On June 24 – the day after a prominent data blog published its third post in a four-part series detailing alleged fraud in several of her research papers – renowned Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino told her followers to stay tuned.
“There will be more to come on all of this,” she wrote in a LinkedIn post.
The more to come came Wednesday. That’s when Gino took to her LinkedIn for just the second time since the fraud allegations surfaced to announce that she was suing Harvard University, Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar, and the three authors of Data Colada – the blog that brought the allegations to light. Gino is seeking $25 million in damages.
“I want to be very clear: I have never, ever falsified data or engaged in research misconduct of any kind,” she wrote on Wednesday, August 2.
Beyond those two public LinkedIn posts, Gino has been mum. Harvard also isn’t talking. To evaluate her response to the fraud allegations, you have to read the 100-page lawsuit filed in filed in U.S. District Court in Boston. Not all of her fellow academics are buying her answers.
HOW THE SCANDAL UNRAVELED
Much has already been written about the fraud allegations against Gino. If you haven’t been keeping track, start with The Rise & Fall Of A Harvard Business School Superstar.
Then, brush up with an overview of Gino’s lawsuit in Harvard Business School Professor Sues The School For $25 Million. In short, Gino’s lawsuit asserts that Harvard created a new interim research misconduct policy specifically to investigate her case, that Data Colada engaged in a “vicious, defamatory smear campaign” against her research, and Harvard engaged in gender discrimination by treating her differently than men who have also been investigated for research misconduct.
In this particular story, we’ll look in more detail at the specific fraud allegations against Gino and her response outlined in pages 52-61 of her lawsuit.
Here’s the abbreviated backstory: Gino is an award-winning behavioral scientist at Harvard Business School. Since joining Harvard in 2010, she authored or co-authored more than 100 academic and journal articles and racked up nearly 33,000 Google citations. She’s been featured in Ted Talks, wrote two bestselling books, and was named one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers 50 three different times. In 2015, at age 36, Poets&Quants named her one of our 40-Under-40 Best MBA Professors.
Fortune magazine noted that Harvard paid Gino more than $1 million per year, and her books, speaking engagements, and corporate trainings earned her tens of thousands more. She also published in an average of more than 10 journals a year compared to Harvard’s faculty average of two or three.
She was an undisputed rising star in a research field that already invites a fair amount of skepticism. Because it delves into human behavior, study results in behavioral science can be hard to replicate, or analysis can be tilted one way or another with creative math, skeptics say.
As far back as 2021, the three authors of blog site Data Colada alerted Harvard Business School to concerns with some of Gino’s studies. The authors are prominent data and behavioral scientists themselves, and they hail from three of the world’s top business schools: Uri Simonsohn, Professor of Behavioral Science at ESADE; Leif Nelson, the Ewald T. Grether Professor in Business Administration & Marketing at Berkeley Haas; and Joe Simmons, the Dorothy Silberberg Professor of Applied Statistics at The Wharton School. (All have been named as defendants in Gino’s lawsuit.)
Harvard launched an 18-month investigation, and Gino was quietly put on administrative leave. Her title – the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration – was removed from her HBS profile page, and she has been banned from the school’s publishing platforms.
Between June 17-30 of this year, Data Colada published a four-part series titled “Data Falsificada” detailing data anomalies in four of Gino’s published papers, three of which have since been retracted or are under review. It was these posts that attracted widespread media attention including stories in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, The Guardian and other leading news sites.
The most revealing aspects of Gino’s lawsuit are her response to the specific fraud charges in these four blog posts. And these are the pages that have garnered the most intense reactions from her detractors on social media. The lawsuit covers – blog post by blog post – why Gino asserts that the four-part series is “false and defamatory.”
Blog Post 1, “Clusterfake,” published on June 17, asserts that someone manipulated data in one of Gino’s experiments used in a 2012 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (The paper, “Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end,” has since been retracted.)
The post outlines a data anomaly in which six rows of out-of-order data appear to have been manually moved from the control condition to a condition being tested in the experiment. The blog’s explanation is highly detailed, walking readers step-by-step why it believes these rows were manually manipulated and not the result of a sorting error.
