Eysenck Case Shows Need for Independent Research Integrity Ombudsperson
Ed. – Hans J. Eysenck was one of the most touted psychologists of the 20th century, and before his death in 1997 was reputed to be the most cited living psychologist. But his fame rested less on the robustness of his research and more on the novelty of his findings. As a call to investigate his work in The BMJ noted in April, “He’s usually called ‘controversial’ in that he denied the link between smoking and cancer, had strong links with the tobacco industry, thought race was related to intelligence, opposed comprehensive schools, nursed an intense hostility towards psychoanalysis, supported astrology and parapsychology, and declared the entire discipline of economics as worthless.” The Journal of Health Psychology has led the charge into reviewing his published work, and in the reprinted editorial below, the editor of that journal, David F. Marks, and historian of psychology Roderick D. Buchanan, note the detritus of a Kings College London inquiry — 61 retractions for Eysenck’s work so far — and argue the case spotlights the need for a new body to ensure future research integrity.
The Journal of Health Psychology recently published a penetrating review (Pelosi, 2019) into Hans J Eysenck’s research on fatal illnesses and personality. Eysenck’s research had been conducted with the sociologist Ronald Grossarth-Maticek, who had claimed an affiliation with Eysenck’s employer, the Institute of Psychiatry, now part of King’s College London (KCL). Based on Pelosi’s article and a review of Eysenck’s research on fatal illness and personality, a provisional total of 61 highly questionable publications were compiled, accompanied by a call for an investigation by KCL into these publications (Marks, 2019).
On 3 December 2018, a pre-publication copy of Anthony Pelosi’s review and an editorial was sent to the Principal of KCL, Professor Edward Byrne. On 13 December 2018, he replied that a considered response would follow a KCL review.
On 25 June 2019, KCL confirmed they had completed its enquiry to examine publications authored by Hans J. Eysenck with Ronald Grossarth-Maticek. Professor Byrne said that KCL had contacted the University of Heidelberg where Grossarth-Maticek is associated. Professor Byrne also confirmed that the enquiry had found ‘a number of papers’ to be questionable and that KCL would be writing to the editors of the relevant journals to inform them. A copy of the enquiry report was requested but nothing more was received until 4 October 2019 when the enquiry report was received dated ‘May 2019’ (KCL, 2019). The reason for the 4-month delay is unclear.
According to the report, the Principal had asked the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience to set up a committee to examine publications authored by Professor Hans Eysenck with Professor Ronald Grossarth-Maticek. The enquiry committee expressed its concerns about the Eysenck and Grossarth-Maticek papers in the following terms:
The concerns are based on two issues. First, the validity of the datasets, in terms of recruitment of participants, administration of measures, reliability of outcome ascertainment, biases in data collection, absence of relevant covariates, and selection of cases analysed in each article. Second, the implausibility of the results presented, many of which show effect sizes virtually unknown in medical science. For example, the relative risk of dying of cancer for individuals with ‘cancer-prone’ personality com-pared with healthy personality was over 100, while the risk of cancer mortality was reduced 80% by bibliotherapy. These findings are incompatible with modern clinical science and the understanding of disease processes.
The KCL enquiry report concluded,
The Committee shared the concerns made by the critics of this body of work. We have come to the conclusion that we consider the published results of studies that included the results of the analyses of data collected as part of the intervention or observational studies to be unsafe and that the editors of the journals should be informed of our decision. We have highlighted 26 papers . . . which were published in 11 journals which are still in existence.
As noted, the KCL enquiry was based entirely on publications that H. J. Eysenck had co-authored with Ronald Grossarth-Maticek. The 26 highlighted publications excluded those solely authored by Eysenck. This manoeuvre may have served to shift the blame away from Eysenck towards Grossarth-Maticek. However, the implication that Eysenck may have been an unwitting victim of data manipulation committed by Grossarth-Maticek is inconsistent with the evidence. Past interviews and recent communications indicate Grossarth-Maticek has only a basic command of English. It can be reasonably assumed that Grossarth-Maticek was highly reliant on Eysenck to produce the English language versions of the multiple unsafe papers (Buchanan, 2019a). Moreover, the misrepresentation concerning Grossarth-Maticek’s affiliation with the Institute of Psychiatry cannot have occurred without Eysenck’s knowledge and approval.
