Thursday, December 21, 2017

The saga of Bruce Wansink: an observation about academic publishing reality leads to questions in the science of pizza buffets

On the subject of "Retraction Watch," a list of the "top ten" retractions of 2017 was compiled.

One of them involved Bruce Wansink of Cornell, which illustrated the curious impact of a blog post of "spinning straw into gold" causing the gold to turn to lead. And the story also involves the issue of "proprietary" data, creating an IP slant. Retraction Watch gave background on the matter of straw to gold:

To Brian Wansink of Cornell University, a blog post he wrote in November, 2016, was a meant as a lesson in productivity: A graduate student who was willing to embrace every research opportunity submitted five papers within six months of arriving to his lab, while a postdoc who declined two chances to analyze a data set left after one year with a small fraction of the grad student’s publications.

But two months and nearly 50 comments on the post later, Wansink — known for so much high-profile nutrition research he’s been dubbed the “Sherlock Holmes of food” — has announced he’s now reanalyzing the data in the papers, and will correct any issues that arise. In the meantime, he had to decline requests to share his raw data, citing its proprietary nature.

As Wansink writes in the second addendum to the November blog post, “The Grad Student Who Never Said ‘No’:” (...)

Of the issue of possible misconduct, see Cornell finds mistakes — not misconduct — in papers by high-profile nutrition researcher

But what was the topic? Perhaps a debate in CRISPR or in superluminal propagation? No. One of
Wansinks papers shows the general area:

Eating Behaviors and the Number of Buffet Trips: An Observational Study at All-You-Can-Eat Chinese Restaurants

Of the retraction/correction issues, the problematic papers related specifically to Italian buffets.
See for example Statistical heartburn: An attempt to digest four pizza publications from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab

Jesse Singhal of The Cut wrote:

Along those same lines, lower-level researchers working at Cornell’s lab, and at others like it, face some brutal incentives of their own. Wansink himself made that clear in one of his addenda. “For Post-docs, publishing is make-or-break — it determines whether they stay in academia or they struggle in academia,” he wrote. “Metaphorically, if they can’t publish enough to push past the academic gravitational pull as a post-doc, they’ll have to unfairly fight gravity until they find the right fit. Some post-docs are willin[g] to make huge sacrifices for productivity because they think it’s probably their last chance. For many others, these sacrifices aren’t worth it.” Of course, the sacrifices also aren’t worth it if they lead to a bunch of mangled papers.

One article that was retracted: Low prices and high regret: how pricing influences regret at all-you-can-eat buffets, by Özge Siğirci and Brian Wansink in BMC Nutrition.

A post at has the text:

A lot has happened since BW [Bruce Wansink] posted the above mentioned blog post in November 2016. The short version is that we (Nick Brown, Jordan Anaya, and me) privately contacted him about a wide range of errors and inconsistencies (more on that later) that we spotted in the four papers that he mentioned in the blogpost. Although he initially responded to our emails, and even offered me to co-author a paper with him (?), he stopped replying after it was made clear that we wanted to see the data to assess the source of the apparent inconsistencies in his papers.

As BW stopped replying, we were forced to go public. After all, we have a communal responsibility to assess and verify the veracity of the scientific literature. As such, we published a pre-print detailing the more than 150 errors in the 4 papers. This report has now been published at BMC Nutrition. Wansink and his colleagues responded with a research statement, shared the data underlying these 4 papers, and issued some corrections. The released dataset and the issued corrections also contained similar inconsistencies, which we outlined in a second pre-print. Wansink, his co-authors, nor Cornell University has responded to these errors. We proceeded to check more papers, and there is a now ever-increasing list of research articles (co-)authored by Brian Wansink which have been criticized for containing serious errors, reporting inconsistencies, impossibilities, plagiarism, and data duplications.


To the best of my knowledge, there are currently:

45 publications from Brian Wansink which are alleged to contain minor to very serious issues,
which have been cited over 4000 times,
are published in over 25 different journals, and in 8 books,
spanning over 20 years of research.
This is not an exhaustive list, but only what has been reported on so far.

CATHLEEN O'GRADY -at Ars Technica wrote a post “Mindless Eating,” or how to send an entire life of research into question in April 2017 which began:

Brian Wansink didn’t mean to spark an investigative fury that revisited his entire life’s work. He meant to write a well-intentioned blog post encouraging PhD students to jump at research opportunities. But his blog post accidentally highlighted some questionable research practices that caused a group of data detectives to jump on the case.

Wansink attracted the attention because he’s a rockstar researcher—when someone’s work has had such astronomical impact, problems in their research are a big deal. His post also came at a time when his field, social sciences, is under increased scrutiny due to problems reproducing some of its key findings.

Wansink is probably regretting he ever started typing. Tim van der Zee, one of the scientists participating in the ongoing examination into Wansink’s past, keeps a running account of what’s turned up so far. “To the best of my knowledge,” van der Zee writes in a blog post most recently updated on April 6, “there are currently 42 publications from Wansink which are alleged to contain minor to very serious issues, which have been cited over 3,700 times, are published in over 25 different journals, and in eight books, spanning over 20 years of research.”

Something she said brings us to an IP topic, motivation to combine in an obviousness analysis. O'Grady wrote of publishing of a "null result":

The hypothesis [of Wansink] had been that people would eat more if they had paid more, but the study had not found that result. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, publishing null results like these is important—failure to do so leads to publication bias, which can lead to a skewed public record that shows (for example) three successful tests of a hypothesis but not the 18 failed ones. But instead of publishing the null result, Wansink wanted to get something more out of the data.

Scientists tend not to publish null results. As to "motivation to combine," this aspect can make the existence of a few successful papers establish "motivation to combine," in a world where many unsuccessful not published papers would argue against motivation to combine.

In a related vein, speculating on a negative result (in the absence of a null result) can have an adverse impact, as Doudna and the Berkeley folks learned in the CRISPR context.

On the other side, people tend not to publish "obvious" insights, so that a patent litigation attorney may have trouble "proving" an invention is obvious, simply because nobody wrote down such and such connection is obvious.

Scientists publish on what is not obvious and on results that confirm an advanced theory.


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