Lessons for “research mania” from the Dutch tulip mania

WCRI | Hindawi Blog

In the winter of 1637, the price of a tulip in the Netherlands suddenly rocketed twenty-fold, costing more than a house and up to 45 times the average monthly wage. Often called the “tulip mania” and regarded as a crazy financial bubble akin to the South Sea Bubble almost a century later, the Dutch had not lost their minds but were actually responding to changes in contract law. Earlier that year German bulbs had flooded the market and suppressed the price, and so to avoid buyers taking a big hit Dutch tulip deals switched from futures contracts — buying at a fixed price at a future time — to options contracts. Now, a buyer could pledge to buy at a certain price, but if by the agreed time the market didn’t suit the buyer they could instead pay a small fee to be released from the contract. Removing the obligation to buy freed up the market and prices soared.

I recount this tale not only because the 5th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) was held last month in Amsterdam (see my tweets) and the logo was a stylised tulip, but also because we need to think about what leads people to behave in ways that may be personally beneficial but harmful to the system. Anne Golgar argued that “even though the financial crisis affected very few, the shock of tulip mania was considerable. A whole network of values was thrown into doubt”. Trust in science can be likewise thrown into doubt by the minority of researchers who commit outright fraud. Misconduct is sometimes dismissed as a problem of “a few bad apples” (often forgetting that they “spoil the whole barrel”!), but beyond misconduct lies the wider and more common problem of “questionable research practices”. Why scientists adopt questionable practices — benefitting themselves, but harming the progress of science — often appears to be down to their research environment and perverse incentives from how we fund and reward research. A striking example given at the WCRI by NTU President Bertil Andersson was a researcher hired on a contract to publish 10 papers: a whistleblower revealed this researcher faked the results and even invented a person and organisation in Malaysia in their attempt to maintain the fraud! NTU quickly put a stop to such contracts. The 2010 Singapore Statement that came out of an earlier WCRI said “Research institutions should create and sustain environments that encourage integrity through education, clear policies, and reasonable standards for advancement, while fostering work environments that support research integrity”; we’ve still got work to do.

There seems to be a growing appetite for taking legal action against fraudsters, something discussed in two talks and a session at the WCRI, and China has even introduced the death penalty for some research fraud, but as Neil Gaiman pointed out “The Law is a blunt instrument. It’s not a scalpel. It’s a club”; one of the themes that emerged from the conference was that research integrity is about much more than misconduct – and the proposed CLUE guidelines by former COPE chair Liz Wager on how journals and universities can collaborate (“Cooperation and Liaison between Universities and Editors”) even deliberately avoid the term “misconduct”. Picking off fraudsters can be satisfying, but it does not solve the systemic problems of research. The CLUE guidelines are valuable — organisations need to work together rather than blaming each other — and they are open for comments on bioRxiv.

Counting and rewarding publications and citations may be today’s “options contracts” and has helped cause scandals like that of Diederik Stapel in the Netherlands, a case discussed at the WCRI. In the 17th century, the Dutch government cancelled the contracts and brought the markets back to their senses; can our 21st century governance bodies — governments, funders, institutions, publishers — do the same with research?

The text and illustration in this blog post are by Hindawi and are distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The WCRI conference abstracts are online and my tweets are on Storify.