Fraudulent Dancing

A paper was published by Nature in 2005 that quantified bodily symmetry of the human mating dance—that is, club music. Researchers from Rutgers went down to Jamaica and took motion-capture videos of people dancing, all to the same popular Jamaican song. The dancers were dotted with reflective markers so their moves could be put into a computer and quantified.

Here’s what those markers looked like.

They even had a nice little movie of a male polygon figure dancing to the song. This was the symmetrical dance while this was the asymmetrical dance. The symmetrical male was really getting into it, but the asymmetrical male just kind of bounced and shook his arms. To me it looked like the asymmetric dancer was cautious, not really getting into the dance, which could be a turn-off in the mating ritual. But researchers thought of this and gave the dancers a self-esteem test. Apparently, how you feel about your dancing doesn’t translate to how your dancing looks. They also found neither age nor BMI correlated to dancing ability. They did report that facial and bodily symmetry could predict how well a young man danced (the dance ability rated by Jamaican women and Rutgers students).

Now, almost 10 years later, they’ve retracted the paper with little explanation by Nature. It turns out that since 2007 one of the authors, Robert Trivers, has been unhappy with the study. He’s been trying to get the paper retracted for years.

In 2007, when a graduate student found that the study couldn’t be repeated, Trivers dived into the data. It turns out “not only were the values changed, they were not even internally consistent,” Trivers said. A case of fraud? It turns out yes. As Trivers has posted, “the fraudster William Brown and his chief supporter Lee Cronk” had been in charge of the data set and modified data points to make it look like their dance study had found something.

Note that Nature says none of this. They simply say:

We retract this Letter, which reported strong positive associations between symmetry and dancing ability in a group of young Jamaican men. K.G. could not be contacted.

This is not the first time Nature has hidden fraudulent behavior of their authors. David Vaux has a nice post on Retraction Watch talking this very subject. It’s all about brand management for these prestigious publications. They don’t want to lose credibility, so they sweep fraud under the rug either with vague retractions or blatantly ignoring misconduct. For some reason Nature News will report misconduct, while the actual journal ignores it.

One commenter on Retraction Watch had an interesting point—they said publications such as Nature and Science aren’t really academic journals, they’re more like magazines, “gatekeepers of the Hot New Things.” Maybe it would be better to consider such “journals” as magazines, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. As long as they have prestige, scientists will still be eager to publish in them… even if it means faking it.

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