Published in News

Harvard Boffin studying business honesty lied in her reports

by on26 June 2023

Excel can be used to make you less honest 

Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, who investigated business honesty, wrote reports which contained fraudulent data three business school professors allege.

The boffins wrote that they first contacted Harvard Business School in autumn 2021 with concerns of academic misconduct by Gino.

"Specifically, we wrote a report about four studies for which we had accumulated the strongest evidence of fraud. We believe that many more Gino-authored papers contain fake data," the three wrote in a blog post last week. 

Their allegations appear in several blog posts on a blog called Data Colada — the first of which offers this update:

Gino has gone on "administrative leave", and the name of her chaired position at Harvard Business School is no longer listed on her web page. Harvard requested that three of the four papers mentioned in the report are retracted.

A fourth paper, discussed in today's post, had already been retracted, but we understand that Harvard requested the retraction notice be amended to include mention of this (additional) fraud.

The fraud was based on a quirk of Microsoft's Excel files which are bundled zip files, that Excel combines to produce a single spreadsheet. For instance, one file in that bundle has all the numeric values that appear on a spreadsheet, another has all the character entries, another the formatting information (e.g., Calibri vs. Cambria font), etc.

A file called calcChain.xml. tells Excel in which order to carry out the calculations in the spreadsheet. It tells Excel something like "First solve the formula in cell A1, then the one in A2, then B1, etc." CalcChain is short for 'calculation chain'.

The image below shows how, when one unzips the posted Excel file, one can navigate to this calcChain.xml file. CalcChain is so useful here because it will tell you whether a cell (or row) containing a formula has been moved, and where it has been moved to. That means that we can use calcChain to go back and see what this spreadsheet may have looked like back in 2010, before it was altered.

Those investigating Gino used calcChain to see whether there is evidence that the rows that were out of sequence, and that showed huge effects on the key dependent variables, had been fiddled with and found the proof.

One study on honesty had also asked college students what year they were in school — and somehow 35 had all replied with a non-answer, giving as their year in school "Harvard." And suspiciously, all but one of these 35 entries were especially likely to confirm the authors' hypothesis. "This strongly suggests that these 'Harvard' observations were altered to produce the desired effect."

Apple's favourite newspaper The New York Times points out that this paper "has been cited hundreds of times by other scholars, but more recent work had cast serious doubt on its findings."


Last modified on 26 June 2023
Rate this item
(1 Vote)

Read more about: