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Making minced meat of a thesis

Making minced meat of a thesis

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Series on the dilemmas of scientific integrity: part 1

You are on an assessment committee as a professor and you feel that the quality of the thesis concerned is below standard. At the same time, the five articles meet the required scientific standard, because they have all been published. Do you make a point of it or not?

He has personally experienced it on one occasion. Hans Nelen, Professor of Criminology, was on an assessment committee as an external member, read through a thesis from another university and serious feelings of doubt crept over him right from the start. 

Some subquestions were impossible to answer with the method used by the PhD candidate. “That is a serious objection. So, on the form containing the question ‘do you feel that the candidate can be accepted to defend this thesis’, I filled in No. That is not something you do lightly. The PhD candidate has put his heart and soul into it and most likely gone to great lengths to finish the job.” 

A few days later, there was a meeting. Nelen was the only one who had rejected the thesis, even though other members (five in total) also had their doubts. “It was a painful meeting for the supervisors, who were present and whom I know well. It seemed as if the research had gotten off on the wrong track right from the beginning: why hadn’t they intervened? One supervisor became angry, felt that the criticism went too far. It was not a pleasant discussion.”

One chapter was removed from the thesis and a series of passages adapted in other places. “The university concerned had the rule that PhD candidates are given plenty of time to carry out corrections, six months in this instance. This varies per university. In Maastricht it is sink or swim, unless the adaptations are only minor ones.”

And if it is below standard? “Then there is only one conclusion: the PhD candidate cannot defend the thesis. I am of the impression that this rarely happens, but as an institute, when you are in for a penny you are in for a pound.”

Lack of time

What if a manuscript consists of articles that have already been published in journals, and so have already undergone a scientific review? That is seldom the case in the field of Law, slightly more often in Criminology but in Medicine it is run of the mill. The texts have been screened before publication by fellow scientists who have nothing to do with the study. This is called peer review, an important assessment system in science. Still, you should not be blinded by this, Nelen warns.

“Since the number of publications has risen exponentially in the last decade, I receive weekly requests to review articles. I don’t always have time, so I frequently decline such requests. I am not the only one to do so. Sometimes journals just cannot find people and they make do with scientists who are not so familiar with a particular field or who are in an adjacent field. Or they come across researchers who do say yes but who, through lack of time, return only superficial comments.”

Perverse

This is not a shortcoming that affects only peers, but also some members on the assessment committee. “As chairman I once had a committee member write a single sentence regarding a thesis: ‘I agree with acceptance.’ Inappropriate and, even though the PhD candidate doesn’t get to hear that, it is a pure insult. You wonder how well the committee member looked at the thesis.”

The university that Nelen is involved in externally, had a form that forced committee members to provide in-depth comments. Itemised by category: structure, setup, presentation of the question, academic value, soundness, et cetera. “The UM has recently included a list with criteria in its PhD regulations, which the members can use to assess a thesis.  

Nelen says that the fact that scientists sometimes take the easy way out, cannot be viewed separately from the frightful increase in the number of theses. “We are approached more frequently than ever before for all kinds of committees. Moreover: just how critical do we want to be, because there is possibly a perverse side to the matter. Universities receive eighty to ninety thousand euro for every thesis produced. Some of that money is passed on to the faculties. The more PhDs, the more money.”

Muddling on

Another dilemma is formed by the external PhD candidates, those who do not hold a position at the university but who are supervised by UM professors. “If they are not good enough, they won’t make the final hurdle. But what if they are on the borderline? Some supervisors consider the facts that they have come from far, that they have had sketchy former education in their country of origin, that the PhD will contribute towards homeland development, et cetera. Are these sound arguments? Should you have double standards?”

At the Faculty of Law there is an important progress discussion after one year. If the researcher has an insufficient hold on the subject matter, supervision is discontinued. Nelen has recently said farewell to two external PhD students. “The one just couldn’t sit still long enough to produce a thesis and was too practical, lacked the academic attitude. The other didn’t make enough progress because of a personal situation and felt as if a weight had been lifted. You allow other PhD students to muddle on for too long, yes, that happens. At the moment I have somebody who has been going for ten years. Not nothing, but I have faith in the final result.”

Is he not afraid that an assessment committee will make minced meat of the thesis? “No, not at all, but that chance is always present and that will put a dent in you too because your estimations were incorrect. Anyway, it has never happened to me that the majority of the committee rejected a thesis by one of my PhD students. Then you really look like a fool.” 

It reminds him of professors who sometimes supervise up to twenty PhD students simultaneously. “That is impossible. It makes you wonder if the faculty should then intervene. More so because such a professor also has to publish and teach. A good thing these days is that every PhD student has two supervisors, because four eyes are more compelling.”

Scenes

Then there is another interesting matter, according to the criminologist: who determines who is on the assessment committee? “This is officially the rector, but in practice the supervisor chooses the members. I hold my colleagues in high esteem and haven’t noticed anything strange, but it is not unthinkable that a supervisor thinks: ‘I am not so sure about this thesis, I will approach some friends, people whom I know won’t be difficult. At the back of his mind, maybe thinking: I wasn’t difficult when they asked me. One good turn deserves another. Research is carried out in circuits in which people get along well with each other, or not.”

Those who are known to be critical, will not quickly be invited. Maybe that applies to Nelen himself. Amused: “I have indeed never been asked to be a committee member again by the two professors that felt that they had been put through the wringer.”

A series of dilemmas

Together with the Platform for Research Ethics and Integrity, Observant has drawn up a series of dilemmas that researchers may face. They will be published every week in Observant.

The Platform for Research Ethics and Integrity, which was set up in 2018, has set itself the objective to promote a healthy research culture at the UM. They do so by making researchers aware of the pitfalls and by starting a discussion on the subject.

For quite some time, PhD candidates have been able to involve a confidential adviser in cases of conflicts with colleagues, just like every researcher can do with the UM confidential adviser. Should the conflict touch on scientific integrity, a report will be filed with the Committee for Scientific Integrity. They have been investigating complaints of scientific misconduct since 2012. This was prompted, among others, by the Stapel Affair, in which a psychology professor from Tilburg was exposed as a fraud.

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