In any case, when assessing potential retractions, demonstrating conscious culpability is not a mandatory requirement. Such assessments should always centre on the trustworthiness of the scientific literature. There is no immunity in ignorance. Honest and unwitting mistakes are sometimes made; if they lead to seriously misleading conclusions, retractions rather than mere corrections are needed.
Without explanation, the KCL’s enquiry decision to exclude Eysenck’s sole-authored publications is hard to fathom. Grossarth-Maticek was chiefly responsible for setting up the various studies and carrying out the data collection. However, Eysenck worked closely with Grossarth-Maticek on the analysis and presentation of that data. While it is somewhat unusual for an author to present another researcher’s data as the basis for their publication without that researcher’s name also appearing on the publication, this was the case for most of Eysenck’s sole-authored publications on this topic from 1987 onward. And as numerous guidelines make clear, researchers are responsible for the contents of the publications that bear their name.
The only point in question for Eysenck’s sole-authored publications is whether they display a sufficient level of dependence on Grossarth-Maticek’s data and their joint work to warrant retractions. We are of the opinion that most of, if not all, the sole-authored Eysenck publications we have pinpointed would reach this threshold. A few might be seen to be marginal. For example, in his introductory chapter ‘Clinical psychology in Europe and the U.S.: Development and future’ in a 1990 collected volume (Item 52 in the Supplementary Appendix), Eysenck only devotes one paragraph to his work with Grossarth-Maticek. He does not present any analyses drawn from Grossarth-Maticek’s datasets. However, this paragraph centres on an extravagant claim. Eysenck suggests Grossarth-Maticek’s research demonstrates that behaviour therapy is a ‘powerful agent’ (p. 15) for preventing and even ameliorating illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. This claim is derived from Grossarth-Maticek’s dubious intervention studies, which Eysenck played a leading role in analysing and bringing to publication. It is supported in the text with citations to some of those publications, including Items 4, 38 and 40 in the Supplementary Appendix list. It is otherwise out of line with research on the intrinsic benefits of psychotherapy and current understandings of disease processes. As a consequence, it misdirects prevention and treatment decisions and promotes a false-hope narrative. Even though Eysenck’s discussion of his work with Grossarth-Maticek was only a small part of the chapter, the questionable basis and dangerously misleading implications of this claim warrant the chapter’s retraction (Heathers, 2019).
Recently, an additional 27 potentially retractable publications have been identified (Buchanan, 2019b), supplementing the publications initially submitted to KCL. This extended list of potentially retractable Eysenck publications includes a number of items co-authored with Grossarth-Maticek, as well as many sole-authored items (see Supplementary Appendix). Hence, the KCL enquiry has fallen far short of dealing with the full extent of the problem. It is our view that the enquiry must be reconvened and extended to examine the ‘safety’ of all 87 Eysenck publications which present or depend on the highly questionable datasets provided by Grossarth-Maticek. (This total does not include any articles and books Grossarth-Maticek published using the problematic datasets without Eysenck as a co-author.) Those deemed unsafe should be retracted by the relevant editors and publishers where possible.
We note that these 87 publications only represent a fraction of Eysenck’s prodigious output, the rest of which should be treated on its own merits. But if retractions were applied to all 87 publications, Eysenck will not only be one of the most published scientists ever, he will also be one of the most retracted.
To date, this episode has not increased our confidence in the capability of academic institutions to fully investigate the potential misconduct of those they have employed. One reason for this might be the obvious conflict of interest involved. KCL has only investigated a fraction of the publications pertaining to the complaint for reasons it has not explained. This leads us to conclude that there is an urgent need to establish an independent National Research Integrity Ombudsperson to investigate allegations of academic misconduct.
The need for an independent UK body to promote the good governance, management and conduct of academic, scientific and medical research could never be stronger than in the present situation. The Eysenck case requires the full attention of the institutions that govern scientific practice. The official professional body for British psychologists, the British Psychological Society, washed its hands of the problem by passing the entire responsibility to KCL. This is not an issue about a single individual’s alleged misconduct, or a single institution, it is about the integrity of science. Without a genuine ability to assure governance, quality and integrity, science is a failure unto itself, reason, and ethics. The question is, do we have the will to do the job properly?