These questions were raised last Monday at a symposium held at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences’ (KNAW) Trippenhuis where the commotion caused by the Basra reed warbler became apparent.
It all began in 2018 with a complaint submitted to the Academic Integrity Committee of Leiden University. The complaint was made by a biologist who raised doubts about the soundness of a study into the breeding habits of the Basra reed warbler. The complaint – which was very disjointed – was initially not admissible, but the complainer did not let go. He terrorised the board and scientists with up to 50 emails every day. “And he put the entire world in the cc,” says Chair of the Leiden University board Yvonne Erkens, one of the speakers. “The emails dragged a professor, the Rector and members of the Central Committee for Medical Ethics, through the mud.”
A researcher in the room adds that he too was attacked by the biologist. It had a huge impact on him, he said. After that, a University of Ghent Academic Integrity Committee employee raised her hand. She too knows the complainer.
Leiden University was clearly not his first target. He had already stalked other universities, the National Ombudsman and The Netherlands Board on Research Integrity. He then threatened Chairperson Roel Fernhout, one of the speakers, to publish a blacklist. Fernhout’s predecessor, Kees Schuyt, even travelled to the north of the country to talk to the man. Things then went quiet for a while.
Leiden University ultimately issued a warning to the complainer. If he sent one more letter or email, he would be summoned and held responsible for damages. After that, nothing more was heard from the biologist.
How should incorrect or malicious complaints around scientific integrity be handled? This question was central to the symposium organised by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Netherlands Research Integrity Network last Monday. It was triggered by a column by Harald Merckelbach in the NRC newspaper at the beginning of the year. In his article, the legal psychologist illustrated how scientists that do contentious research can be silenced if someone submits a complaint about their scientific integrity. This is an infamous tactic, says Merckelbach, used by lobbyists such as the National Rifle Association in the USA. And what exactly is a malicious complaint? It is a complaint made in bad faith that is intended to cause damage to others. “The motive may be personal gain or revenge,” says the Free University’s Professor of Methodology and Integrity, Lex Bouter, in his presentation. “There are also what I call ‘Machiavellists’ that complain to put their colleagues at a disadvantage. And finally, there are plain crazy people who send confused messages with lots of capital letters and exclamation marks to lots of email addresses.”
How do you recognise complaints made in bad faith? “Many of these complainers act haphazardly, says Bouter, recalling his own experiences and anecdotes that he has heard. “They often wait for a long time without good reason. They also point to one person rather than many, and do not name any co-authors in their accusations.”
Bouter says that no one knows the number of malicious complaints. At the symposium everyone points to that one biologist. Some claim that he has psychiatric problems. “What does happen often, though, is that the complaint is not related to scientific integrity, but arises from an academic difference in opinion or a conflict in the workplace.”
Culture of safety
The Rector of Leiden University says that in fact, he rarely comes across people with malicious intent. “Who I do meet are citizens who want to contribute. Universities are trying to involve them in research through citizen science, open access and open science. Nonsensical complaints are the price you pay for this. Similarly, I receive complaints about Professors Paul Cliteur (Party Chair of the Forum for Democracy in the Senate) and Afshin Ellian (conservative publicist). People ask why I do not throw them out of the University. Go and talk to them, I say. The University has come off its ivory tower and I want to keep it that way.”
Stolker maintains that much can be gained in terms of accessibility of the standards and rules. “Information is now spread across The Netherlands Board on Research Integrity and local committees. We really must make the information clearer and remove any discrepancies. You can hardly expect people to stick to the rules if they hardy know what these rules are.”
Furthermore, a safe culture is essential for scientific integrity, says the Rector. “You must be able to discuss sensitive issues and address people on these if necessary.” By far the largest area of worry is the PhD candidates. “They are completely at the mercy of their supervisors. They can never escape their supervisors as they meet them in Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research committees and other places. This makes these young researchers reluctant to submit complaints.”
Fouling one’s own nest
The biggest problem is not so much the malicious complaints as the unreported legitimate complaints. This is what Frits Rosendaal, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Leiden University believes. He joined the speakers for the closing panel discussion. “Things sometimes emerge years later.”
Rosendaal circulated a questionnaire to all the Academic Integrity Committees and came up with about 50 complaints across the country every year, including the non-admissible complaints. The number of cases in which the employees of scientific institutions appeal against a decision made by their own board at The Netherlands Board on Research Integrity is increasing every year. Chairman Fernhout is surprised that complaints by the scientific institutions that are not affiliated to universities never reach him. “While I read all about these in the newspaper.”
Bouter closes the symposium with a light at the end of the tunnel. During his lectures about scientific integrity five or so years ago, a couple of people would always get angry. “Submitting a complaint against one of your own colleagues equated with fouling your own nest. This was not done in their institution or discipline. I don’t hear this anymore. It is now understood that looking the other way makes no sense.”
Observer, Maurice Timmermans