Last spring an article in NRC Handelsblad accused Dymph van den Boom of committing plagiarism in her dissertation and various dies orations held during her term as UvA rector. After looking into the matter, an independent integrity commission made up of Professors Ton Hol (Utrecht) and Marc Loth (Tilburg) concluded in December that Van den Boom’s actions did not amount to plagiarism. Among other things, the commission wrote in its final report that “although it is not always made clear – or sufficiently clear – in the dissertation which sections of text were written by the author and which have been taken from other people’s work, it is sufficiently clear throughout that the author is describing others’ contributions and has not appropriated and presented them as her own work.” The Executive Board of the UvA adopted this counsel in January.

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UvA adopts integrity counsel: Van den Boom did not commit plagiarism

The Executive Board of the UvA has adopted the counsel issued by a commission that…

‘Academic class justice’

In the letter, which is not made public but has made its way to Erasmus Magazine and Folia, the signatories ask the Board to ‘critically reflect’ on its judgement. They propose requesting a second opinion from the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (LOWI).

The scientists are particularly critical of the conclusion that Van den Boom had not committed plagiarism because she did not try to pass off other people’s work as her own. In doing so, they believe the commission introduces ‘a substantially new criterion for plagiarism, which assigns an important role to motive’. However, they argue, motive is not referred to in the definition set out in the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. Following the independent commission’s counsel, the Amsterdam administrators have effectively ‘undermined’ the Code of Conduct.

Moreover, they consider the statement that the existing plagiarism regulations continue to apply in full to students ‘problematic – if not unethical’. The question of motive does not play a role in student plagiarism regulations: transcribing other people’s work without citing the source and without putting the text between quotation marks is considered plagiarism – i.e. fraud. This is also the case in the regulations drawn up by Erasmus University Rotterdam. The authors call this ‘academic class justice: a rector is permitted to copy and paste without citing sources; students aren’t’. “Wouldn’t you agree that the regulations that apply to students should also apply to your former rector?”

‘Insurmountable burden of proof’

Roel Pieterman, Chair of the EUROPA trade union consultation body and former member of the Erasmus School of Law examination board, expressed similar concerns in January. He fears that the burden of proof for plagiarism allegations – as made by an Examination Board, for example – will become ‘almost insurmountable’ and that students faced with this charge will refer to the UvA judgement to duck repercussions. Gijs van Oenen, Chair of the Examination Board of Erasmus School of Philosophy, has sought to allay such concerns. He deems it unlikely that the judgement will have an impact on student plagiarism cases – among other things because Van den Boom’s dissertation should be judged according to the standards prevailing at the time, in contrast with current plagiarism charges.

‘Contextual judgement’

In a response to the letter, Professors Ton Hol and Marc Loth – who investigated the charges against Van den Boom – write that the signatories have not made ‘a meaningful contribution to the discussion about plagiarism’. Hol and Loth: “In our counsel, we evaluated a dissertation written in a different era, as well as various genres of text that cannot be categorised as scientific publications.” They state that they have not formulated a novel definition of plagiarism, but rather made a ‘contextual judgement’ regarding Van den Boom’s specific situation. For example, they write, there was no written code of conduct in place when Van den Boom pursued her doctorate. “Anyone who compares those conditions to the integrity requirements set for students at the University of Amsterdam in this day and age is not making a meaningful contribution to the discussion about scientific integrity and plagiarism.”

The Executive Board of UvA informs via a spokesperson that it is currently drafting an answer to the letter. For this reason the Board does not want to respond via the media for the time being. It expects to send its answer within the next few days.

This article was written in collaboration with Folia.