Last spring NRC Handelsblad published an article in which it described that former University of Amsterdam Rector Dymph van den Boom had plagiarised in her speeches and PhD dissertation. Although the NRC journalist who wrote the article did not mention a single incident that took place during Van den Boom’s tenure as Dean of ESHCC, she completely unexpectedly resigned from her position at the faculty a few days before the publication. Immediately after the accusation of plagiarism was published, rumours arose that ESHCC staff members who disagreed with Van den Boom’s plans for the future of the faculty (a merger with the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences) were seeking to trip up the Interim Dean. The Executive Board says it received ‘evidence that there are serious grounds to suspect’ that ESHCC staff tipped the newspaper off regarding Van den Boom’s alleged plagiarism. As a result, the Executive Board hired Hoffmann Bedrijfsrecherche (a corporate forensic science agency) to hunt for a journalist’s source.
The protection of sources is one of the major fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists never give up the identity of a source who requests or requires confidentiality – among other reasons, because people who wish to expose a wrong must be safe in the knowledge that they will be protected by the journalist’s silence. After all, sharing information with journalists can have all sorts of consequences, ranging from angry looks in the office to retaliation by employers and actual criminal charges. For instance, consider the case of the civil servants who told Dutch news show Nieuwsuur that an independent investigation by the Research and Documentation Center (WODC) was being manipulated by employees of the Ministry of Justice. Although the complaints were justified, the whistleblower was complimented and the director had to resign, the civil servants in question are being prosecuted. Since last year, the protection of sources by journalists covering criminal proceedings has been enshrined in legislation. When journalists serve as witnesses, they are not required to answer questions on the identity of their sources. It is generally deemed more important for society that people can turn to journalists to share information. If journalists are unable to guarantee their sources confidentiality, freedom of information is being jeopardised.
EUR’s Executive Board is indirectly undermining the principle of proper protection of sources by hiring a forensic science agency to seek to identify NRC journalist Frank van Kolfschooten’s source. Although the journalist himself is not the target of the investigation, the investigation does serve the same purpose: to identify a person who shared information with a journalist expecting to have his/her confidentiality protected. It worries us that the executive board of a university has such little respect for such a fundamental principle of journalism.
Moreover, the undermining goes far beyond this one case. Basically, the Executive Board is sending the message that talking to a journalist will have consequences: if you wish to report a wrong but choose to do so through an external channel, we will send a forensic science agency after you. As Van Kolfschooten put it last week in EM: “Is any employee ever going to be brave enough to talk to a journalist again, when they know they might be subjected to a forensic examination?”
If the internal channels do not suffice, it is only right that journalists should be a viable alternative. EUR’s Executive Board is dismayed that whoever leaked the story did not follow internal procedures, but did not deem it necessary to do so itself. Both ESHCC’s management team and the faculty council reported their suspicions of plagiarism to the Executive Board, only to be turned away. A request to have the Scientific Integrity Committee look into copied passages in a policy recommendation had been made, but was ignored. An inquiry by this Committee not only might have saved a lot of suffering, but could have given some valuable insights into the status of plagiarism in policy documents (and speeches).
In addition, one should ask whether this forensic examination is useful. Why would anyone use their EUR e-mail address to discuss such a sensitive subject with a journalist? EM received a tip-off regarding Van den Boom’s plagiarism written anonymously on a sheet of paper, signed only by ‘The Integrity Squad’. The Executive Board is aware that people leaked information in this way, as it was mentioned in an article on the working climate at ESHCC. So it is highly unlikely that this examination will result in the examiners finding something like ‘Dear NRC, we are sending you a tip on plagiarism, because we disagree with our Dean’s plans. Can you please write a quick article to trip her up nicely? That will help us get rid of her. Cheers, staffmemberX@eshcc.eur.nl.’ If such a smoking gun exists at all, it is hardly likely to be found in an EUR employee’s mailbox.
The Executive Board is as capable as we are of concluding that this examination probably will not result in anything useful being found, so clearly, this is mainly about their flexing their muscles. They are showing all those people who feel that a handful of rotten apples at ESHCC are causing problems that they are not afraid to implement measures. Furthermore, they are issuing a warning to people who might consider leaking some information to a journalist.
However, there is a thin line between issuing a warning and actually intimidating your employees. Members of staff who were investigated and whose files were found to be clean are not told about the investigation until afterwards. The Executive Board is treating them like suspects, tells them afterwards that they were investigated and then informs them very casually that no evidence was found to prove its suspicions right. So employees don’t have the security of safe communications, even when they have nothing to fear. Employees who were investigated must now do their work in the knowledge that their employer suspects them, even if they didn’t leak any information at all. And even if one or more ESHCC employees did report their suspicions of plagiarism to NRC, they might have had honest reasons to do so, without any ulterior motives. In that case, they should be protected, not hounded.The Executive Board says it wishes to create a safe work environment, but at the same time, it is tearing down that environment by sending an external forensic examinations crew after its own employees in hopes of catching someone who might have leaked information.
EM’s editorial team: Tim Ficheroux, Wieneke Gunneweg, Tessa Hofland, Lana van der Meer, Elmer Smaling and Feba Sukmana.
EM, too, protects sources who wish or need to remain anonymous. If you wish to communicate with us in a safe manner, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or ask us about other ways in which you can safely share information.