During my studies I’ve become rather skeptical of science in general. I found academia to be a bubble, disconnected from everyday life. In my eyes the academic field of psychology was too focused on incremental advances in neuropsychology while overlooking the larger questions such as: What is the human mind? How does it work? What does neuropsychological research yield? I also got the impression that researchers often preferred to present study results that made them look good instead of publishing conclusions that do justice to the complex research reality. So when a position to pursue a PhD in this area opened up, I thought: you either become cynical about the state of science or you take this opportunity to do something about it.
In my doctorate thesis I combine both empirical and philosophical research. There is a tangle of theories on human misconduct, each based on a different hypothesis. For example the organizational justice theory, rooted in sociology, presupposes that people act in good faith when the organizations they work for also treat them fairly. Applied to academics this mostly concerns the research climate in which they operate. The more they perceive this climate as unjust, the more inclined they’ll be to resort to questionable research practices to make up for perceived unfairness, such as concealing unwanted results or modifying a research hypothesis post hoc without disclosure.
The rational choice theory, stemming from the field of economics, assumes that people will make a cost-benefit analysis, based on which they’ll choose the most efficient option: what do I gain by playing by the rules and what by cheating? Sustaining moral damage is one possible cost that may or may not outweigh the benefits of misconduct.
In all of those theories a psychologist will be inclined to ask how much evidence is there to support A, B, or C? As a philosopher you’ll rather look at these theories from a certain distance. I myself studied to what extent four different types of theories, from economics, sociology, criminology, and psychology, actually are useful when explaining research misconduct. To find this out, I applied these theories to the well documented case of the former professor Diederik Stapel. Do the assumptions of certain theories cancel each other out? Which theories can be combined and in what way? If you really want to explain and – better still – prevent a complex phenomenon such as research misconduct, it is important to accurately make use of these theories.
“Supervisors: keep developing your soft skills too.”
For my empirical research I primarily made use of the organizational justice theory. I mostly wanted to find out whether Amsterdam-based researchers felt they were being treated fairly and whether they could offer any concrete recommendations based on their experiences. For this purpose I contacted 7000 researchers – from PhD candidates to full professors – from every academic discipline, of whom about 1200 ended up participating. What do they consider a responsible research climate and what not? Broadly speaking it turned out that full professors and associate professors perceive this climate as positive whereas assistant professors, postdoc researchers, and PhD students were considerably more negative in their assessments.
I also looked at the pressure to publish. As previous research integrity studies have shown, this pressure could make researchers more inclined to violate norms. Earlier studies mostly focused on the attitude of academics towards that pressure. What do they think about it? Although you actually only truly find out whether pressure to publish is a factor when you also ask researchers if it’s causing them stress and if they have enough resources at their disposal to help them deal with that stress. Think for example about proper counseling by supervisors or support from colleagues in case you are facing a demanding editor.
Perhaps the most striking outcome of my PhD research is that although the so called academic ‘mid tier’ – post doc researchers and associate professors – do experience a high level of stress, in fact the PhD candidates are the ones who suffer from insufficient supervision. Often the hope for a more ethical research practice is vested on future researchers. You’ll hear appeals along the lines of: make sure the next generations of researchers are trained differently, it’s too late to teach those old dogs any new tricks anyway. But if PhD students are insufficiently supervised, if they end up in an environment where selective reporting of research results has become the rule rather than the exception, then it is questionable whether this expected change will in fact happen.
Therefore my advice to department heads at universities is: foster ongoing conversation about research integrity and ask your researchers to think about the dilemmas they encounter in their work. These conversations should be more than water cooler banter. Come down of your own hierarchical pedestal and talk about your perspective on research integrity with your ‘subordinates’ as well. This will enable them to better understand why certain decisions were made.
To supervisors of doctoral students I’d like to say: be a role model in your own research and take your role as supervisor seriously. Keep working on developing your soft skills such as listening.
And to the PhD candidates: explicitly voice your expectations to your supervisor and encourage them to do the same to you. This will prevent disappointments