Alphen, the Netherlands. 1 November. What is wrong with academia? Some 30 papers have been corrupted by false data, with at least 14 doctoral theses compromised and 150 papers going back to 2004 now to be investigated. The committee set up by the universities of Tilburg and Groningen, and which published their interim report yesterday, call the scientific fraud “considerable and shocking”. Professor Dr Diederik Stapel, Professor of Cognitive Social Psychology and Dean of Tilburg’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences is today at the centre of a storm that has made headline news on both television and in the newspapers here in the Netherlands. So is my wife for she is the Science Communications Officer of Tilburg University and has had to handle much of the fall-out from what is an all-round failure of academic ethics and rigour. But how isolated a case is this?
In my many years sitting at the cusp between academia and policy the widening gap between the two has made my own posture increasingly uncomfortable. The culture of publish or perish which seems to have been the root cause of Stapel’s alleged corruption has been eating away at academic rigour for years. The literature is now full of meaningless and pointless dross just so that arbitrary publication targets can be met, so that arbitrary funding decisions can be made. I would not wish to cast aspertions on all my colleagues as there are still some very fine minds at work in academia. However, very few academics now undertake rigorous evidence-based research. The pressure to publish, on both students and academics, is now so great that less than academic tendencies are commonplace.
The number of times I have seen my own work plagiarised is frightening. A few years ago I attended the London launch of a major report on European defence. As I began to read the report my mouth dropped open; the first five pages were lifted directly from a report for the Bertelsmann Stiftung that I had authored. Not surprisingly I complained. Recently a student of mine submitted a paper that contained extensive extracts from one of my own publications with no attempt made to attribute the source. Now, whilst I would not of course question her taste or persipicacity, I did rather question her sanity. Indeed, it was so blatant a case that I simply had the paper re-worked before I would begin to consider it. She seemed to have assumed that because she was paying for the course she had also purchased the assessment. I fear that as universities become ever more desperate for money this kind of ‘misunderstanding’ will only increase.
But it is not over-ambitious students in a hurry that I worry about. From afar the Stapel case reeks of the stink one gets when a profession becomes a closed shop. The professorial ethos of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is everywhere in academia. Professional ‘etiquette’ means that professors very rarely question each other’s work and accept the self-serving and often incomprehensible rubbish that now abounds. This retreat from academic rigour has been reinforced by governments (and notoriously the European Commission) which too often subject universities and think-tanks to project funding. ‘Research’ is only commissioned that provides the answers the paymasters want to hear.
This in turn has tended to reinforce the left and left of centre orthodoxy and political correctness from which every western European university now suffers. All research is political in some form but today too many academics at major universities are in effect self-selected. The congregating of like-minded individuals simply adds to the creeping authoritarianism of political orthodoxy. If 'reality' is uncovered that suggests an alternative thesis it must be ignored or explained away and its authors sidelined.
However, what has become really insidious is the way professors exploit their students. There is some evidence in the report that Stapel intimidated his students into accepting his corrupt data for years until a few of them were brave enough to speak out. I can imagine just how he got away with this. Too many professors behave like medieval aristocrats; insisting that they are above supervision, handing out patronage by hinting at future careers if students agree to undertake huge amounts of work; and ‘authoring’ subsequent publications which in reality are the fruits of others' labours. So many professorial publications are in fact written by others, only for the 'other' then to be discarded when it suits and left broken in the self-obsessed professorial wake. Burnt out careers and broken people are everywhere in academia. The whole system simply encourages the self-obsessed, the ego-maniac and the downright unfair.
Professor Stapel deserves all he will get for the damage he has done to a lot of promising young people. However, I hope, just hope, that the academic gods will also hold a mirror up to themselves, both here in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Stapel is almost certainly the tip of a very grubby iceberg.
Publish, plagiarise, pressure...or perish. Academia needs a re-think. It could start by awarding a medal to those brave students who had the courage to uncover this fraud.
Professor Dr Julian Lindley-French