Scientific integrity violated or not: settlement of Salafism thesis mainly raises questions

Scientific integrity violated or not: settlement of Salafism thesis mainly raises questions

The scientific integrity was not violated by supervisor Ruben Gowricharn after all, says the university years after the settlement of the controversial “Salafism thesis.” Is the Executive Board going back on its earlier decision, or is there little change? And what about co-supervisor and the PhD researcher? ‘If according to the current standards there is no question of a violation of integrity, I also feel absolved.

Image: Bas van der Schot

The case seemed to be closed. After an investigation into the integrity of the ‘Salafism thesis (Dutch only)  on June 4, 2019, the Executive Board made a final decision: the PhD researcher, supervisor, and co-supervisor had violated the university’s scientific integrity. The research was not properly structured, and the supervision should have been better.

What was it like again? For three years, anthropologist Mohammad Nazar Soroush visited sermons, religious gatherings, and camping weekends at Islamic institutions to gain insight into Salafism, an ultra-orthodox movement within Islam that wants to turn history back to the time of the prophet Mohammed and the first generations after him.

The conclusions on which Soroush is to receive his PhD from Tilburg University on September 4, 2018 are harsh. He labels more than twenty-four Islamic institutions as Salafist. The young people who are formed there are said to be undemocratic and not loyal to Dutch society.

Culpable negligence

The media reported about it extensively, but the researcher was also criticized by the investigated institutions. He was accused of not having done enough field research to support his conclusions. There are also doubts about his logbook. Which is detailed, but some visits seem to have been wrongly included and it was mainly written afterwards.

The Scientific Integrity Committee, called in by the university, concluded at the beginning of 2019 that things had gone wrong with the PhD research. According to the Committee, the majority of the institutions investigated were wrongly qualified as Salafist, a “culpable negligence.”

The supervisors are also blamed. According to the Scientific Integrity Committee, they could have foreseen the criticism from society, and they should have prevented the PhD researcher from including insufficiently substantiated qualifications. The Committee criticizes the active publication of research results in the media.

This led to the final judgment of the EB that the scientific integrity had been violated. Three times. The thesis must be corrected. Supervisor Ruben Gowricharn was denied his right to confer PhDs at Tilburg University, and co-supervisor Jan Jaap de Ruiter received a formal reprimand.

An explanation

And now, almost three years later, suddenly there is an announcement (Dutch only). A meeting between the university and Gowricharn took place. The (now emeritus) full professor “accepts the critical remarks” of the Scientific Integrity Committee about his responsibility as a supervisor. The university ‘determines that according to the current Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity of 2018, there has been no violation of scientific integrity by Prof. R. Gowricharn.’

It was possible to lodge an objection to a previous provisional opinion of the EB with the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (LOWI). Requests were submitted too late there and not processed, therefore. “It may be that there are other legal reasons behind this statement,” says TiU Full Professor of Methodology of Social and Behavioral Sciences Jelte Wicherts. “I believe that, after the LOWI, one can go to the administrative court.”

‘I am not under the impression that the Executive Board is going back on its earlier decision’

TiU Full Professor of Administrative Law, Market, and Data Johan Wolswinkel

There was indeed a procedure, about which more below. First things first: does the university now reconsider its decision? It does not seem that way. That the scientific integrity was violated can still be read (Dutch only) in the final decision, which was added to the advice of the Scientific Integrity Committee. The statement of November 26, 2021 added later, that this was not the case after all, is simply included as an “addition.”

“Based on the wording in the statement, I am not under the impression that the EB is going back on its earlier decision in a legal sense,” says TiU Full Professor of Administrative Law, Market and Data Johan Wolswinkel. “Then the sanction imposed at the time would also have to lapse or be reconsidered, I suspect, and there is no mention of that.” Rather, according to the administrative law professor, it seems that the EB is “superfluously reflecting how it would look at the issue now.”

Codes of conduct

The scientific code of conduct seems to play a role in this. In the years that Soroush did research and was supervised, the 2014 Code of conduct applied. It is possible that this was stricter than the Code of Conduct that came into force on October 1, 2018. By then, Soroush had been promoted for just under a month and, according to the NWO, the 2014 Code of Conduct continues to apply to ‘completed research’. However, the university was already looking to align with this new Code when imposing sanctions.

