"No violation of scientific integrity, but questionable behaviour”
MAASTRICHT. Did a UM professor of Cardiology commit a violation of scientific integrity or didn’t she? According to the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (LOWI), she did – at least on one of the many points raised by the complainant, a PhD student. The Executive Board has decided not to act on this LOWI opinion, although the rector does speak of “questionable behaviour”.
In the summer of 2019, a PhD student approached UM’s Committee for Scientific Integrity (CWI) with a long list of dubious research practices. She accused her supervisor, a professor of Cardiology, of things like manipulating images and deliberately naming the wrong technique to make grant applications more attractive. The young researcher also alleged that the professor had violated authorship rules. She’d come to the conclusion that these weren’t isolated incidents; the professor consistently committed research fraud. The complainant approached Observant with her story, backed by emails and other documents, to prevent the matter from being swept under the carpet. She also contacted the Dutch Whistleblowers Authority, a national organisation that officially qualified her as a whistleblower.
Not a violation
The CWI investigated the matter and concluded that, while the professor had made some mistakes and worked carelessly here and there, she had not intentionally violated scientific integrity. The committee only found one instance of “a dubious research practice”, namely when it came to authorship rules. This concerned an article that appeared in a dissertation (which the professor was responsible for). The whistleblower, one of its co-authors, says that neither she nor any other co-author approved the final version of the manuscript. Moreover, one of them, a German professor, didn’t know anything about it. His name had just been added to the list. While this was unacceptable, it did not constitute a violation of scientific integrity, found the CWI last year.
The complainant didn’t leave it at that. She approached LOWI, an independent advisory body that was established by various scientific organisations, including the Dutch universities. Its second opinion was recently published online. Like the CWI, LOWI doesn’t see a professor who intentionally committed fraud, but does call her way of working careless on several points. However, LOWI is much stricter when it comes to the matter of authorship: this did constitute a violation of scientific integrity.
How can this important difference be explained? Why did the CWI see 'only' questionable behaviour where LOWI sees a violation of integrity? The CWI took extenuating circumstances into account, namely “the research culture in which the dissertation was written” and the fact that the chapter (article) has not yet been published in a scientific journal. LOWI strongly disagrees with this: “Any problems in the research culture notwithstanding (…), the person concerned, as a corresponding author, must be held responsible for this serious violation of authorship rules.”
But the professor of Cardiology says she didn’t intentionally commit this violation; she wanted to prepare the chapter for publication in a scientific journal after the PhD defense, and meant to involve the co-authors and ask for their permission for the manuscript from that moment onwards.
Paying for it
In its final decision, the Executive Board has made “an exceptional move”, as Rector Rianne Letschert calls it, by deviating from the opinion of independent advisory body LOWI and following UM’s CWI instead. Yes, the professor had fallen short in some areas, hadn’t always worked carefully, and yes, she should have been quicker to give the co-authors the opportunity to comment on the chapter and should have informed the German professor earlier, but she doesn’t have to “spend the rest of her career paying for” this mistake. That’s why they see only “questionable behaviour”, says Letschert. “We take LOWI opinions very seriously, but in this case we find that the advice would lead to a disproportionate disadvantage for the accused.”
Code of conduct
Letschert defends the Executive Board’s decision based on the new code of conduct for research integrity that was established by the Dutch scientific world in 2018. The CWI also used this code to assess the whistleblower’s allegations. LOWI, however, based its opinion on the old code of conduct (established in 2004 and amended in 2014), as the grant applications and articles in question date from before 1 October 2018 (before the new code of conduct came into effect).
According to Letschert, there is a reason why the new code of conduct was established. She says that Dutch universities wanted more comprehensive assessment criteria so that more minor offences wouldn’t automatically have to be met with the most severe verdicts. (See the second box for details). In view of “the scope allowed by the transitional rules where the old code of conduct would unintentionally have disproportionately adverse consequences”, the Executive Board has made its own assessment in this case. Various criteria were considered. For example, Letschert cites the professor’s experience, “she’s young”, and any previous mistakes: “She didn’t make any.”
Not a good look
But the file – with its long list of accusations spanning several years, from alleged false information in grant applications to data falsification in a dissertation – suggests otherwise. And although these often involved a mistake or carelessness, altogether it’s not a good look. Letschert: “People make mistakes, scientists too, and it’s good to keep an eye on things. It’s good to have a Committee for Scientific Integrity.” But, Letschert says, we must be careful that young researchers don’t become afraid of making mistakes, “that they don’t become insecure and fearful of entering the lab.”
