Facts made to order

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Universities should prepare students for a 'shadow world of make believe'. That proposes science historian Bert Theunissen after the revelations of political interference with an indepent research center.

The wonderful Dilemma game created by Erasmus University Rotterdam teaches students to think about academic integrity – with special attention to ‘grey areas’. Students already know that it’s wrong to just make up data, but the question of when you are entitled to co-authorship of a paper is more difficult to answer. The same applies to deciding how to deal with a magazine editor who wants to plug his own work. What is permitted and what is ‘not done’ can also differ per field of expertise. 

One of the dilemmas we discuss with the students is the role of the executive summary of a research report commissioned by an external party. The scientist wants the summary to be as nuanced as the report itself, but the client commissioning the research may demand clear conclusions that are easy to explain to the outside world. Many students are inclined to go along with this. Their thinking is: ‘If I can write exactly how it is in my own report, then I don’t mind if the client writes the summary.’ The problem, however, is that almost nobody will read the detailed report. Policymakers base their decisions on the summary, so nuances  you consider to be important will have to be included in the executive summary.

But what if the client doesn’t want to do that?

Some students have trouble believing that such a situation would arise in practice. After all, the client commissioned the research to learn exactly what the problem entails? Why wouldn’t the client want to accept the researchers’ nuanced conclusions? With that question, the discussion shifts to the role of research in policymaking. For example: imagine that the client didn’t commission the research to help formulate a new policy, but rather to generate support for an existing policy. And suppose the research outcomes just do’nt provide such support. As a researcher, you would then have to decide between staying true to your principles or increasing the chance of obtaining other commissions in the future.

You can try to prevent dilemmas such as these by making clear agreements prior to beginning the research.

After the game, the students with whom we discussed this issue asked whether such dilemmas were actually common in practice. I can’t say how often they come up, but books like De Onwelkome Boodschap (The Unwelcome Message, Köbben and Tromp) describe many examples in which scientific researchers were put under pressure by governments or businesses to keep unpleasant research results out of the public eye.

Last month, the media reported a case that makes the example from the Dilemma game pale by comparison. The Ministry of Security and Justice appears to have polished the conclusions of research reports commissioned by the ministry. Not only that, but department officials even interfered with the drafting of the research question, the methodology and the results. To make matters worse, some reports were simply re-written when they didn’t suit the ministry’s interests. And as icing on the cake: ministry staffers think that there is nothing wrong with these activities: after all, isn’t generating the desired facts what science is all about?

It is easy to condemn activities such as these, but we should also help our students become more ‘streetwise’ about what they will come across in the real world - or rather, the shadow world of ‘make believe’. We have to present them with strategies for standing their ground as scientists with a sense of integrity.

Bert Theunissen

 

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