Codes of conduct for integrity do not fit with scientific practice

News | by Janneke Adema

12 September 2022 | The Dutch code of conduct for scientific integrity is insufficient, writes Hans Radder from the Free University. The Code takes too little account of the practices scientists encounter and leaves too much room for interpretation by social interests.

Image: Patrick Tomasso

According to Radder, the code is based on a misunderstanding of scientific practice. The code of conduct emphasizes the researchers’ personal integrity, while the institutions’ responsibilities and procedures remain underexposed. In addition, researchers are forced to violate the code when applying for grants, and it provides too little explanation when it comes to social interests, so that commercial interests – for example in patent applications – still influence science.

Not for duty of care

Radder warns of a number of major problems with the code of conduct. Firstly, in the code of conduct, emphasis is placed on personal integrity, so that there is little attention to influences from the environment. Research shows that workplace culture and certain institutional policies contribute to problematic behavior in individuals. But on the basis of the code of conduct, the scientist is personally responsible, while institutions and administrators are kept out of the wind.

The document contains duties for the care of institutions. The institutions must comply with this to ensure that researchers can comply with the code of conduct. A complaints procedure has also been developed for when a researcher breaches the code, but it ‘is not open in terms of duty of care’. The supervision of this is instead placed with the institutions’ internal bodies.

Explanation missing

In addition, the code of conduct uses a hollow definition of the social interest, writes Radder. The Higher Education and Scientific Research Act (WHW) stipulates that institutions must not only teach and research, but also look after the public interest. The Code explains this in terms of liability; the accompanying instruction is that a researcher must take societal or scientific interests into account and conduct research that is of societal or scientific importance. No further explanation.

Radder argues that there is so much room for interpretation that it is impossible to check whether a study actually complies with this. Any investigation can fall under it. This leaves room for parties with hidden personal or commercial interests. This lack of explanation is in stark contrast to the number of criteria that must guarantee the quality of education and research, something that researchers regularly complain about, writes Radder.

Unjustified anyway

In addition, the code of conduct is inconsistent with scientific practice. Researchers are expected to be independent; commercial and political influences are excluded. However, in practice it is generally accepted to apply for a patent based on scientific findings. With a patent, one can achieve a monopoly position, which allows the owner to use scientific results for commercial purposes. According to Radder, this practice legitimizes a neoliberal policy in which the public value of research results is subordinated to the market value.

Finally, the code of conduct encourages researchers to never make unsubstantiated statements about the results to be achieved. This is in stark contrast to the way researchers apply for grants. For a grant application, researchers must write comprehensive reports on what they expect from the research. These statements are in any case unfounded, because if they were well-founded, their research would be redundant, explains the VU philosopher.

Privatization of results

These problems show that the code of conduct does not take sufficient account of scientific practice. “The code is inadequate because researchers are forced to violate the code when they follow official and accepted practice,” writes Radder. Furthermore, the Code is flawed due to the emphasis on personal responsibility and the lack of interpretation of the concept of ‘social interest’.

According to Radder, there are two criteria that determine whether something serves the public interest; consideration is given to all stakeholders and the importance society attaches to the topic at hand. Radder explains the second point in terms of democratic support; Establishing such support through public discussions identifies the inconsistencies between code and practice. At the same time, the privatization of the results of publicly funded research is prevented.

With these criteria, it is possible to compare different procedures or studies. Something is of greater social importance, the more consideration is given to those involved and the wider the support. This makes it possible to map the importance of, among other things, climate research and open access research, but also basic scientific research.

Robert Dijkgraaf

Radder points out that Dijkgraaf spoke out about the social importance of science when he was president of the KNAW. If, now that he is a minister, he still agrees with this, there is a need for a review of the current ethics of science, where the social value of science is central.

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