Pressure to perform
That’s why the rector is also holding up a mirror to her own institution. Does this professor work within a research culture, within a tradition, in which this could happen more often, in which it might even be normal to involve co-authors at a later time? A culture in which young researchers feel tremendous pressure to perform? The rector would like to get an honest opinion and had already decided to launch an investigation within the faculty and research school involved in this case.
The rector won’t share whether any sanctions have been imposed on the professor. Although the LOWI opinion has been anonymised, being open about any disciplinary actions is not allowed under GDPR, she says.
It is, however, clear that the professor involved has been out of office for almost a year, given her automatic replies since then. It’s unclear whether she is on leave because the pressure became too much for her.
Last year, the professor let us know through her secretariat that she declined to comment, citing the duty of confidentiality in both the CWI and the LOWI procedure. She has not yet responded to Observant’s latest invitation to comment since the final decision was reached.
The complainant, the PhD student, changed her attitude towards Observant in late 2019. She accused the editors of conspiring with the supervisor and the Executive Board and has refrained from commenting on the matter ever since.
Expert hired by CWI was allowed to remain anonymous
Maastricht University’s Committee for Scientific Integrity (CWI), which examined allegations of dubious research practices against a UM professor of Cardiology in autumn 2019, called on an external expert. His name was never made public. The complainant subsequently complained about this to the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (LOWI), an independent advisory body. After all, how could she assess his stature and impartiality if he was allowed to remain anonymous?
The three CWI members – Professor Emeritus Harry Struijker Boudier (Pharmacology), Professor Emeritus Cees Flinterman (Human Rights) and Professor Emeritus Wiel Kusters (Literature) – called on an external expert because molecular biology is a complex discipline.
Why was his name not made public? The expert himself wanted to remain anonymous, according to documents recently published online by LOWI. He didn’t want to become “more involved in the conflict”. After all, the PhD student had not just started a scientific integrity procedure at the university, but also taken the university to court for a labour dispute. And she told her story not just to Observant, but also, later, to other media outlets. Moreover, she posted various accusatory tweets on Twitter to (indirectly) involved parties, including Rector Rianne Letschert and organisations like science funding body the Dutch Research Council (NWO). Their tone ranged from furious to sarcastic to deeply suspicious. She didn’t hesitate to mention the name of the accused.
The fact that she shared the case with the rest of the world is now backfiring on her. Although LOWI believes that an expert report, especially one that is so important to an opinion, “should be judged on its own merits” and that the identity of the expert is relevant to this, the circumstances weigh heavily in this case and the decision to remain anonymous is understandable. LOWI has, however, told the CWI that both parties should have been informed of the reason for the anonymity. And that, in the future, it would be better to find an expert who would not have a problem with their name being made public.
Old versus new code of conduct
“I always say that scientific integrity and reputation are the most important things you have as a scientist. The new code helps us determine the consequences for someone’s career more carefully”, says Rector Rianne Letschert about the 2018 Netherlands Code of Conduct for Scientific Integrity, which replaced the old 2004/2014 code.
The new code has more extensive assessment criteria, says Letschert. These include, for example, the extent of the “mistake”, its consequences for the value of the research, whether the case concerns a scientific publication or educational material, the researcher’s position and experience, whether they had previously made any mistakes, and also whether the institution itself had failed in its duty of care.
But can new rules be used to assess “old” allegations (the alleged dubious research practices date from before 1 October 2018)? LOWI, the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity, says they can’t, and therefore used the old rules to assess the professor’s actions.
Is there room to apply the new code of conduct anyway? Not according to the literal text of the transitional rules. Article 19 explicitly states that research completed before the code went into effect on 1 October 2018 falls under the old rules. This was the case here, as the allegations were about work that had already been completed by then. Letschert is using “legal argumentation” with regard to the application of the transitional rules and argues that using the new code of conduct to assess the allegations is allowed, even desirable in this situation.
The editors have decided not to include the names of the accused professor and the PhD student involved in this article. The complainant’s name was included in previous articles (published in early 2020), as at the time it was her decision to go public about the matter via Observant, other media outlets and Twitter. Now that she has refrained from commenting for months, the editors want to respect her anonymity.