In the Dutch PhD system there are a still a number of ‘perverse impulses,’ is what the Educational Inspection ascertains. The pressure to publish and the urge to score are of no benefit to science.
In general, The Netherlands can be proud of the level of promotions, also in international regard. Yet the inspection is concerned about a number of matters, as proves a recently published report. Universities have increasingly paid better attention to possible misbehavior, but in spite of that the self-cleansing power of science is ‘in some essential aspects’ not functioning well enough.
Pressure to publish
For example the pressure to publish among PhD-students is said to yield problems. “In a lot of research school it happens that in promotion trajectories three, four or five publications in scientific journals are demanded’, says the report, that moreover warns for ‘verification bias’: the effect that research is only successful if the outcomes are exactly what the researchers expected. The number of publications should be less of a guideline, and ‘failed’ promotion research should be published as well: ‘It should be central that PhDs are able to work on a high level in the scientific practice. It is irrelevant whether this good scientific research yields positive results.’
The inspection further raises the question of the strong ties between PhD-students and their supervisors. Often, they write together on articles that later become part of the dissertation. That can be very inspiring, but ‘cases are pointed out in which the contributions of the supervisors are out of balance; cases in which the promoter effectively writes the dissertation.’ Another thing is that the promoter and the PhD-student hang out intensively with each other for years. Is it desirable then, that the same promoter has a say in the final examination? Or that coauthors of the dissertation take a seat in the promotion committee? Nobody is likely to reject their own work, so the Educational Inspection thinks it isn’t: ‘A reinforcement of the independent and critical role of the promotion committee as peer reviewer is necessary in the fight against violations of scientific integrity.’
Apart from violations of integrity, now and then sloppy science is found: carelessness or tweaking with data. Especially foreign PhD-students are said to not be familiar with how things work. So every PhD-student needs to receive proper statistics education and there should be more attention for methodological development. Then every scientist will know better what is and is not acceptable.
Association of Universities VSNU, in a first response, says it is happy with the conclusion that the quality of promotions is in general high. Fostering scientific integrity has all attention, according to a spokesperson: ‘In that area, we have taken an important step by instituting the public oath.’ HOP