Anonymous complaint about Dutch economist is “unfounded”: Report

Peter Nijkamp
Peter Nijkamp

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) has dismissed an anonymous accusation against economist Peter Nijkamp and two of his colleagues, including one of his graduate students, regarding issues related to “data acquisition and data processing.”

The announcement, released last week, determined the latest complaint was “unfounded:”

An investigative committee consisting of scientists Jan Struiksma, Jan van Mill and Guy Widdershoven has investigated an anonymous complaint regarding data acquisition and data processing in research conducted by Peter Nijkamp and Karima Kourtit and by Peter Nijkamp and Tüzin Baycan-Levent. After carefully examining all the facts, the committee has concluded in its final report that all parts of the complaint are deemed invalid. VU Amsterdam’s Executive Board has decided to wholly support the findings of the investigative committee and is satisfied that there has been no violation of scientific integrity by the above-mentioned former VU Amsterdam employees.

This is not the first complaint lodged against Nijkamp. Last year, an investigation by Jaap Zwemmer, a professor emeritus at the University of Amsterdam, found him guilty of “questionable research practices,” after determining 60 out of 261 articles had issues related to “frequent reuse.” In response, Nijkamp sent us a statement saying, in part:

…my case is clean and can be closed.

Kourtit has lost her thesis due to plagiarism. Nijkamp has had to retract multiple papers for duplication and other issues.

The latest investigation did not include those previous cases, the VU notes:

Publications from Kourtit’s thesis did not form part of the investigation, since they had previously been scrutinized by the relevant thesis committee and no irregularities were encountered. The Academic Integrity Committee excluded plagiarism from its deliberations, as that aspect of the complaint overlapped with a prior investigation conducted by a committee under the chairmanship of Professor Zwemmer.

The newest investigation originated in 2014, according to the release:

On 12 June 2014, the VU Ombudsman for Scientific Integrity received an anonymous complaint regarding data acquisition and data processing in research conducted by Peter Nijkamp, Karima Kourtit and Tüzin Baycan-Levent. The Executive Board ruled that the complaint was sufficiently detailed and substantiated and the accusations made could not be ruled unfounded upon receipt of the complaint. The complaint could be investigated without further cooperation of the anonymous complainant.

However, the fact that the complainant remained anonymous made things more difficult:

In seeking publicity anonymously, the complainant avoids any judgement of their own actions and also interferes with a very thorough and careful procedure.

Here’s a link to the final report. It presented the accusations about multiple publications, including “Strategic Choice Analysis by Expert Panels for Migration Impact Assessment,” published in the International Journal of Business and Globalisation, 2011.

Here are some of the complainant’s accusations about that paper, according to the report:

The complainant asserts that results are almost certainly not based on research that has actually taken place. He deduces this from irregularities found by him in Table 1 as included in the publication.

The verdict:

The publication states that the research data were obtained by consulting thirteen experts on effects of immigration. Nijkamp and Kourtit provided the Committee with the questionnaire used to survey these experts’ opinions and the data set compiled from it. The Committee sees no reason to presume that the data set was falsified…This part of the complaint is unfounded.

After going through the series of complaints about the remaining publications, the report notes:

It must be concluded that not a single part of the complaint is founded.

Richard Gill, a statistician at the University of Leiden who has previously raised questions about the work coming out of Nijkamp’s group, told us he didn’t expect the committee to find signs of deliberate fraud:

I was not surprised at all by the recent verdict. I never ever expected that the data-irregularities which the anonymous whistleblower discovered in these papers were caused by deliberate fraud. Much more likely that there was a mixture of minor errors caused by carelessness, as well as misunderstandings about the nature of the data on the part of the whistleblower, perhaps partly stimulated by careless or inaccurate writing.

The committee does not succeed in resolving all the anomalies. But they see no evidence for deliberate fraud.

If you read the whistleblower’s report as a whole, you will see that again and again he is criticising the general level of quality of the research work. And it should be emphasized that the work we are talking about is the work produced by students and former students around Prof. Nijkamp, probably not by Prof. Nijkamp himself, even if his name always appears as a co-author.

Gill added that he didn’t expect to see any further investigations into allegations of fraud:

I don’t see any reason for further investigations. The committee did very careful work, their findings are published in English. I’m glad that any ideas of data-fraud have been put definitively to rest. It’s clear that the whistleblower several times jumped to conclusions: he repeatedly saw fraud as the only explanation for some anomaly, when all kinds of carelessness in the writing of the papers could have generated misunderstandings on his part.
I have always thought that this whole affair was about “quality” not about “integrity”; and about publication practices (quantity versus quality).

Update 1/21/16 10:20 a.m. eastern: We’ve received a comment from a VU spokesperson, who told us they will no longer consider any more anonymous complaints against Nijkamp:

The investigation did proceed, even though the complainant was anonymous. The complaint was detailed and serious, and therefore could not be ignored by the Executive Board. Ignoring the complaint would have been a violation of the European Code of Conduct (ALLEA). The Executive Board regrets the fact that the complainant preferred to remain anonymous, thereby foregoing any active involvement in discussions and investigations. The Executive Board believes that this matter has been fully investigated and no further anonymous complaints against the above-mentioned individuals will be considered.

Update 1/22/16 9:49 a.m. eastern: We have received a statement signed by Nijkamp and Kourtit:

Dear colleagues:
You may recall that over the past years various anonymous accusations have been spread around, questioning our scientific integrity. This information was communicated to colleagues all over the world by an aggressive journalist who claimed to be employed by one of the Dutch newspapers. This has continued for more than two-and-a-half years. It is most likely that you also have been approached in the past period by this journalist.

Various judgement committees have looked into all these anonymous allegations. Last week the Board of the VU University has released a press communication in which a final verdict was published on these anonymous complaints. This verdict was based on a careful analysis of our publications including even statistical replication tests, expert opinion etc. The conclusion from these investigations was straightforward and unambiguous: “It must be concluded that not a single part of the complaint is founded”.

This final decision more or less concludes this long and painful period where our names has been put in question by anonymous colleagues. You will understand that we are not impressed by the University policy to adopt this procedure without protecting us as dedicated and honest researchers. This may of course eventually lead to a legal action against the University.

But for now, the sunny side of life tell us: “All’s well that ends well”. We really thank you for your understanding and support during this difficult period. And we felt strengthened by your belief in our scientific integrity. Now that this has been confirmed and publicly announced by competent authorities, we feel relieved. And we are happy that at the end the truth has been brought to light. We are pleased that our solid science performance has been objectively recognised and protected.

With this positive note, we thank you once more for your great support and trust, which we will not forget. Of course, we hope to meet you soon again on one of our scientific missions or research venues. The recently created Regional Science Academy is one of the vehicles which will help us to contribute to a further enhancement of advanced new knowledge in the spatial sciences. We really look forward to a continued fruitful cooperation with all of you.

Best personal regards,

Peter Nijkamp, Amsterdam

Karima Kourtit, Stockholm

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