Two years ago, as the successor of Catrien Bijleveld, Van der Laan was given the responsibility for the subject “scientific integrity” as interim director of NSCR. It was one of his tasks in the allocation of portfolios between the institute directors. Bijleveld had already contributed to the realisation of the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity in 2018. ‘At that moment, I had no special expertise concerning scientific integrity, but I immediately understood the great importance of this subject’, says Van der Laan. The directors meeting (DM) underlined that more attention should be devoted to scientific integrity.
NWO-I decided to formulate a separate complaints procedure – in addition to the NWO procedures – for the institutes organisation for (suspected) violations of scientific integrity by NWO-I employees. At the same time, a Scientific Integrity Desk was established through which an employee can submit a suspected violation to a newly appointed confidential adviser scientific integrity. Van der Laan: ‘Bert Warmelink, secretary to the DM, deserves a lot of credit for the leading role he played in this. It was great that we managed to create a safety net in 2020’.
More attention for supervision
According to Van der Laan, complying with the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity goes hand in hand with a safe work environment. At the institutes, there is usually a considerable influx of young researchers. They end up in groups with other researchers in which specific standards, values and agreements apply, which become generally accepted as the “truth”. It is questionable whether you can discuss small or large irregularities in such a setting. This is further complicated by the fact that the relationship between PhDs and their supervisors is one of dependency. Van der Laan: ‘During your development as a researcher, you come across all kinds of situations: ranks and orders, status, different habits, for example with regard to the publication of research results. That can lead to difficult issues. Fortunately, the number of incidents remains limited, but they can have a lot of impact if they do occur. Supervisors play a crucial role in creating a safe environment. I observe that respected supervisors at NSCR have different supervision styles and different opinions, possibly about subjects like authorship too. Therefore, I call for more attention for supervision at NSCR and within the other NWO Institutes to ensure that we are all on the same page in terms of ideas about what it means to conduct science with integrity. This also means that supervisors need to discuss this with each other.’
Everything stands or falls with a broad awareness of what it means to act with integrity, says Van der Laan. That is necessary to prevent violations of scientific integrity. If something still goes wrong, a complaints procedure and a scientific integrity desk are in place, and there are confidential advisers. During his long career, Van der Laan has indirectly been involved in violations that have led to a complaint. In his experience, these complaints always resulted in more losers than winners. Van der Laan: ‘In the more distant past, the handling of a case at NSCR did not go well. That made it clear to me that colleagues need to be properly informed about the consequences before they decide to report a violation. A lot has usually happened before a violation is reported. Some things may have gone wrong during this period, and that sometimes already has irreparable consequences for those involved. Irrespective of how meticulously the procedure is conducted, there first and foremost needs to be an atmosphere in which integrity issues can be freely raised, in confidence and without any fear of repercussions. I advise everybody to think carefully in advance about the alternatives, such as confiding in a peer or mediation by colleagues who you trust.’ Van der Laan applauds the fact that NWO-I has recently started a campaign for more awareness about scientific integrity.
Raising the alarm
Van der Laan: ‘At NSCR, ten new PhDs have just started in groups with different subjects and different styles of supervision. PhDs are usually quite assertive. Every so often, I attend a PhD student consultation. At such occasions, I reiterate the fact that they need to raise the alarm at an early stage if they suspect something is not right. And that they should turn to our PhD coordinator first, instead of immediately contacting the Scientific Integrity Desk.’
More information about the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity
On the NWO-I website, there is a page about the Scientific Integrity NWO-I Institutes Complaints Procedure.
About Peter van der Laan
Peter van der Laan (1954), interim director at NSCR since 2019, has worked at NSCR for twenty years. He combines this for two days per week with a professorship by special appointment in Probation and Parole at the Faculty of Law, VU Amsterdam. Developmental educationalist Van der Laan gained his doctorate in 1991 for his thesis on “Experimenteren met alternatieve sancties voor jeugdigen” [Experimenting with alternative sanctions for young people]. He recently did research into JeugdzorgPlus [Youth Care Plus] institutions (2020) and violence in closed (penitentiary) youth institutions (2019).
Text: Anita van Stel
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, June 2021