As Samuel West combed through a paper that found a link between watching cartoon violence and aggression in children, he noticed something odd about the study participants. There were more than 3000—an unusually large number—and they were all 10 years old. “It was just too perfect,” says West, a Ph.D. student in social psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Yet West added the 2019 study, published in Aggressive Behavior and led by psychologist Qian Zhang of Southwest University of Chongqing, to his meta-analysis after a reviewer asked him to cast a wider net. West didn’t feel his vague misgivings could justify excluding it from the study pool. But after Aggressive Behavior published West’s meta-analysislast year, he was startled to find that the journal was investigating Zhang’s paper while his own was under review.
It is just one of many papers of Zhang’s that have recently been called into question, casting a shadow on research into the controversial question of whether violent entertainment fosters violent behavior. Zhang denies any wrongdoing, but two papers have been retracted. Others live on in journals and meta-analyses—a “major problem” for a field with conflicting results and entrenched camps, says Amy Orben, a cognitive scientist at the University of Cambridge who studies media and behavior. And not just for the ivory tower, she says: The research shapes media warning labels and decisions by parents and health professionals.