‘New code of conduct not to be hidden away in a dusty cabinet’

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The principles of good science are fairly self-evident. They’re summarised in the new code of conduct, published last Friday, as honesty, precision, transparency, independence, and responsibility.

Those five principles are then specified by means of 61 standards. Don’t falsify data, for example, and do mention everyone who’s participated in a publication. Plagiarism is strictly forbidden, and you should also accurately cite your own work – even if re-using introductory sentences, for instance, isn’t much of a problem according to the new code.

Are these open doors? In some ways, they are; everyone knows you’re not supposed to lie and deceive. “It’s the first thing any group of PhD candidates says when you talk about this,” says Lex Bouter, former rector of the VU University Amsterdam, currently professor of methodology and integrity. Bouter is one of the creators of the new code.

He says it gets interesting when you introduce dilemmas and gray areas. “Outright fraud happens only very rarely. Someone like Diederik Stapel is an exception to the rule. It’s the little things that go wrong, usually, and not always intentionally. You see something interesting in the data that you’ve collected for a different goal: what do you do?”

Research institutions need to talk to their scientists about the standards and values of good science, Bouter says. “The code mentions that these institutions have a duty of care, and that’s a unique thing, even internationally. Institutions need to bring the code to people’s attention, organise debates, talk about dilemmas, offer support. This code shouldn’t be hidden away in a dusty cabinet somewhere.”

Boarding up
A code of conduct won’t solve all problems, Bouter knows. “We’re not so naive as to think these 61 standards can board up the entire universe. There are always going to be fringe situations. Every institution will have to refine this code. You’ll also need to operationalise the code for different disciplines that have their own traditions.”

Hopefully, though, the code of conduct will help to make researchers less vulnerable to ‘dubious behaviour’, as Bouter calls it. Such behaviour (sloppy science) is in the spotlights throughout the world, with wake-up calls especially in biomedical sciences and psychology. Bouter: “It turned out that the reproducibility of all kinds of studies was rather lacking. Now, other disciplines are thinking things through more, too, and that to me seems like a good thing. Only recently, I was at a convention on reproducibility in the humanities.”

The new code replaces the old one that has been in use since 2004. It’ll officially be in force on October first. The code is endorsed by the Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences, the academic hospitals, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO, and TO2, the Associated Applied Research Institutes.

The code isn’t limited to the world of academia itself. Scientists should practise integrity in public appearances as well, and always be able to explicate how ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ their knowledge is.

“You need to be able to look at that with some insight,” Bouter says. “In talkshows such as De Wereld Draait Door, you can’t talk in footnotes, but a media appearance like that will now fall within the code.”