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An interview with Herman Paul



Herman Paul is Professor of the History of the Humanities at Leiden University. He is a director of a NWO-funded (Vici) project entitled “Scholarly Vices: A Longue Durée History.” Herman is also a member of NSRI Steering committee.


We asked him to share some of his thoughts on the NSRI:



What is your background in research, and how did this lead you to getting involved with research integrity and the NSRI?

I am a historian interested in how scholars in the past did their work and constructed their identities as “scientists” or “men of letters.” I’ve always been stuck by how frequently 18th- and 19th-century sources speak about virtues that scholars should embody and vices they should avoid. That put me on the track of studying why virtues and vices used to be such important categories for scholars – across the academic spectrum and until well into the 20th century. I think it was my research on these virtues and vices that put me into contact with research ethicists and other integrity people. They encouraged me to think about the contemporary relevance of these historical categories. If we care about integrity and about preventing questionable research, is there anything we can learn from our predecessors? I guess it was my attempt to think through some of these issues that led Lex Bouter to invite me to the NSRI steering committee.


Can you tell us about your role in the NSRI?

In the steering committee, I represent the humanities – fields like history, philosophy, languages, literary studies, art history, and linguistics. It’s difficult to generalize about the humanities, but one thing is for sure: many humanities scholars do qualitative, interpretative work instead of quantitative research. Also, instead of doing experiments, they run interviews, read books, or study visual sources in an archive. This implies that quite a few of the issues that, say, biomedical researchers bring to the table when talking about research integrity do not apply immediately to humanities contexts. So that raises some interesting challenges for a survey that works with a uniform list of questions. How to prevent that humanities scholars quit the survey after three questions because they feel that this is not about them? I cannot claim that we have managed to avoid this effect entirely, but at least we have done our very best to create a questionnaire that speaks to everyone, across the entire academic community.


What do you hope for when it comes to this project?

I assume that everyone in and around the NRSI will tell you how important it is for policy advice to be based on solid empirical data. So let me say two other things. First, I hope that the survey will shed some light, not merely on whether Dutch scientists think they are doing their research properly, but also, more broadly, on issues of time pressure, PhD supervision, and competition for status and money. I at least tend to think that integrity has as much to do with me being a responsible supervisor as with me writing a fairly balanced literature review. Secondly, as always, the process is just as important as the outcomes. Although I am very much looking forward to the results of this survey, I also hope that the process of filling it out will serve as a moment of reflection. I hope it will help academics think a bit harder about what integrity actually means in the context of their day-to-day work.


What is your personal vision when it comes to research integrity?

In my ethics committee at Leiden, I see how easily integrity can be reduced to a set of procedures – if only because we’re all busy and don’t have much time to think about ethical issues beyond the pile of research proposals that is awaiting ethical clearance. Yet there is so much more to research integrity than the paper work of protocols. I see the value of codification and formalization. But I also think that integrity is ultimately a matter of what people do, the habits in which they are socialized, and the values they live by. It would be naïve to think that rules and guidelines alone can change the ways in which academics behave, especially if the incentives of money and status remain firmly in place. That’s why I am interested in supervision, in mentoring, in professional role models, or in virtues and vices indeed. Integrity has to do with habits and with expectations of peers, among other things. These issues are just as important as replication and pre-registration, or so I would say.


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