One of the most successful German business professors is currently facing awkward questions about his scientific conduct. Ulrich Lichtenthaler, who is affiliated with the University of Mannheim, has come under suspicion of inflating his publication record using unethical methods.
Additionally, a number of his published papers apparently contain severe mathematical errors and methodological inconsistencies.
In the last couple of weeks, two academic journals – “Research Policy” and “Strategic Organization” – officially retracted three papers by Lichtenthaler. “This is only the tip of the iceberg”, asserted a researcher familiar with the investigations speaking to me on the condition of anonymity. “There is much more to come.”
Several people who looked into the matter are convinced that the whole affair has the potential to turn into a major academic scandal. One academic told me that “Industrial and Corporate Change” and the “Strategic Management Journal” are also preparing retractions.
Ulrich Lichtenthaler himself acknowledges failures in some of his work. In a written statement his office send to me on his behalf, he stated that he himself informed the administration of the University of Mannheim “weeks ago” about “unintentional errors” in his work. “He wants to stress that the mistakes happened unconsciously. Mr. Lichtenthaler himself takes a great interest into elucidating all aspects quickly.” Referring to ongoing investigations by his university, he refused to answer any specific questions, though.
“The boy who gets everything right”
The thirty-three-year old used to be the undisputed shooting star of business science in Germany and has an incredible publication record. Since 2004, Lichtenthaler has published more papers in international renowned journals than almost any other German business professor. The database used for the Handelsblatt research ranking lists a total of 50 publications. 21 of them were published in 2007 and 2008. Among other journals, Lichtenthaler published in leading outlets like the “Academy of Management Journal”, “Organizational Science” and the “Journal of Product Innovation Management”.
Given his amazing productivity, in 2009 the German association of business professors (Verband der Hochschullehrer für Betriebswirtschaftslehre) awarded a prestigious prize for young researchers to him. In the same year, he topped the Handelsblatt list of the most productive business researchers below 40 albeit he was one of the youngest academics in the list. Last year, he was hired as a full professor by the University of Mannheim which is – according to numerous rankings – the leading business department in Germany.
In 2009, we published a portrait about Lichtenthaler’s amazing career in Handelsblatt. With the benefit of hindsight, the headline seems to be ironic: “The boy who gets everything right”. He told my colleague Anja Müller that despite his striking research output, he wasn’t considering himself a workaholic and that “academic enthusiasm” keeps him going. He claimed that he wasn’t working more than 40 hours per week and did not do any academic work on Sundays. “I just started to publish early and was dissed occasionally when the submitted articles did not live up to the expectations of the referees.”
Too productive by half?
About half a year ago, a small group of academics privately started to question this academic flight of fancy. An alert academic who was refereeing a paper submitted by Lichtenthaler had a hunch that he had seen the same paper by the same author before but in a different journal. A cross reference to that work was missing, though.
Publishing similar or closely related paper twice without cross referencing is considered unethical in academia, partly because it unnecessarily consumes the unpaid work of other researchers who act as referees for the journal. Redundant publications – also called self-plagiarism – clog up the work flow of the editorial process and eat up precious space in academic journals.
Last year, the Swiss economist Bruno Frey was publicly rebuked by a several of economic journals because he published similar papers without cross-referencing them. Eventually, the University of Zurich forced Frey into retirement because of his misconduct.
This sceptic referee teamed up with a small group of academic friends. They started to sift through big parts of Lichtenthalers published work. As I’m told, the results were devastating. Allegedly, they discovered rampant self-plagiarism as well as much more severe misconduct.
The self-appointed investigators apparently collected tons of evidence and sent it over to the affected journals.
The accusations in detail
One of the first journals to react was “Research Policy”, an Elsevier journal specialised in “the interaction between innovation, technology or research, on the one hand, and economic, social, political and organizational processes”. “Research Policy” has a history of making no casualties when cracking down on scientific misconduct. It’s editors were in the forefront of uncovering the serial plagiarit Hans Werner Gottinger (here’s a summary of the Gottinger affair).
This week, „Research Policy“ retracted two papers published by Lichtenthaler in 2009 und 2010. The editorial board of the journal also published an extensive and devastating explanation on its website. (The excellent blog Retraction Watch was the first one to report about this.)
