New code of conduct for independent research and research integrity

Whereas previously there were separate codes of conduct for scientific integrity for the research universities and the universities of applied sciences, there is now a new code of conduct applicable to both. The common code is a token of emancipation for the universities of applied sciences. A logical development as practice-oriented research at universities of applied sciences is gaining in importance. Why is a code needed and how will it benefit scientists and society?

In recent years it has become apparent that Dutch scientists are not holier than thou. In 2010, it became clear that former Social Psychology professor Diederik Stapel had committed fraud and more affairs came to light in the years that followed. That in itself is reason enough for a new code of conduct. But there is also a social tendency for certain politicians to ignore the difference between an opinion and a (scientific) fact. Think of the term ‘fact-free politics’. That demands guidelines that clarify what is and is not science, guidelines that strengthen the legitimacy of science.

Clumsy research

As member of the Research Committee of the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, Professor Vincent Smit (Metropolitan Development) saw various draft codes of conduct pass by. He is satisfied with the final result. “There are clear frameworks to prevent fraud. The code makes a distinction between violations of scientific integrity, questionable behaviour and slight shortcomings. There are now even guidelines for the grey area, clumsy research.”

Proportional response

It is not always about ruthless fraud or blatant deceit. “There is also questionable research and that is more complicated to identify. For instance, when things go wrong due to amateurism or laziness and not through manipulation. If there is a complaint in that area, you can now deal with it proportionately and do not need to directly hang the researcher out to dry.”

Discussion with the commissioning party

Scientists at universities of applied sciences don’t work in ivory towers. Universities of applied sciences do practice-oriented research, all parties are close to professional practice and work with all kinds of parties. When there is a commissioning party who provides (part of the) money, there are always certain wishes. That can lead to tension, because how far can that go? Vincent: “With this code on the table it is easier to enter discussions with a commissioning party. You can say: We have signed this code, so we act according to the principles of honesty, diligence, transparency, independence and accountability.” And that of course means they can pay for the question but not for the answer. We have to keep that conviction alive.

Education

As well as being important for research, the code is also indirectly important for education. “It is also a relevant document for Degree Programme Advisory Committees, education managers and thesis supervisors. You can say that a thesis is about learning research, that there is no need to be so strict, but it is also a good opportunity to teach the students the rules for research integrity. If you allow a student to write down only what the commissioning party wants to hear, you are not doing your job as a degree programme.

Data management

Universities of applied sciences, research universities and research institutes have until 2020 to comply with the code of conduct. That will be quite a job in some areas. Vincent: “In data management for instance, we still have a lot of work to do. How do you save research materials, interviews and surveys according to the guidelines? Our library is working on this.”

Encouragement

Is such a code not a bureaucratic chain holding a researcher down? Vincent: “You can of course grumble and moan about all the things you need to comply with, and that you see it as a sort of list to check off. I advocate reading the code in such a way that it encourages you to safeguard your independence and gives you room to ask new questions. Then it will be a document that inspires you to do innovative research.”

 

A few notable elements in the code

  • The new code of conduct is written so that it applies to both private and public-private scientific research in the Netherlands.
  • The code of conduct expressly offers room for collaboration and multi-disciplinarity: the code considers the differences between the (research) institutes. The code of conduct defines five principles of scientific integrity, 61 standards for good research practices and duties of care for the institutes.
  • The duties of care for the institutes are new in the code of conduct. The research organisations hereby show their responsibility for creating a working environment which encourages and safeguards good research practices.
  • Furthermore, the new code of conduct for scientific integrity makes the distinction between violations of scientific integrity, questionable behaviour and slight shortcomings.
  • The final chapter describes how institutes must tackle potential violations of scientific integrity.
  • On the one hand, the code gives room to institutes to arrive at a balanced judgement about potential violations of scientific integrity, on the other it gives the criteria that play an explicit role in that.