15 November 2016


"Jede Konsequenz führt zum Teufel." Bert Theunissen on scientific accountability

Bert Theunissen (foto: Pieter van Dorp van Vliet)

We have some major challenges ahead of us.

One of my American colleagues, who, like me, is a historian of science, recently told me that he now works with human test subjects. If he wants to conduct a study of the historic background of the Human Genome Project, and he needs to interview someone who has worked with the HGP, he has to fill in a form. The same kind of form that medical researchers use when they conduct tests on humans.

Another example: one of my English colleagues told me that he has to have a lecturer from another university grade the tests he administers to his students.

I guarantee that we’ll eventually have to face things like this as well.

Jede Konsequenz führt zum Teufel - who was it who said that … oh no, plagiarism alert! But I’m afraid that the requirements for ‘accountability’ will only become stricter over time.

That’s not just bureaucracy run amok. When I was a student, the university did little to nothing to guarantee the quality of our education. I don’t need to go back to those days. But the recent flood of integrity codes and protocols suggests that it is possible to eliminate the human factor, because everything can be made objective and standardised. That is an illusion.

When a judgement must be made regarding integrity, subjectivity is inevitable.

I recently received a list of educational dilemmas, drawn up by former students of the Ceut course on educational leadership. Some examples from the list:

- Cases of plagiarism must be reported to the examination committee. But some lecturers have a problem with that. They know that the punishments are severe, and perhaps they think it is too severe in relation to the student’s actions.

- May you assign your own book as exam material? That would give you extra income from royalties, but students might not be as willing to be critical of the contents.

- Where are the limits in dealing with students who have problems. Can you separate your responsibility for the completion of their studies from their general well-being?

- Lecturers give minority students lower grades, either unconsciously or intentionally. What can we do about that? Anonymous grading?

You could implement strict rules to deal with these dilemmas, but is that really a solution? I don’t believe that it’s possible to achieve objectivity that way. In fact, I think we have to solve these issues subjectively, in collegial dialogue, and with a focus on the situation at hand.

What we need is insight and discernment seasoned with experience - you can call it ‘wisdom’.

But that requires trust in the discernment of the lecturers involved. And there’s the rub. Rigid protocols for ‘accountability’ are at odds with simple ‘wisdom’.


Bert Theunissen is the Faculty Contact Person for Academic Integrity. You can consult him (anonimously) on questions and issues regarding academic integrity.