Celebrated food researcher to step down after research is questioned

Brian Wansink may have helped shape our country's relationship with food. As director of Cornell University'...

Posted: Sep 21, 2018 6:16 AM
Updated: Sep 21, 2018 6:16 AM

Brian Wansink may have helped shape our country's relationship with food. As director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab and in roles for the US Department of Agriculture, Wansink has led headline-grabbing research on healthy eating, portion control and food psychology.

But concerns about his research came to a head on Wednesday when leading medical journals retracted six of his articles, the Journal of the American Medical Association announced.

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On Thursday, he tendered his resignation after 14 years with the university, effective June 30, 2019. Soon after he told CNN that he stands by his findings, Cornell said an investigation had concluded that Wansink had committed academic misconduct.

In his career, Wansink appeared in multiple news outlets, including CNN, and oversaw such initiatives as the 2010 dietary guidelines and the food pyramid guide.

The journal's announcement nearly doubled the number of papers he's had retracted -- now 13 -- according to a database maintained by Retraction Watch, a blog that covers retractions in the scientific community.

Among the latest retractions is research suggesting that watching action-packed TV shows leads to greater food intake, that "hungry grocery shoppers buy more calories," that urging your child to clean their plate could backfire on their self-control around food, and that "preordering school lunch encourages better food choices by children."

Cornell University was urged to conduct an independent review of the research. In May, JAMA's editor in chief, Dr. Howard Bauchner, publicly expressed "ongoing concerns about the validity of these publications," which were published in JAMA and two of its specialty journals.

The university revealed the findings of its investigation Thursday.

"For more than a year, Cornell University has been engaged in reviewing allegations of misconduct against Professor Brian Wansink, many of which were highly public in their nature," Cornell University Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff said in a statement Thursday. "The committee found that Professor Wansink committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.

"Professor Wansink has tendered his resignation and will be retiring from Cornell at the end of this academic year. He has been removed from all teaching and research. Instead, he will be obligated to spend his time cooperating with the university in its ongoing review of his prior research."

Before Kotlikoff's statement was released, Wansink told CNN that the latest retractions caught him off-guard.

"This was quite a surprise," Wansink wrote in an email Thursday. "From what my coauthors and I believed, the independent analyses of our data sets confirmed all of our published findings."

Wansink said that he did not keep some of the original surveys and sheets that were used in his research. Some were filled out in paper and pencil more than two decades ago, he said. Wansink maintained that he's "very proud of all of these papers, and I'm confident they will be replicated by other groups."

The controversy surrounding Wansink's research was brewing for some time. One of his seven previously retracted articles was ultimately replaced -- and then retracted again. A 2017 review of four of Wansink's studies said that the "attempt to digest" them was "statistical heartburn."

Wansink is far from the only researcher to have more than a dozen retractions. Topping Retraction Watch's "leaderboard" are scientists with 183, 96 and 58 retractions. Wansink doesn't even make the top 30.

Reports have pointed to "a surge in withdrawn papers" over the years, underscoring what experts say are "weaknesses in the system for handling them," according to a 2011 paper in Nature. According to that paper, retraction notices multiplied tenfold in the previous decade, while the actual number of published papers increased by only 44%. Experts say this may be due in part to the fact that we're getting better at spotting flawed research -- though there may be much more that goes unnoticed.

The reasons for retraction range in seriousness from major errors (which cannot be fixed by corrections) to plagiarism to outright fraud. Researchers have been caught falsifying data and manipulating images, but they may also reanalyze data in subtler ways that will produce positive findings. Experts say that there is pressure on researchers to do this in order to draw in more funding.

Although retracted articles account for far less than 1% of published papers, they can have an outsize impact.

Famously, a retracted 1998 study reported that autism was linked to childhood vaccines. It was retracted after the lead researcher, who subsequently lost his medical license, was found to have altered or misrepresented information on study participants. Still, the paper led to some parents not vaccinating their children for measles, mumps and rubella.

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