Bill Wingell / The New York Times

Prof. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, pictured here in 2006, faced claims of 150 data inconsistencies across four of his publications.

April 9, 2017

Cornell Food Researcher’s Errors Do Not Constitute Misconduct, University Finds

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Cornell has determined that a prominent food researcher — accused earlier this year of using poor methods of data analysis, authoring papers with scores of data inconsistencies and reusing text in multiple publications — handled data inappropriately but that his errors “did not constitute scientific misconduct.”

Brian Wansink, the popular founder and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, has faced a wave of criticism since authoring a blog post in November, in which, according to his critics, he endorsed shoddy research practices.

In January, three researchers published a paper — “Statistical Heartburn: An Attempt to Digest Four Pizza Publications from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab” — investigating four papers Wansink co-authored on pizza-eating habits.

The researchers listed 150 data inconsistencies across Wansink’s four papers, The Sun previously reported. Wansink said in March that his lab would conduct an “internal and independent” review of his studies.

John Carberry, director of media relations, said last week that Cornell conducted the internal investigation “to determine the extent to which a formal investigation of research integrity was appropriate.”

“That review indicated that, while numerous instances of inappropriate data handling and statistical analysis in four published papers were alleged, such errors did not constitute scientific misconduct,” Carberry wrote.

Wansink, in a recent note on the Food and Brand Lab website, said the errors cited by the three researchers could largely be attributed to “simple but meaningful data reporting errors” and others to “incorrect assumptions by the critics themselves.”

None of the findings of the internal review, Wansink said, changed the “core conclusions” of the studies. An outside firm was paid by the Food and Brand Lab to verify the data analysis of the studies in question.

Wansink additionally said that he discovered three instances in which he had “reworked” his own previously published papers and submitted them to journals, “resulting in the republication of a significant portion of my previously published work.”

The food researcher had previously brushed off claims of “self-plagiarism,” but in the recent statement, Wansink said he has reached out to six journals involved, resulting in one retraction.

Wansink also responded directly to the “Statistical Heartburn” paper, issuing a 16-page response to each of the authors’ 151 claims of data inconsistencies.

More than a third of the 151 inconsistencies, Wansink said, can be attributed to people skipping questions on surveys while they were dining at the buffet where the researcher conducted his study. Wansink attributes additional inconsistencies to rounding errors, transcription mistakes and critics’ incorrect assumptions relating to the arithmetic process.

Wansink released anonymized data from the pizza study, responding to an initial request from the researchers investigating his data, and also released a revised set of standard operating procedures.

Carberry said in his statement that Cornell will be evaluating additional instances of “the repeated use of identical language and in some cases dual publication of materials” and “will evaluate these cases to determine whether or not additional actions are warranted.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported thoroughly in March on the fallout stemming from Wansink’s blog post and the investigations that followed.

“Science is messy in a lot of ways,” he told the magazine during an interview at McDonald’s.

“I still think that most of our stuff is really, really rigorous,” Wansink said. “What I’m upset with is that it may not be seen as such anymore. That’s my disappointment: That all my amazing work, now people will say, ‘Yeah, but I wonder.’”

Many of the blog posts on Wansink’s personal page have now been deleted, including the November post that instigated criticism of his work.

In a now-deleted February post — “Statistical Heartburn and Long-term Lessons” — Wansink mentioned many professional and personal tribulations, apologized profusely for the negative attention he had brought on his lab and outlined many of the steps that he and Cornell have now taken.

“Again, I’m so, so sorry this happened,” he wrote. “I’ve always been proud to be part of a field that can make people’s lives better. Something like this can tarnish the impact many of us would like our work to have on others.”