Does that explain the later judgment? Jelte Wicherts mainly sees a difference “in which specific behaviors are characterized as violations. Also, the old Code made little mention of responsibilities as they lie with supervisors. It seems to me that the new Code is better on this point.”

VU Full Professor of Methodology & Integrity Lex Bouter, coauthor of the 2018 Code of Conduct, confirms that the new Code is more detailed. With, among other things, “61 standards” and more clarity about “when noncompliance with standards is a possible violation of scientific integrity.”

It is less black and white. “The old Code could only lead to the judgement that the scientific integrity had or had not been violated. The new Code distinguishes multiple shades of grey by adding questionable behavior and minor shortcomings,” says Bouter.

‘The new Code distinguishes multiple shades of gray’

VU Full Professor of Methodology & Integrity Lex Bouter

Noncompliance with standards can lead to the opinion that the scientific integrity has been violated, but it does not have to be the case. “First, noncompliance with a standard of good research practice is established,” says Johan Wolswinkel. “Then the qualification of a violation of integrity is or is not attached to this.”

It is, therefore, possible that the new Code of conduct will lead to a more lenient judgment. But it is not easy to say. “I don’t think the new Code is less strict,” says Jelte Wicherts. “Being stricter or less strict” was never the premise of the new Code, says Lex Bouter. How it works out in practice “will become apparent from case law in the coming years.”

One thing is certain, according to Bouter: “cases fall under either the old or the new Code and never both. Why did they apparently assess the case in light of the 2014 Code and take inspiration from the 2018 Code when considering possible sanctions? You’ll have to ask the Executive Board about that.”

Wolswinkel concludes from the documents that the old Code of Conduct did not make it clear when scientific integrity had been violated, and it lacked sanctions. As such, he explains that the university adheres to the later Code. The university itself cannot comment further. Not even on the question of whether the same more lenient judgment should also apply to co-supervisors or PhD researcher. University spokesperson Imre van der Meulen states that the most recent decision was made “in strict confidentiality.”

A methodological dispute

Ruben Gowricharn states that, according to him, there was no integrity issue in the first place. After the complaints, the methodology of the thesis should have been “scrutinized” according to him. “Instead, the EB asked the Scientific Integrity Committee to advise on the guidance. Remarkable, but even more surprising is that the committee accepted the assignment and thus confused a methodological dispute with an integrity issue.”

There was methodological criticism from the Scientific Integrity Committee, but according to Gowricharn, it was unfounded. According to the Committee, there were insufficient grounds for labelling 24 visited institutions as Salafist, but according to Gowricharn, the institutions were never approached “as separate entities.”

“Institutions are strongly intertwined, they are Salafist to a greater or lesser extent.” In the study this “high degree of kinship” was assumed. “This method is well known in the social sciences. I have explained this to the Scientific Integrity Committee in detail. The advice contains nothing about this.”

Nowhere in the Scientific Integrity Committee’s advice does it state that scientific integrity has been violated’

Supervisor Ruben Gowricharn

As a supervisor, should he have foreseen the social outcry and taken it into account? “Also a remarkable position. That would mean that researchers should conform to opinions in society, and thus relinquish their academic independence.”

Gowricharn notes that in parts, the 2018 Code of Conduct, in fact, contradicts what the university itself does. He refers, for example, to paragraph 3.3, point 18, which explicitly states that it is not intended that “extra-scientific interests, arguments, or preferences” play a role in the scientific process.

Gowricharn is most surprised by the EB’s opinion. “Nowhere in the Scientific Integrity Committee’s advice does it state that scientific integrity has been violated. Moreover, it is a mystery how a supervisor can violate it. Nevertheless, the EB ruled that the supervisor should be deprived of his/her right to confer PhDs in Tilburg.”

Image: Bas van der Schot

A case at the LOWI was unsuccessful, so Gowricharn took his case to court. His claim, in a civil procedure, that he did not violate scientific integrity is rejected as “insufficiently substantiated.” Also, the judge would not have access to the review framework of the Scientific Integrity Committee. “Stunning,” says Gowricharn, who provided “a three-centimeter pile” of material. After consulting with his lawyers, he appeals. Sometime after that decision, a meeting with the university follows, and the familiar statement.

“All of the above is common knowledge and traceable through public sources,” he says. As to what followed in the appeal; he is not permitted to say anything. But the university’s emphasis on the Code of Conduct also strikes him. “There is only one conceivable reason for this: the current EB does not want to dismiss its predecessor by suggesting that, according to the 2014 regulations, something is actually going on. But even a superficial comparison of the regulations shows that this is not the case.” The later Code of Conduct, says Gowricharn, is mostly more comprehensive and concrete.

Taking responsibility

Co-supervisor Jan Jaap de Ruiter resigned himself to the university’s verdict years ago. “I stand behind the decision not to challenge it,” he says. “I was employed and therefore vulnerable. I could have started proceedings, but that would have taken years.” He has found peace of mind and his relationship with the university is good again.

“It did sting for a while,” he admits. “I realize that the picture now is that it seems that Gowricharn is not to blame, and I am.” While De Ruiter was not the main culprit. If the university finds that by today’s standards there is no violation of integrity by the supervisor, he thinks, that should also apply to him as co-supervisor. “Then I feel exonerated as well.”

At the same time, he sees that some things have gone wrong in the supervision. De Ruiter suspected, for instance, that Soroush had wrongly recorded a visit in Hilversum in his logbook. Soroush denied this, but De Ruiter would also have discussed it with Gowricharn. After the PhD defense, according to De Ruiter, it was indeed established that the PhD researcher was not present.

‘I’d rather take responsibility’

Co-supervisor Jan Jaap de Ruiter

“His observations about Salafism may be correct, but there is no question that he lied. And that happened under our responsibility.” That’s why De Ruiter does not really want to be acquitted of anything. “I’d rather take responsibility than whitewash myself.”

“It may be that Jan Jaap said something about a visit to Hilversum,” says Gowricharn. “That must have been in passing, I don’t remember it.” He does know that Soroush one time did not show up at a lecture in Leiden, but he appeared to have followed it via YouTube after all.

“That one time did not strike me as being of an importance or frequency to affect the quality of his data collection.” In quantitative research, according to Gowricharn, “it is common to omit outliers or other observations. Irregularities are only serious if they affect the foundation of the research.”

Explosive belts

At first Mohammad Soroush thought that his name had been cleared as well. Things are different. It stings. “I’ve been to mosques more than a hundred times,” he says. There was supposed to be only a year available for the field research, he says. He did it for three years to gather enough information. In fact, he was thwarted. “When I started it, they already knew I was doing research,” he says.

Young people who had talked to him once, turned away from him at a second meeting. Imams addressed him in their speeches, he says, or sought him out in the mosque afterwards. “Four times a fatwa was issued against me. That I am an infidel, the devil. That I would collaborate with the police and that my wife is haram to me. Murder of me would be righteous unless I expressed remorse. If an article about Salafism appeared in the newspaper, a few days later, I would get an e-mail with pictures of explosive belts.”

He continued because, as an anthropologist, he wanted to get to the bottom of things. Earlier research had raised the suspicion that Salafists are not only ultra-Orthodox, but also have political views. That is not how they want to be known, says Soroush, and that is why he thinks there was so much resistance to his research.

‘I stand behind my research’

Mohammad Soroush

Soroush has admitted that a noted visit did not go ahead, according to the Scientific Integrity Committee’s advice. Now he says that “some more visits” to some institutions “would have convinced the public better.” But he repeatedly saw a clear picture, that of a closed stronghold.

Children bowing and reading the Koran, as they do in Afghanistan. People being told that Dutch society had nothing to offer young people. According to Soroush, mosques clearly propagated Salafism themselves or invited Salafist speakers, thus showing “sympathies.”

He finds the judgement of the university, that he has violated scientific integrity, “very serious.” He did not have the financial or legal means to challenge it. Therefore, he acquiesced in a decision of the university, which, Soroush thinks, was not so much about the content as about the fear of damage to its reputation.

While in the meantime, it has become clear that something is really going on, he says. After his research, the House of Representatives set up a committee to investigate Salafist influences (Dutch only) in mosques. “They were similar conclusions. My interpretation and analysis were not wrong. I stand behind my research,” the anthropologist concludes. “I have mapped this group.” This is how supervisor Gowricharn also still sees it: “It is an extremely courageous thesis.”

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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