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.