According to this document, there were three major issues related to the papers
In both cases, “the author failed to disclose … the existence of other closely related papers by the same author”, the document says and accuses him of hoodwinking the journal: “the referees and editors … were misled as to the level of originality of each Research Policy paper … If they had been aware of those parallel papers, they would almost certainly have concluded that each of the two papers in question did not represent a sufficiently substantial and original contribution to knowledge in its own right to merit publication in a leading journal like Research Policy.”
2) Dodgy empirical design
In both cases, “Research Policy” accuses Lichtenthaler of having been “been inconsistent in his treatment of the variables”. They give two concrete examples: “variables treated as important in the 2009 Research Policy paper are disregarded in another parallel paper (…) and vice versa.”
In the other case, the analysis of three sister publications apparently reveals “an omitted variable bias problem that would invalidate the conclusions of the Research Policy 2010 paper”.
The editors come to an explosive conclusion: “In both cases, this raises severe doubts as to the validity and robustness of the conclusions drawn in the two Research Policy papers (and indeed in the other parallel papers).” They explicitly refer to four additional papers by Lichtenthaler that were published in “R&D Management”, the “Journal of Product Innovation Management”, “Strategic Organization” and in “Organization Science”.
One of the people familiar with the details of the cases privately told me that Lichtenthalers conduct looks like he was trying to disguise his concurrent publications.
In one of the two papers retracted by “Research Poliy”, non significant results were erroneously labeled as significant. The editors stress that this problem was highlighted by Lichtenthaler himself: “the author wrote to acknowledge a third problem with the Research Policy 2009 paper, namely that the statistical significance of several of the findings had been misreported or exaggerated”.
Lichtenthaler asked to withdraw the paper but the editors declined this wish: “by then the editorial decision to retract that paper on the original two grounds listed above had already been taken”.
Wrong information regarding the statistical significance of results are the reason for the third retraction of the third paper by Lichtenthaler, that was published in „Strategic Organization“. Embarrassingly, that was a paper Lichtenthaler jointly wrote with his PhD advisor, Holger Ernst at the private WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Vallendar. Russ Coff, the editor of “Strategic Organization”, confirmed that Lichtenthaler approached the journal, took full responsibility for the errors and asked to retract the paper. I asked him why they decided against printing just a correction of the faulty results. “The tables could have been corrected but the core findings were invalid so retracting the article made more sense”, Russ Coff answered.
He also gave me a more detailed description of the statistical issues:
“Most statistical tests examine our confidence that a regression coefficient is significantly different from zero. In its simplest form, such a test is calculated based on the ratio of a coefficient estimate and its standard deviation.
Even a large estimated coefficient would not be significant if the standard deviation is also very large. Generally, the lowest ratio to be statistically significant would be about 1.65 (though there are other factors that determine this). A high level of significance would require a ratio closer to 2.5. Thus, one can look at any table and expect significant coefficients to be around twice the value of their standard deviation (or more).
In the paper, you will find that, in some cases where the ratio of the coefficient to its standard deviation are low (well under 1.6), the coefficient is marked as being statistically significant (typically marked with a * or†).
These are the errors in reporting and they are easily spotted if you know what you are looking for. These errors are especially an issue for hypothesized effects as opposed to control variables.”
Reactions of the universities, so far
In a comment Russ Coff left on the blog StrategyProfs.net, he also pointed out that similar issues seem to be rampant in Lichtenthalers work:
“it appears to be part of a pattern across a number of articles published in a variety of well-respected journals.”
Lichtenthaler’s employer, the University of Mannheim, told me that learned about the issues from Lichtenthaler on 8 June. Three days later, they received a letter from “Research Policy”.
They decided to start a formal investigation. However, the commission that is going to look at the case, has not started its work yet. Additionally, it is not yet clear if they will ask independent external referees to look at the matter or if they will just deal with the issues internally. Last year, when the accusations against Bruno Frey emerged, the University of Zurich immediately started an external audit of Frey’s conduct. (However, the remit of the referees was ridiculously narrow.)
The WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Vallendar, where Lichtenthaler made his PhD habilitated and worked until last year, acted more swiftly. The university commissioned three external academics to investigate Lichtenthalers scientific conduct. “We will thoroughly illuminate the whole issue”, the dean Michael Frenkel told me. Frenkel pledged that there will be “full transparency”. He admitted that he was shocked by the whole event:
“If the accusations turn out to be true, this is completely inacceptable.”
In 2009, Lichtenthaler told my colleague Anja Müller that up to that point, his academic career sometimes was rocky but generally accelerating. Now, his fortunes might have changed.