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Exclusive: Psychology Researcher Loses PhD After Allegedly Using Husband In Study And Making Up Data

A psychology researcher already under fire for several questionable studies has had her PhD revoked by a university tribunal that found it likely she fabricated data in her thesis. 

Ping Dong, who was a doctoral student at the University of Toronto from 2012 to 2017, had already earned retractions for two papers based on her thesis before the tribunal’s decision to cancel her degree and give the thesis a failing grade. A summary of the case the school has made available online reveals those retractions, which we’ve previously reported on, arose from more serious misconduct than previously publicized and were also subject to an institutional investigation. 

Dong’s research concerned how moral violations and unethical behavior, such as tax evasion or adultery, influence consumer choices.. According to the university’s report, her thesis had an “improbable level of duplication” in the answers research participants gave to open-ended questions. Dong also allegedly confessed to a former supervisor that her husband impersonated participants in her studies and that she had failed to properly randomize the results – although the supervisor contests that Dong ever admitted this to her. 

Dong’s thesis resulted in three published papers, cited 29 times in total, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science Two of the papers had already been retracted before the tribunal’s decision because of data anomalies found by readers: 

According to the tribunal documents, the problems with the thesis began to surface in May 2018 when the then-editor of Psychological Science, Steve Lindsay, contacted Dong and Chen-Bo Zhong, Dong’s coauthor and faculty advisor, after receiving reports from a reader of anomalous patterns in the data in Dong’s article on darkness and fear of infection. Lindsay at the time had asked a statistical advisor to assess the report, and the advisor confirmed that there were problems in the data, he told Retraction Watch.

Dong has another paper from 2013 also published in Psychological Science that was not investigated. Lindsay said he probably assumed Dong was an early-career researcher and failed to look for any other papers that she had published in the journal. 

When Zhong confronted Dong about the concerns in the Psychological Science paper, she blamed the issues on “improper, but innocent, randomization” in the data collection process – an explanation the tribunal concluded was “fake”. 

Then, in early 2019, Zhong received an email in which Dong admitted to falsifying data, according to his testimony for the tribunal. He said Aparna Labroo, who had supervised Dong’s first year paper before leaving the university in 2013, had forwarded an email in which Dong admitted she did not properly randomize data in the Psychological Science paper and that her husband had impersonated participants. 

Labroo disputed these claims in an email to Retraction Watch: “Ping Dong admitted no such thing to me and I never had or ever have had any such email. I had no idea she did not randomize conditions in her 2019 paper with Chenbo.” 

Asked whether Dong had admitted that her husband had impersonated participants, Labroo wrote: 

My understanding is that Ping and her husband are separate entities, and the Psych Science is different research from Pings [sic] dissertation. What Ping may or may not say about her husband also would be heresay [sic]. So I am not sure about the extent of relevance of this question to an investigation about Pings actions with respect to her dissertation.

She added:

At no stage did the University of Toronto reach out to me or ask me anything about this investigation, so any reference to me in their report is pure heresay [sic]. 

Zhong has not responded to requests for comment, instead deferring to the University’s media relations office. A spokesperson for the university confirmed the existence of such an email, though declined to release any of the documents tendered at the tribunal’s hearing.

“The Tribunal’s reasons for the decision speak for themselves. The University is not in a position to provide further information,” the spokesperson added. 

We were also unable to reach Dong, who was not present for the tribunal hearing. 

According to the report, Zhong told the tribunal that in August 2019, he noticed Dong had restricted access to the data for the Journal of Consumer Research paper after editors of the journal had requested a copy for data maintenance purposes. That same month, Zhong consulted a data scientist, Marcel van Assen, to help investigate the paper. Van Assen “concluded that the issues went beyond mere ‘questionable research practices’ and indicated possible misconduct,” the report stated. 

A month later, the editors at the Journal of Consumer Research told Zhong and the university’s research integrity office that there were “credible concerns” about the paper published in the journal. The university began investigating the paper in 2020 and found Dong had fabricated or manipulated data to support her hypothesis and had destroyed data to avoid detection. Zhong requested a retraction after the findings of the university’s investigation. Dong never responded to the concerns, according to the retraction notice. 

The tribunal’s case summary also cites a third paper connected to Dong’s thesis, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, although it gives no indication whether the paper was ever investigated by the university. 

Christian Unkelbach, the editor of Social Psychological and Personality Science and Margo Monteith, the former editor, said they had not been contacted by the university — nor by Zhong or a concerned reader, as the other editors had — about the paper. Unkelbach said in an email to Retraction Watch that he considers this “an omission by the University of Toronto if they have reason to suspect fraudulent behavior that led to the results in Dong et al. (2015).”

He added if Zhong, or others mentioned in the tribunal’s findings, were able to provide evidence of data fabrication or manipulation in the paper, the journal would take action to protect the integrity of the scientific record. 

According to the case summary, Dong also used her “improperly” obtained degree to secure a tenure-track position at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management — a position she abruptly left less than a year after earning the retraction in Psychological Science. Apart from the two retractions related to her thesis work, Dong has an additional two retractions and a correction.

Retraction Watch

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