“If this data tampering was done in a motivated fashion, so as to manufacture the desired result, then we would expect those suspicious observations to show a particularly strong effect for the sign-on-the-top vs. sign-on-the-bottom manipulation,” the post reads. “And they do.”
Gino’s lawsuit says that the blog post asserts that the experiment faked data “as a matter of fact (not opinion).” It goes on to explain that data was collected on paper, a common practice in behavioral science studies at the time, and data was entered into the Excel database from “stacks of paper” in no particular order. It also attributed a duplicate observation as an honest error. In other words, the data may have been disorganized and perhaps a bit sloppy, but not fraudulent.
This seems to be a theme in Gino’s response to the fraud allegations: That behavioral science is, by nature, a bit speculative as researchers are trying to assign data to human behavior. She also claims that others – such as research assistants – were involved in data entry and clean up. These are also the themes that most angered other academics.
“I especially like the defense that the data weren’t manipulated, it was really poor and unreliable data that you knew was prone to being poor and unreliable, and you included it anyways, despite having a huge impact on the results,” Jeremy Coles, Assistant Professor and Program Chair in School Psychology at The University of Findlay, wrote on Gino’s LinkedIn post announcing the lawsuit.
“So when your best defense is that it wasn’t fraud and it was just sheer incompetence or just outright disregard of the poor quality of the data, time and time again, then at best you still lack the integrity and competence and you don’t deserve to be in academia, let alone collecting a $500k salary and $50k speaking fees as an ‘expert.’”
‘MY CLASS YEAR IS HARVARD’
Blog Post 2, “My Class Year Is Harvard”, published June 20, covers a series of anomalies in which 20 Harvard students filling out demographic survey info seemingly replied “Harvard” when asked for their “Year in School.” The student survey was part of a study Gino led for “The Moral Virtue of Authenticity: How Inauthenticity Produces Feelings of Immorality and Impurity” published in Psychological Science in 2015.
Data Colada authors point out that a few students making the error might be reasonable, but it’s harder to believe that 20 students all made the same mistake. Moreover, the 20 “Harvard” errors all came within 35 rows of each other (in rows 450 to 484) in a dataset with hundreds of rows. The mistakes, they argue, were likely made by someone manipulating data, and not by individual students.
“Without access to the original (un-tampered) data files – files we believe Harvard had access to – we can only identify instances when the data tamperer slipped up, forgetting to re-sort here, making a copy-paste error there,” the authors wrote. “There is no reason (at all) to expect that when a data tamperer makes a mistake when changing one thing in a database, that she makes the same mistake when changing all things in that database.”
In her lawsuit, Gino answers the charge by saying that the students were simply sloppy. “Data Colada, as experienced behavioral scientists, knew that participants frequently respond to a survey to obtain payment due for their participation (as study participants) and may rush through questions, sometimes more than once to get paid, and use extreme values as their answers. It is widely known in behavioral science that participants in online studies at times provide poor-quality data by answering surveys without the attention they require,” the lawsuit reads.
She also points out that Harvard did not collect “original (un-tampered) data files” with which to compare to the files she publicly posted to Center for Open Science in 2015 – an open source site to promote research transparency and accessibility from which Data Colada got data from Gino’s studies. Gino also asserts that Harvard did not prove she tampered with data in its investigation.
“Because Data Colada had no evidence that Professor Gino tampered with the data underlying the 2015 Psychological Science Paper, Data Colada published Blog Post 2 with knowledge of its falsity or, at the very least, reckless disregard as to its falsity,” her lawsuit reads.
‘THE CHEATERS ARE OUT OF ORDER’
Blog Post 3, “The Cheaters Are Out of Order,” published June 23, outlines anomalies in data sorting from a Gino experiment conducted for the 2014 paper, “Evil Genius? How Dishonesty Can Lead to Greater Creativity,” in Psychological Science. Again, the post authors assert that their findings could be checked against original datasets that it told Harvard to examine in its investigation.
