What can you do when someone is accused, through evil intention, of violating scientific integrity? How often does this happen? How can you recognise it? These questions arose last Monday during a symposium in Amsterdam. It also became apparent how much consternation and agitation the basra reed warbler has brought about.
It started in 2018 with a complaint lodged with the Committee for Scientific Integrity, (Commissie Wetenschappelijke Integriteit, CWI) by Leiden University. A biologist cast doubt on the reliability of a brooding study of the basra reed warbler. The complaint – an incoherent story - was not deemed admissible, but the complainant didn't let up.
He terrorised administrators and scientists by sending them, at times, fifty e-mails a day. “While cc'ing the whole world,” says the committee chairperson Yvonne Erkens, one of the speakers from Leiden. “In the e-mails, a professor, the rector and the members of the Central Committee for Medical Ethics were dragged through the mire.”
A researcher in the audience speaks out and says that this biologist has also harassed him. It had tremendous impact, the man said. Then a CWI employee from Ghent University raises her hand. She knows the complainant too.
Leiden University certainly appears not to have been his first target. He has also stalked other universities, as well as the National Ombudsman, but also the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (Landelijk Orgaan Wetenschappelijke Integriteit, LOWI). According to chairman Roel Fernhout, one of the speakers, he threatened to publish blacklists. His predecessor, Kees Schuyt, even travelled to the north of the country to speak to the man. It was then quiet for a while.
Leiden issued a warning to the complainant: should he send one more letter or e-mail, he would be summoned and held responsible for damages. No more was heard from the biologist.
How should one deal with incorrect or mala fide complaints concerning scientific integrity? The symposium, set up by The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and the Netherlands Research Integrity Network (NRIN), which was held last Monday, was all about this question. It was prompted by a column by Harald Merckelbach at the beginning of this year in NRC newspaper. In his column, the Maastricht forensic psychologist illustrates how one can shut scientists up who carry out disagreeable research, simply by sending a complaint to the scientific integrity committee. It is a tactic that the American lobbyist organisations such as the National Rifle Association are notorious for.
What exactly is a mala fide complaint? It is a complaint made in bad faith, meant to damage others. “The motive can be personal gain or revenge,” says VU professor of Methodology and Integrity Lex Bouter in his speech. “There are also what I call the Machiavellians, who complain with the aim of making colleagues lose ground. And lastly, there are the people who are crazy, who send confusing messages with lots of capital letters and exclamation marks to umpteen e-mail addresses.”
How can you recognise a malicious complaint? “Many of these complainants don't work in a controlled way,” says Bouter, basing himself on experience and anecdotal stories. “They often wait long without good reason. They also usually target one person, leaving out any co-authors.”
Nothing is known about the number of mala fide complaints, says Bouter. Everyone in the hall continually refers to that one biologist, who according to some is clearly suffering from psychiatric problems. “What does happen a lot, though, is that the complaint does not concern scientific integrity, but comes from an academic difference of opinion or a labour conflict.”
Leiden rector Carel Stolker says he hardly ever comes up against mala fide individuals. “But he does come up against citizens who want to be helpful. Universities want to involve them in research, using citizen science, open access, open science. Ridiculous complaints are the price you pay for that. Besides, I also receive complaints about professors Paul Cliteur [chairman of the parliamentary party Forum voor Democratie in the Upper Chamber] and Afshin Ellian [a conservative publicist]. Why I don't just chuck them out of the university? I would say, talk to them. As a university, we have finally left the ivory tower and I would like to keep it that way for a while.”
According to Stolker, there is a huge benefit to be gained from the accessibility of standards and regulations. “The information is now spread over the LOWI and local committees. We need to present this in a more orderly manner and remove the contradictions. You can’t reasonably hold people accountable to rules that they can hardly be aware of.”
The rector adds that a safe culture is also crucial for scientific integrity. “You must be able to discuss sensitive matters and call people to account.” By far the greatest source of concern is the PhD candidates. “They are completely at the mercy of their supervisors. You can never get away from them, because you constantly meet your supervisors, in NWO committees or wherever. That is why these young researchers are so hesitant to make a complaint.”
Fouling one's own nest
It is not the mala fide complaints that are the biggest problem, but the non-reporting of the bona fide complaints. That is what Frits Rosendaal, professor of Clinical Epidemiology, also from Leiden, says. He joined the speakers during the final panel discussion. “Sometimes, things only reach the surface after years.”
Rosendaal distributed a survey to all CWIs and came to approximately fifty complaints made per year on a national level, including the inadmissible ones. At LOWI, the number of cases rises every year; this is where employees at academic institutions appeal against a decision made by their own board. Chairman Fernhout is surprised that he never gets complaints from academic institutions that are not related to universities. “While I do read all about them in the newspaper.”
Bouter concludes with a ray of hope. During his lectures on scientific integrity about five years ago, there were always a few people who became angry. “Submitting a complaint against a colleague was the same as fouling one's own nest. That absolutely did not happen at their institute or in their discipline. I never hear that anymore. In the meantime, people have become aware that looking away is useless.”