2009 named him the top young business researcher in the German-speaking world.

Now, Lichtenthaler’s reputation is in tatters. In recent months, academic journals say they have retracted 13 of his articles and are scrutinizing others, after finding that he mischaracterized data and engaged in “self-plagiarism,” offering slightly different versions of the same material to multiple publications while claiming each article was original.

In an e-mailed response to questions from Bloomberg Businessweek, Lichtenthaler said that some of his work contained “unintended statistical errors. I deeply regret these errors and would like to emphasize that no attempt was made to deliberately influence the results.”

He declined to comment further, pending an investigation by the University of Mannheim Business School, where he is chairman of management and organization.
Other than the e-mail interview, the substance of the story has little new for readers of the Open Innovation or Retraction Watch blogs (and in fact, the story quotes original reporting in both).

The author attempts to find a systemic explanation for the high number of German retractions, emphasizing the lack of university control rather than (as others have) the strong incentives for publication by German management scholars, such as the Handlesblatt rankings.

One new tidbit is a more detailed explanation from the editor responsible for Dr. Licthenthaler’s first retraction:
“In some cases, measures from the survey were relabeled from earlier papers so one had to look carefully to see whether a given finding had already been published,” says Russell Coff, a University of Wisconsin management professor who edits the journal Strategic Organization, which retracted a 2009 Lichtenthaler article on technology licensing.

The most serious problem, Coff says, was that Lichtenthaler had labeled some variables as statistically significant when a quick glance at the data showed they were not. “It did not seem that the mislabeling was necessarily accidental,” Coff says, “though we cannot be certain.” Lichtenthaler “approached us asking to retract the article and wanted to be clear that he was being proactive,” Coff adds.
The term “proactive” seems to be frequently used to describe Licthenthaler’s efforts of the past year to voluntarily retract some of his published research. I’ve had other researchers (who haven’t had their work retracted) ask me why a “proactive” approach to retracting questionable articles is better than a non-proactive (“reactive”?) approach, or even waiting for the journal to render its own decision.

I can’t answer their question. Perhaps the idea of “proactive” has an exculpatory meaning in German that it lacks in American English.

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