2 June 2016

"I understand that those rules make you yawn."

Bert Theunissen opens dialogue on integrity, because: "There's reason enough."

Academic integrity is a difficult issue. That became clear last month, when the Faculty of Science organised the Gewetenschap theatre and discussion programme. ‘Gewetenschap’ is a portmanteau of the Dutch words ‘Geweten’ (conscience) and ‘Wetenschap’ (science). Too few people signed up for the programme, so the performance had to be cancelled. Bert Theunissen, Teaching Fellow and faculty confidential advisor for integrity, feels that was unfortunate.


“Apparently, students aren’t excited about attending a play about integrity,” he said. “And yet academic integrity is a real problem within the university. Since the Stapel affair, we theoretically have the problem under control. But in practice, on the scientific shop floor so to speak, it doesn’t seem to be an issue. Everyone thinks that he or she acts with integrity all the time, and that is usually the case. But still it’s possible to unexpectedly find yourself in a difficult situation.”

As a Teaching Fellow, Bert Theunissen is working on the development of a teaching programme that is intended to bring students into contact with integrity issues from the very start of their studies. And on 15 June, the theatre performance Gewetenschap will be presented once again. Theunissen hopes that this time promotors will personally encourage their research assistants to attend the performance.

Unpleasant subject

He understands that academic integrity is not a pleasant subject to discuss. “The rules that the university has drawn up are boring,” he explains. “They make you yawn, especially if you’ve never dealt with the issue before. But it’s important to talk about it, because there’s a grey area that can’t be regulated, and where you can only make good choices by discussing the matter with your colleagues.”

Theunissen refers to the public-private partnerships between scientists and industry. The research community holds different opinions on the issue. “Researchers often complain that the public increasingly believes that science is just a matter of opinion,” Theunissen explains, “But when the outside world believes that scientists promote the interests of business, then you’re bringing it on yourself.”

Daily life

That is why Theunissen believes that each trainee research assistant should be required to discuss the topic at least once during their training. He sees that there is reason enough for them to learn more about the issue. For example, in March the Groene Amsterdamme published an article critical of the collaboration between Utrecht University and Danone, and NRC published a piece in which Bert Leufkens criticisedimproper pharmaceutical research.

“The theatre programme also deals with these kinds of situations. The actors in the play asked for input from members of de Jonge Akademie. They portray situations from daily life, for example the pressure that researchers experience around publications. Afterwards there will be a discussion, which has produced some interesting insights at previous performances.”

Gewetenschap will take place on Wednesday, 15 June from 15:30-17:00, in the Van Lier en Eggink auditorium in the administration building (Heidelberglaan 6). The performance is free, and there will be drinks afterwards. Trainee research assistants will receive a certificate of attendance worth 0.1 ECTS.