The day nearly two years ago when Harvard Business School notified Francesca Gino, a well-known professor, that she was under investigation for data fraud coincided with her husband’s 50th birthday. An administrator instructed her to return any Harvard-issued computer equipment by 5 p.m. She canceled her planned birthday celebration and personally delivered the machines to campus, with a University Police officer supervising the transfer.
“We both ended up going,” Dr. Gino recalled. “I couldn’t go alone because I felt like, I don’t know, the ground was opening up beneath my feet for reasons I couldn’t comprehend.”
Harvard informed Dr. Gino that it had received allegations that she manipulated data in four papers on behavioral science topics. Dr. Gino published these four papers between 2012 and 2020, and one of them had been cited by fellow academics over 500 times. The paper proposed that asking people to attest to their truthfulness at the beginning of tax or insurance forms, rather than at the end, resulted in more accurate responses by activating their ethical instincts before providing information.
Unbeknownst to her, Harvard had been alerted to evidence of fraud a few months earlier by three behavioral scientists who operate a blog called Data Colada, which focuses on the validity of social science research. The bloggers suggested that Dr. Gino had altered data to enhance the credibility of her studies. They claimed that numbers had been manipulated in spreadsheets to align with her hypothesis, and data points had been altered to exaggerate findings in another paper.
Their tip sparked an investigation that culminated in Harvard placing Dr. Gino on unpaid leave and seeking to revoke her tenure, an uncommon action that has severe consequences for an academic career. This situation prompted her to file a defamation lawsuit against Harvard and the bloggers, seeking at least $25 million. It also ignited a debate among her Harvard colleagues about whether she received proper due process.
Harvard vehemently denied Dr. Gino’s allegations, and a lawyer for the bloggers labeled the lawsuit as a direct attack on academic inquiry.
Additionally, the accusations against Dr. Gino uncovered an ongoing crisis within the field of behavioral science. Many researchers in this field believe that by understanding how humans make decisions, they can develop simple techniques to assist with weight loss or encourage generosity, for example. While behavioral science experienced a period of popularity in the early 2000s, it has faced credibility issues for almost as long as TED Talks have existed. In recent years, scholars have struggled to replicate several of the field’s findings or discovered that the impact of these techniques was not as significant as claimed.
However, fraud presents an entirely separate issue. Many of Dr. Gino’s co-authors are now reevaluating papers they collaborated on with her. Dan Ariely, a renowned figure in behavioral science and a frequent co-author of Dr. Gino’s, has also faced allegations of fabricating data in at least one paper.
While the evidence against Dr. Gino, aged 45, appears compelling, it remains circumstantial, and she denies any involvement in fraud, as does Dr. Ariely. Even the bloggers, who presented a four-part series outlining their case in June, followed by a subsequent article this month, admitted that there is no definitive evidence proving that Dr. Gino falsified data herself.
This uncertainty has led colleagues, friends, former students, and casual observers to scrutinize Dr. Gino’s life in search of evidence that might shed light on what transpired. Was this all a misunderstanding? Did research assistants or survey respondents unknowingly contribute to the issue? Or had we witnessed the darker side of human nature, which Dr. Gino extensively studied, manifesting behind a carefully constructed facade?
During over five hours of conversation with Dr. Gino, she expressed pride in her accomplishments, at times defiant towards her accusers, and occasionally sympathetic towards those who mistakenly believed in the evidence of fraud. “I don’t blame readers of the blog for reaching that conclusion,” she said. “But it’s important to know that there are other explanations.”
I asked questions, and she provided plausible answers. Her responses were often detailed and specific, recalling dates, conversations, and the names of lesser-known colleagues. She did not project the demeanor of a fraud.
However, what would a fraud sound like anyway?
The Dishonesty Researchers
Dr. Gino’s academic career took off relatively late. After growing up in Tione di Trento, a small town in Italy, she obtained a Ph.D. in economics and management from an Italian university in 2004 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Business School. Surprisingly, she did not receive any tenure-track offers in the United States after completing her fellowship.
She had a romanticized view of American academic life and feared that she would have to settle for a consulting job or a university position in Italy, where she had a lead. “I have a vivid memory of being in an airport somewhere in Europe – I think in Frankfurt – in tears,” she recollected.
The job she eventually secured was a two-year role as a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, thanks to a Harvard mentor convincing a former student on the faculty to give her a chance.
Dr. Gino can come across as formal in conversation. The slight unnaturalness of her non-native English, combined with the jargon of business school, results in phrases like “the most important aspect is to embrace a learning mindset” and “I believe we’re going to progress positively.” However, she also displays determination. “I am an organized person – I get things done,” she mentioned. Additionally, she stated, “It can take a long time to publish papers. I control what I can and work at my own pace and rigor.”
Dr. Gino made a name for herself at Carnegie Mellon by demonstrating a strong work ethic. “She thrived on and put more pressure on herself than anyone else,” said Sam Swift, a graduate student in the same department. Shortly after starting, Dr. Gino resurrected a stagnant project and, within weeks, completed an entire paper draft that was later published.
Following her time at Carnegie Mellon, she accepted a position as an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina in 2008. While regarded as a respectable institution, it was not considered a major behavioral research hub. Nevertheless, several projects she had initiated years earlier began appearing in academic journals, often with prominent co-authors. Her prolific publication output in a short span of time propelled her into the spotlight.
One of her frequent collaborators was Dr. Ariely, who transitioned from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Duke University around the same time Dr. Gino arrived at North Carolina. Dr. Ariely gained public attention with the release of his best-selling book, “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,” earlier that year.
The book introduced the general public to the idiosyncrasies of human reasoning that economists had traditionally overlooked due to the assumption that individuals act in their own self-interest. Behavioral science appeared to offer simple solutions to irrational behavior, such as inadequate savings or deferred medical visits. It capitalized on the popularity of social science, as bestsellers like Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” and Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s “Freakonomics” found success.
Dr. Gino and Dr. Ariely became frequent co-authors, publishing over ten papers together in the following six years. Dishonesty became one of their main research interests, a relatively new focus for Dr. Gino. While these papers were just a portion of her vast output, many of them created a significant impact. One study discovered that individuals tend to imitate cheating behavior within their social circle, implying that cheating can be contagious. Another suggested that creative individuals are more prone to dishonesty.