News - March 8, 2012

I do solemnly swear...


In order to sharpen their ethical awareness, PhD graduates should have to take an equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath, philosopher Ingrid Robeyns of the Dutch Young Academy argued in a recent interview in the NRC/Handelsblad daily newspaper. Good idea?

Ingrid Robeyns
Professor of Practical Philosophy at the Erasmus University Rotterdam

‘I hope an oath would make scientists aware of the responsibility they bear. The oath should certainly include a statement that the researcher will pursue scientific truth and always put that first. It should also refer to the limits of science: it always offers the knowledge we have at the moment. It's important to have this critical attitude to science. Of course universities have codes of conduct, but hardly anyone knows them. A PhD graduation would be a good moment to make a public statement: I am now a scientist and will observe the rights and responsibilities that go with that status. I think the way doctors take their oath is a solemn and symbolic moment. It's the icing on the cake. But an oath is not the be-all and end-all. I really don't believe that it solves the problems of academic fraud at one blow. But I do hope it helps scientists to stand their ground if others put pressure on them to cheat.'
Johan van Arendonk
Dean Wageningen University

‘Taking an oath seems superfluous to me. For some time already, the Netherlands code of conduct for scientific practice has been mentioned during PhD graduation ceremonies. When he bestows the degree, the rector's representative tells the candidate that the Board expects him or her to accept responsibility for practising science in accordance with the current Netherlands code of conduct for scientific practice. This code of conduct for sound scientific research applies to all academic staff, and therefore to PhD researchers too. As far as I know, no oath is taken, but I question whether that is necessary. Fraud is a terrible thing and very damaging to the sciences, but I doubt whether we can prevent it with an oath. I consider it to be just part of normal social conventions that you are not allowed to commit fraud. Nor are you are allowed to steal other people's results. We don't need an oath to make that clear either.'
Stefan Metz
Chair of Wageningen PhD council

‘I doubt whether an oath of that kind would contribute much; I don't see that it has added value. OK, you take an oath. And then? As it stands, the attitude is: we expect you to conduct your research with correctness and integrity. And in practice it is very difficult to cheat because when you publish your results you have to share your methods and data with the editors so that if there is any doubt, other people can replicate your research. I am not against the taking of an oath as such, but it shouldn't be a symbolic political gesture. I know that universities already say something about a code of conduct when you graduate, but I have no idea what is in that code of conduct.'
Harke Pera
Wageningen PhD researcher and on the board of the Dutch PhD network

‘You won't prevent fraud with an oath like that. Diederik Stapel knew he was doing wrong but that didn't stop him. The current system is clearly not watertight enough. The Young Academy has proposed introducing an ‘integrity person' who actively checks whether research is being done with integrity. Something like that could help make PhD researchers less dependent on their supervisors. This is something that came to light through the Stapel case: how dependent PhD students are on their supervisors for the implementation of their research. The PNN has previously proposed bringing in an independent contact person who monitors the two-way agreements between the PhD researcher and the supervisor and intervenes if necessary. This could bring problems with the supervisor to light. I don't think many researchers know the code of conduct for scientific practice. What are your rights and obligations as a researcher? Taking an oath is one way of making these explicit. But again, the main issue is that the system needs changing.'
Lonneke van Leeuwen
PhD researcher in Communication Science, Wageningen

‘I think an oath is a good idea, in itself. The more precisely you spell out responsibilities, the better. But does that then mean that sanctions are possible, and that people can complain about you? I wonder how you can approach that in practice. If a doctor makes a mistake, someone's health suffers, and that person can lodge a complaint. But how does it work with researchers? How do you measure the damage done by bad scientific practice? In the Stapel case it is clear that there were victims. But when is the damage big enough to merit sanctions? In short, an oath is a good idea but difficult to put into practice, I think.'
Barend van der Meulen
Scientific policy researcher at the Rathenau Institute

‘An oath does not have magical powers but it might contribute to a better sense of responsibility among scientists. But to make such an oath work, it needs to meet certain conditions. Firstly, scientific fraud should not be defined as the responsibility of an individual. From the Stapel case and from instances in the USA, we know that research organizations also play an important role in combatting fraud. So they should take responsibility. Secondly, the oath should refer to a clearly defined practice for which you can formulate precise norms and values, as is the case in the Hippocratic oath. That oath is specific to the medical profession, whereas PhD researchers end up in a wide range of professions and in many different sections of society. So it might be more logical to take an oath on appointment as a researcher. Lastly, it should be very carefully formulated. For instance, it is proposed that the oath refers to the concept of ‘the pursuit of truth', but there is a tension between that and the idea that scientific knowledge is tentative and should always be subject to discussion. This is what often makes the relationship between scientists and government and the role of scientists in court cases so tricky, too.
Roelof Kleis & Albert Sikkema