The Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) has a code of scientific conduct which describes five central values of scientific integrity and norms and principles that follow from them. The TU/e now asks their academic staff to sign a form to confirm that they have read the code and that they will observe the five values and the norms and principles that follow from them. I was given two weeks to sign this form. I refuse to comply with this request.
I fully agree with the current contents of the TU/e code of scientific conduct as of 12 June 2015. I believe it is a great document for educational purposes. I am grateful to the authors of this document for providing a concise summary of the principles of appropriate scientific conduct.
But I refuse to sign the form as it is. Why? To start with, at this point I am not entirely sure what I would be signing for. How much space does the form leave for individual judgement about what norms and principles follow from the five values? Would my signature bind me to the norms and principles described in the code of conduct? Assuming this is the case, I have the following objections.
First, what would be the point of signing? How could anybody disagree with such noble principles? What matters is how one deals with mundane practical issues and ethical dilemmas and what one's priorities are in difficult circumstances. I believe that the ability to deal with ethical issues can be developed through experience, training and open debate, not by being coerced into promptly signing a predetermined text. If anything, such a signature should be the conclusion of a process of discussion and learning, not the beginning. Since I am actually going to teach a course that explicitly includes professional ethics, I have been trying to come up with a description of ethical principles for my work as a scientist myself. I will learn more from continuing to try to do so than from taking a shortcut to a predetermined outcome.
Second, the code states that “academic staff and students” should “give room to others to develop or take their own intellectual stance in research, design and education”. The formulation of a consistent set of ethical principles is a challenging task similar to the quest for truth in most forms of science: the truth is complicated and we cannot really hope to establish it, but we can learn a lot from continuing to try to do so. We need academic freedom for this purpose. We should keep an open discussion with room for individual judgement so that we can learn and keep our organisation on the right track. I believe that trying to bind scientists to a specific attempt at formulating ethical principles for scientific research may only give us a false sense of security, and I do not believe it would help to prevent incidents of individual misconduct. Therefore the obligation quoted above should be interpreted more broadly: all staff (academic and non-academic) should give room to each other to develop their own stance on ethics in research, design and education. In addition, my freedom to think independently may be a valuable asset in discussions with students.
Third, the scientists working in our university obviously come here with ideals (otherwise they would take a job in industry with better pay and better career perspectives). To me, the question is not whether the scientists in this university subscribe to the code of conduct, but whether the administrators (boards, committees, grant bodies, government) do. This question is particularly relevant when there is tension between on the one hand, scientists' ideas about how they can make a valuable contribution to society, and on the other hand, the need to generate income from grants, collaborations with industry, tuition fees and funding based on abstract performance indicators such as indexed journal publications or dissertation counts. Do administators take their responsibility to provide ample room and incentives for ethical behaviour, while limiting room and incentives for unethical behaviour? For example, is it clear from administrators' decisions about promotions that money is not the only thing that counts? If anybody should ask anybody to sign the code of conduct, it is the freshly hired assistant professors full of ideals who deserve to get the signatures and commitment of those who are higher up in the hierarchy, not the other way around.
I am open to discussion and possibly to be convinced to sign for observing the code at a later time, after I have been given enough time to formulate my own principles, after appropriate public debate has taken place, and after it has become clear that the code is backed by a plan that involves continuing discussion and administrators taking their responsibility along with the scientists. But for now, I will only sign for having read the code.