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Academic integrity: clear agreements can help prevent problems

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and Frits Koning are confidential counsellors for academic integrity at Leiden University. Koning is the confidential counsellor for the Faculty of Medicine/LUMC and Tieken is the confidential counsellor for the remaining faculties. ‘It is really important to reach good mutual agreements before you start a research project,’ says Tieken.

Fraud

Every now and then an incidence of fraud will shake the academic world. Researchers will have fudged their data or results because they wanted to reach a certain conclusion, for instance, or have failed to follow the citation rules (plagiarism). This can affect all universities and is harmful to academia.

Academic integrity is essential to good academic practice, and any breaches can jeopardise its quality and reliability. This can cause immediate harm to patients or the environment, for instance, but it can also undermine not only public confidence in academia but also mutual trust between academics.

The confidential counsellors for academic integrity are the first point of contact for any questions about academic integrity and related issues or suspicions about current or past employees of Leiden University.

Concerns and different cultures

The researchers who contact Ingrid Tieken in her role as confidential counsellor for academic integrity often approach her with one of two concerns about academic integrity. The first is about a researcher’s position in the list of authors of an article. The second is about project leaders or professors using or publishing the research results of a researcher who is their subordinate without discussing this first.

Tieken always begins by talking to the researcher to find out exactly what is going on. ‘Sometimes interpersonal relationships or a conflict are at the heart of the problem. If this proves to be the case, I refer them to another confidential counsellor who can act as a mediator.’

Tieken adds, ‘There are significant cultural differences between faculties, institutes and research groups, and these can be of crucial importance to the order of authors in a publication. It can be the norm in one part of the University for the professor or researcher who has secured the project and/or is leading it to be listed as first author, whereas elsewhere this would be the researcher who carried out and described that part of the research.’ If they are unaware of what is the general rule, researchers can become very frustrated. Tieken: ‘They think, “I did the research and I was the one who wrote the article...” They see this as a lack of academic integrity. Researchers sometimes contact me in situations such as this to find out if this is normal – and to get it off their chest. I usually advise them to raise this with their own department, with the project leader or a director. It often relates to what is normal in that specific academic environment.’

Use of data

Another issue that Tieken regularly sees is researchers using a subordinate researcher’s data – a PhD candidate or student for instance – for their own publication, sometimes with no mention whatsoever of this researcher in the publication. This comes as a nasty surprise for the subordinate. Tieken: ‘This can be for a number of reasons. The researcher may be unhappy because this was done without consulting him or her first, or because his or her name is not mentioned. And they sometimes feel that their superior has stolen their thunder. PhD candidates still have to publish their dissertation on this!’

And what if part of a research report by another researcher – sometimes a student – is copied more or less verbatim without referring to the source? Or if several younger researchers have worked on a project and a discussion arises about the author list and whose name will come first? Another issue that crops up, says Tieken, is researchers using the work of a subordinate in lectures without mentioning the subordinate’s name. With questions such as these it is important once again, says Tieken, to be clear about what is the norm in that institute or research group and to have good agreements about this with all the relevant researchers. ‘This will save you a lot of problems later on.’

Committee for Academic Integrity

Alongside confidential counsellors, the University has an Academic Integrity Committee, which investigates suspected breaches of academic integrity by employees of Leiden University or the LUMC. The Committee comprises professors from all of the faculties at the University. 

The Committee has two chambers: one for complaints about suspected breaches of academic integrity by current or former employees of Leiden University and one for complaints about suspected breaches of academic integrity by current or former employees of the LUMC.

Researchers who suspect a breach of academic integrity can contact the Committee directly. ‘I generally advise against going straight to the Committee,’ says Tieken, ‘because it usually isn’t the appropriate channel and because it is such a big step.’ The confidential counsellors offer advice but are not authorised to investigate the matter, whereas the Committee is. ‘Unless a complaint is deemed inadmissible, the Committee has to hear both sides. Then it becomes apparent who is the complainant and who is the accused, and this is never good for their continuing relationship. I therefore think it is a good idea to try other options first. If that comes to nothing, there is always the option of contacting the Committee.’

The Code of Conduct for Research Integrity

A new Code of Conduct for Research Integrity was adopted in the Netherlands in 2018. This was signed by all the universities, NWO, KNAW,  the applied-research organisations (such as TNO), the teaching hospitals and the universities of applied sciences.  

The Code looks in more depth at five principles for integrity in research: honesty, scrupulousness, transparency, independence and responsibility. 

It also looks into violations of the Code of Conduct and the severity of such violations. Fraud, plagiarism and falsification (inventing data) are deemed to be the most serious forms of a breach of academic integrity. Sloppiness that has led to errors is also considered to be a breach, but it is not considered to be as serious as fraud, plagiarism and falsification.

An important addition to the Code of Conduct for Research Integrity is the institution’s duty of care. The Executive Board drew up a Working Plan on the Duty of Care in the Code of Conduct for Research Integrity in autumn 2018, which covers aspects such as information, courses, communication and data management as well as the establishment of faculty ethics committees.

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