Gino’s lawsuit says that, in fact, this dataset no longer exists as it was “discarded in accordance with routine data maintenance practices, given its age.” So, Data Colada made its assertions of fraud with no evidence. Gino also notes that she provided Nelson with the data in 2014 for a weekly journal discussion group at Berkeley Haas. He raised no fraud concerns at the time.
And finally, Blog Post 4, “Forgetting The Words,” published June 30, details how data from an experiment does not appear to match the written descriptions of the study’s subject. The study was part of the 2020 paper, “”Why Connect? Moral Consequences of Networking with a Promotion or Prevention Focus,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The post alleges that someone tampered with the data in the networking experiment, but forgot to tamper with the associated descriptions the subjects provided.
Gino’s lawsuit counters: “Overall, Data Colada’s statements that it was looking at the words that study participants had used to describe their subjective feelings to uncover purported malfeasance were false, as Data Colada knew such words did not, and indeed, could not, demonstrate evidence of data tampering.”
Gino’s Wednesday Linkedin Post announcing the lawsuit has prompted a passionate debate between her supporters and detractors. By Friday afternoon, there were 151 comments, 22 reposts, and 573 reactions. The majority of the supporters on her post appear to be practitioners, and people who have followed her career or who have engaged with her classes or executive trainings.
Many of the detractors come from academia.
Brian Nosek is the executive director at Center for Open Science – the open-sourced website where scholars post their data and findings in an effort to promote transparency and accessibility. Much of Gino’s data scrutinized in the Data Colada blog posts were posted to Open Science.
“I have admired your work, and I found the Data Colada work to be damning for identifying fraudulent data in four of your papers. Your responses to that evidence in your lawsuit (p. 52-61) were not at all compelling about the combined evidence of data manipulation and how the claims of the paper were served by that manipulation,” Nosek wrote on Gino’s LinkedIn post. “I would like to believe that you are innocent of fraud, but right now I do not. If you share compelling alternative explanations for how the data from each of those four papers came to be without fraud, I will publicly retract my belief that fraud occurred and apologize for ever saying that publicly. I would genuinely love to have to confront my error here.”
Gino is certainly not the first scholar to be accused of research malfeasance. Another Harvard Business School professor, Amy Cuddy, stepped away from her tenure-track job after a Data Colada blog post criticized her 2010 study on the effects of “power poses.” Just last month, Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced he will step down on August 31 after an undergrad working at the school’s newspaper, The Stanford Daily, uncovered flawed research in four Tessier-Lavigne studies.
When cases like this are brought to light, they cast a shadow over scholarly research in any field. There’s an immense pressure for up-and-coming academics to “publish or perish” in order to secure tenure and advance in their field. They are often underpaid and must compete for few appointments. The superstars – like Gino – are in turn often awarded with lucrative book deals and public attention.
When someone is found or alleged to be taking shortcuts, it reflects poorly on the whole system.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever met, but as a moral judgment researcher I’m familiar with a lot of your work. I think what you are doing is disgraceful,” Yoel Inbar, professor of Psychology at University of Toronto, wrote on Gino’s post. “If the data are not fraudulent, you ought to be able to show that. If they are, but the fraud was done by someone else, name the person. Suing individual researchers for tens of millions of dollars is a brazen attempt to silence legitimate scientific criticism and sets a terrible example for our field.”
Andrew King, professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business believes Gino’s alleged actions are a stain on the reputation of the universities themselves. “Harvard and other elite schools bear part of the responsibility for situations like this. They demand unreasonable numbers of publications for promotion, and richly reward ‘stars’ that become ‘thought leaders,’ but then are shocked, shocked, when poor oversight, p-hacking, or fabrication is uncovered,” he writes.
But, there are a few academics standing behind Gino. Frances Frei, the UPS Foundation Professor of Service Management at Harvard Business School, wrote this in response to Gino’s lawsuit: “My field is operations management. Which means we are obsessed with #process. My employer is Harvard Business School. Which has always seemed to me to be similarly obsessed with process. But after reading this complaint, my, I have great pause. And many, many questions.
“From my first hand observation, Francesca Gino overflows with integrity. I hope justice is served here.”
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