Dutch university ordered to pay economist after she was accused of plagiarism

VU UniversityA court in the Netherlands has fined Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) 7,500 euros to compensate for “immaterial damage” to an economist accused of plagiarism.

Karima Kourtita researcher at VU, has been at the receiving end of anonymous complaints to her institution accusing her of plagiarism and her professor, high-profile economist Peter Nijkamp, of duplication (i.e. self-plagiarism). Kourtit is now seeking to prosecute the unnamed source of the complaint for defamation; the VU told us it will no longer accept fully anonymous complaints.

The case began when VU cancelled Kourtit’s thesis defense for plagiarism, and a report published on the VSNU, the Association of Universities, accused Nijkamp of self-plagiarism. Two of Nijkamp’s papers have been retracted as a result of the investigation; Kourtit is an author on one of the retracted papers.

A VU spokesperson told us:

The court concluded that Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam has to pay Dr Kourtit E7500 [around $8,400 USD]…to compensate immaterial damage, because of the publications in the time of her PhD-defense that was cancelled.

Nijkamp was not a part of this procedure.

According to the VU spokesperson, the court found that the VU handled the scientific integrity procedures of the case “correctly,” including the anonymous complaints. 

Kourtit’s lawyer told us the court has also ordered the VU to pay material damages, to be estimated in a separate procedure; he said the amount will be a “multiple” of the 7,500 euro figure.

Not everyone at VU has the same views regarding the case. As we reported previously, a commission led by Jaap Zwemmer, then professor emeritus at the University of Amsterdam, found Nijkamp to be guilty of “questionable research practices” after deciding that 61 out of his 260 writings had problems associated with “frequent use.”

But Frank van der Duyn Schouten, rector at the VU, said at the time there was “insufficient basis” for the claims being made. Nijkamp, who won one of the most prestigious science awards in his country, the “Spinoza Prize” in 1996, has also published his own report criticizing his institution’s conclusions. 

Earlier this year, we reported on the outcome of further anonymous complaints to the VU against Nijkamp, Kourtit, and another graduate student. The university released the following statement at the time:

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.

Following the series of anonymous complaints made to the institution, the VU has changed its policy on how it deals with unnamed complaints, the university’s spokesperson told us:

Our policy on scientific integrity has been altered last year, if people want to pose an anonymous complaint they have to make themselves known to at least one person within the university.

The spokesperson confirmed that currently

…there are no more active cases considering Peter Nijkamp or Karima Kourtit.

Kourtit sent us a statement, saying that she now plans to prosecute the anonymous whistleblower against her under Dutch Criminal Law. (You can read the entire statement here.)

Kourtit’s lawyer, Matthijs Kaaks, told us:

If a whistle blower acts in bad faith and/or publishes or distributes (deliberately) false accusations, he or she may be prosecuted for defamation or libel

A spokesperson from the Dutch Public Prosecution Service in the Netherlands told us:

The Dutch penal law says that slander is an offence. If that is the case in this situation will have to be investigated. But first we will have to identify the suspect, which the police so far has not been able to do.

A researcher in criminal law at the VU who asked not to be identified told us:

…if the prosecutor succeeds [in identifying the whistleblower], it is still for the Dutch court to decide whether the acts of anonymous produce the criminal act of defamation or slander. And if so, there is still a possibility that, given the importance of the case (and of recent other cases of university plagiarism), an acquittal follows because of the higher interests of public scientific integrity. Such an acquittal would be exceptional, but not impossible.

The researcher, however, pointed out that

sometimes there are specific rules for whistleblowers in an organization, which provide the conditions of giving publicity to a controversial course of events. Whether such rules apply at the VU and whether anonymous acted in accordance with these rules, I don’t know. But these can also be relevant for a criminal case against anonymous.

Kourtit’s statement added:

This good news forms the end of a long-lasting, bizarre and bitter story, which caused so much unnecessary painful damage from the side of these anonymous colleagues who were driven by unfair jealousy and vendetta motives.

But the sunny news is that also in academia the national legal framework is applicable to anyone who misbehaves or acts unlawfully against colleagues, even within the university.

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