Dear students, please question my authority

Some more thoughts on the Stapel saga.

In most fraud cases Diederik Stapel told his students that he would perform his experiments, collect the data, do the analysis, and give the students the results. Some students wanted to be at the experiments (a good suggestion, because you can learn a lot from it), but he wouldn’t allow them. A few students wanted to see the raw data, but when they pressed him he expressed doubts whether they were good enough to be his PhD students. A filthy intimidation tactic if you ask me. But not only his students were duped: other academics, like the Dutch professor Roos Vonk, co-authored articles that turned out to be based on fake data. In the end the whole fraud came out┬ábecause a few students finally had the courage to stand up to him (and, possibly, the university board where he had a lot of friends – luckily the board did the right thing and took their complaints seriously). Other students, who allowed themselves to be intimidated, now have flawed dissertations. A few of them have left science because of the affair.

Dear students, learn from this. I promise I won’t cook the books, but don’t take my word for it – don’t take anyone’s word for anything. Not just your thesis supervisor. After you graduate you will work with other people,┬álike your boss or your co-authors. They can make mistakes. They can lie. When your name is on a proposal, a thesis, or an article, than you (and your co-authors) are responsible for its contents. Convince yourself that its contents is correct. Yes, I do the same with your contributions.

I know that in some cultures it is impolite to question the advice of your superiors, much like foot soldiers are supposed to follow their sergeant’s orders. That may work in the army, but we’re not in the army here. The one order I give you is not to take orders from me.

Overcoming cultural barriers

In 2010 I spent about four months in Santa Barbara, California to teach a course at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and to write a paper with Christopher Costello. I rented a single room in one of those suburbs that we Europeans only know from Steven Spielberg movies: green, spacy neighbourhoods with all single-story, detached houses. My landlord was a colourful guy named Charlie, who lived mainly from renting out the rooms in his house to students and the occasional visiting professor. He ran a mobile cafe (called Gay Cafe Santa Barbara) in one of those old-fashioned aluminum trailers, the proceeds of which went to some LGBTQ-friendly cause I still don’t fully comprehend. His son drove in a small sports car with the number plate “LESBIAN” which I’m sure was Charlie’s idea.

We got along quite well. Charlie had lived in The Netherlands for a few years, where he picked up some Dutch words and a love for Dutch spiced cakes. (He bought his cakes in the place where I replenished my stock of Indonesian bumbu – the Dutch have an exotic brand of homesickness.) We talked a lot about life in The Netherlands and in California, about politics (like many Californians, Charlie was a staunch Democrat), and other issues. In a place like California, where people are friendly but keep their distance, Charlie was the closest I had to a friend.

One morning I entered the living room and Charlie grinned at me sarcastically, asking: “have you been in the kitchen yet?” On the kitchen floor lay a paper waste bag, torn open where the paper was wet from the coffee grind I had put in it a few days before. Coffee grind spilled from the waste bag all over the kitchen floor. “You know,” Charlie said grimly, “I have once thrown a tenant out because he did this repeatedly.” No need to argue who cleaned up the mess and where wet waste like food and coffee grind went from that moment on. I had learned my lesson.

What went wrong here? Unlike European sinks, many American sinks are equipped with a disposal: an electric device that shreds kitchen waste into pieces small enough to pass through the plumbing system. Apparently, American plumbing systems are designed to deal with such solid waste without clogging. Charlie did tell me: don’t throw wet waste (coffee grind, sauce, tomatoes) in the paper waste bags, because they will tear open. Turn on the disposal, and throw your waste in the sink. “It’s not a sink, it’s a disposal,” he said. But when I had made coffee I just couldn’t get myself to throw it in the sink. In Europe we learn never to throw such stuff in the sink: you may flush it down the toilet if you need to, but sinks get clogged if you throw all kinds of solid stuff in them. Surely he couldn’t mean that I was to throw it in the sink? So I tried to press as much water as possible out of the coffee grind – and in the paper bag it went.

I was reminded of this episode when I thought about the issues in supervising students from cultures very different from my own. For example, I have found that some students from Southeast Asian countries are very reluctant to send their teacher or supervisor work in progress. For me as a supervisor this is a problem. I’d much rather be kept informed of a student’s progress, or lack thereof, than to be kept in the dark for very long. The longer it takes, the more time is wasted if it is done the wrong way. But apparently it doesn’t work like that in Southeast Asia. If you send something to your supervisor (a draft paper, say, or data analyses), you better make sure that it is perfect. Better to send a perfect document five minutes before the meeting than to send a rough draft two days earlier. With the result that neither I, nor our professor, have time to prepare for the meeting by reading the material.

We have tried several ways to convince these students that it is okay to send work in progress. Asking politely. Threatening to cancel the meeting if I don’t get the stuff on time. Explaining patiently why it is better to send incomplete material early than to send complete material late. Getting angry when I receive the material late. But just like I had to overcome a cultural barrier to throw my coffee grind in the sink disposal, I guess these students need to conquer a strong inner voice that says: “surely he can’t mean I’m supposed to send him this?” Yes, I do. I promise I won’t be angry.