TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — A top Florida State University professor whose research focused on race in the criminal justice system abruptly left his post in the wake of years-long allegations of academic fraud.
A Fellow of the American Society of Criminology, Eric Stewart has had six research studies retracted, blemishing FSU’s top-ranked criminology department. Stewart was first accused of falsifying data in 2019 by Professor Justin Pickett of the University of Albany, who co-authored a 2011 study with Stewart.
The study tested if the public’s prejudicial views impacted their desire for harsher sentences for black and hispanic Americans. The published findings were that as black and hispanic populations grew, so did the public’s want for more discriminatory sentences. Except – Pickett discovered – this was not the case.
In the original data, no relationship was found between growing minority populations and demands for increased sentences. If anything, Pickett pointed out, it was quite the opposite.
Pickett found that their sample size somehow had increased from 500 to over 1,000 respondents, the counties polled had decreased from 326 to 91, and the data was altered to the point of mathematical impossibility.
BOTCHED INQUIRY YIELDS INNOCENCE: “LYNCHED ME AND MY ACADEMIC CAREER”
When Pickett brought the altered research to Stewart’s attention, he was stalled. Stewart – supported by his other co-authors– refused to give Pickett a copy of the original data for over four months. They stated that jumping to conclusions without giving Stewart time to explain himself was unfair.
This study, along with four more written by Stewart, ranging from 2006 to 2015, were retracted amidst this debate – leading to FSU finally agreeing to a small-scale inquiry. Made up of a three-person committee, the inquiry’s purpose was to decide if an investigation was necessary.
Two of the three individuals on FSU’s inquiry committee, however, had co-authored studies with Stewart – directly contradicting FSU’s conflict of interest policy.
The inquiry team made no effort to sequester Stewart’s original data or interview those who had filed the allegations – two further ignored steps in inquiry proceedings.
During this process, Stewart told school administrators that Pickett’s claims “essentially lynched me and my academic character” – taking on greater weight considering 5 out of his 6 retracted studies are race-related, and Stewart himself is black.
The committee stated they did not find enough evidence for fraud nor to move forward with an investigation, seemingly ending the dispute.
AND THE MAGIC NUMBER IS… SIX?
That is, however, until June of 2020, when a new allegation over a sixth retracted work reached the university, reinitiating an inquiry and resulting investigation. And this time, it did not come up short.
Professor Stewart’s 16-year FSU career appears to have ended, signaled by his abrupt March 2023 absence. His sudden, unexplained replacement may indicate the looming end of the investigation, with enough evidence of fraud discovered to justify termination.
Stewart, who earned nearly $190,000 per year, couldn’t be reached for comment, while FSU declined to discuss his tenure and mid-March departure.
“TOO MUCH INCENTIVE TO FAKE DATA, TOO LITTLE OVERSIGHT”
Though Professor Pickett declined to discuss the investigation, he did tell The Florida Standard of the immense pressure for professors to publish or perish. He explained the gaping accountability loopholes in research, citing that 1 in 50 scientists have admitted to faking data.
“There’s a huge monetary incentive to falsify data and there’s no accountability. If you do this, the probability you’ll get caught is so, so low.” Pickett said that those who co-author studies are usually friends and unlikely to report a colleague’s fraud. If it is reported, the university will rarely act. He highlighted Duke University’s recent fraud scandal, in which they paid upwards of $100 million for a large-scale cover-up.
“There’s too much incentive to fake data and too little oversight.”