Ethics and misconduct – Review of a play organized by the Young Academy (KNAW)

This is a guest blog post by Joost Kosten. Joost is PhD student at CWTS and member of the EPIC working group. His research focuses on the use of research indicators from the perspective of public policy. Joost obtained an MSc in Public Administration (Leiden University) and was also trained in Political Science (Stockholm University) and Law (VU University Amsterdam).

Scientific (mis)conduct – The sins, the drama, the identification

On Tuesday November 18th 2014 the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences organized a performance of the play Gewetenschap by Tony Maples at Leiden University. These weeks, Pandemonia Science Theater is on tour in the Netherlands to perform this piece at several universities. Gewetenschap was inspired by occasional troubles with respect to ethics and integrity which recently occurred in Dutch science and scholarship. Although these troubles concerned grave violations of the scientific code of conduct (i.e., the cardinal sins of fraud, fabrication, and plagiarism) the play focusses on common dilemma’s in a researcher’s everyday life. The title Gewetenschap is a non-existent word, which combines the Dutch words geweten (conscience) and wetenschap (science).

The playwright used confidential interviews with members of the Young Academy to gain insight into the most frequently occurring ethical dilemma’s researchers have to deal with. Professor Karin de Zwaan is a research group leader who has hardly any time to do research herself. She puts much effort in organizing grants, attracting new students and organizing her research group. Post-doc Jeroen Dreef is a very active researcher who does not have enough time to take organizational responsibilities serious. A tenure track is all he wants. Given their other important activities, Karin and Jeroen hardly have any time to supervise PhD student Lotte. One could question the type of support they do give her.

At times, given the reaction on scenes of the drama piece, the topics presented were clearly recognized by the audience. Afterwards, the dilemma’s touched upon during the play are presented by prof. Bas Haring. The audience discusses the following topics:

  • Is there a conflict between the research topics a researcher likes himself and what the research group expects her/him to do?
  • In one of the scenes, the researchers were delighted because of the acceptance of a publication. Haring asks if that exhibits “natural behaviour”. Shouldn’t a researcher be happy with good results instead of a publication being accepted? One of the participants replies that a publication functions as a reward.
  • What do you do with your data? Is endless application of a diversity analysis methods until you find nice results a responsible approach?
  • What about impact factors (IF)? Bas Haring himself says his IF is 0. “Do you think I am an idiot?” Which role do numbers such as the IF play in your opinion about colleagues? There seems to be quite a diversity of opinions. An early career research says everone knows these numbers are nonsense. An experienced scientist points out that there is a correlation between scores and quality. Someone else expresses his optimism since he expects that this focus on numbers will be over with ten years. This causes another to respond that in the past there was competition too, but in a different way.
  • When is someone a co-author? This question results in a lively debate. Apparently, there are considerable differences from field to field. In the medical fields, a co-authorship can be a way to express gratitude to authors who have played a vital role in a research project, such as people who could organize experimental subjects. In this way, a co-authorship becomes a tradeable commodity. A medicine professor points out that in his field, co-authorships can be used to compare a curriculum vitae with the development of status as a researcher. Thus, it can be used as a criterion to judge grant proposals. A good researcher should start with first position co-authorships, later on should have co-authorships somewhere in between the first and last author, and should end his career with papers in which has co-authorships in the last position. Thus, the further the career has been developed, the more the name of the other should be in the final part of the author list. Another participant states that one can deal with co-authorships in three different ways: 1. Co-authors should always have full responsibility for everything in the paper. 2. Similar to openness which is given at the end of a movie, co-authors should clarify what each co-author’s contribution was. 3. Only those who really contributed in writing a paper can be a co-author. The participant admits that this last proposal works in his own field but might not work in other fields.
  • Can a researcher exaggerate his findings if he presents them to journalists? Should you keep control over a journalist’s work in order to avoid that he will present things differently? Is it allowed to present untruth information in order to help support your case, just to avoid that a proper scientific argumentation will be too complex for the man in the street?
  • Is it allowed to to present your work as having more societal relevance than you really expect? One of the reactions is that researchers are forced to express the societal relevance of their work when they apply for a grant. From the very nature of scientific research it is hardly possible to clearly indicate what society will gain from the results.
  • What does a good relationship between a PhD-student and a supervisor look like? What is a good balance between serving the interests of PhD students, serving organizational interests (e.g. the future of the organization by attracting new students and grants), and the own interest of the researcher?

The discussion did not concentrate on the following dilemma´s presented in Gewetenschap:

  • To what extent are requirements for grant proposals contradictory? On the one hand, researchers are expected to think ‘out-of-the-box’ while on the other hand they should meet a large amount of requirements. Moreover, should one propose new ideas including the risks which come along, or is it better to walk on the beaten path in order to guarantee successes?
  • Should colleagues who did not show respect be served with the same sauce if you have a chance to review their work? Should you always judge scientific work on its merits? Are there any principles of ‘due process’ which should guide peer review?
  • Whose are the data if someone contributed to them but moves to another research group or institute?

 

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