What does it mean to be a researcher in 21st century Academia?

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Recent events, receiving substantial attention in our national media, have caused concerns among academic staff and the general public about research deontology, increasing publication pressure and the changing professional environment in which academics have to work. First of all, there was the case of Diederik Stapel in the Netherlands. In 2011 he was suspended by Tilburg University when he was exposed for fabricating and manipulating data for research publications. A malpractice that was apparently going on for years. It didn't stop with this case, however: in March 2013, the Belgian scientific magazine EOS revealed in a study that 1 out of 12 researchers admitted to manipulating data sometimes in order to cope with the increasing pressure to publish. These cases obviously raise some serious questions about ethics, deontology, norms and the conduct of research itself. In a reaction, Belgian universities have expressed their interest to raise awareness among the academic population and pointed to the Doctoral Schools as a way of accomplishing this. Yet, raising awareness among young scholars cannot be reduced to a firm, although pertinent, condemnation of individual practices alone. It is important to situate and contextualize these cases of individual malpractice within a broader context of academic globalization and the position of local research institutions and universities in an increasingly global and competitive environment. The seminars organized in this course titled "What does it mean to be a researcher in the 21st century?" attempt to address these broader questions and raise awareness among researchers, not only of their individual obligations and role within academic institutions, but also of the broader context of the research environment in which they try to build a career.


6 sessions of 3 hours

Each session consists of 1.5 hours of lectures/talks by two speakers followed by a group discussion.

Students will be required to read preparatory literature and write a 1-2 page essay in preparation of each session focusing on the following questions:

  1. What is the policy at my department/university concerning this specific topic? What is going wrong?
  2. How could it be organized and developed differently and in better ways?
  3. What can I do as an individual researcher?

These answers and questions will be addressed during the group discussions.


To have a critical understanding of the contemporary politics and economics of academic research environments. To have critical insight into and awareness of the current responsibilities and societal role of academic research. To gain  comprehensive knowledge of current debates on a series of topics related to today's role of academic research, such as publication policies and strategies, research ethics, intellectual property regimes and slow science. To obtain critical insights into the relationships between academic institutions, markets and the civil society. To formulate critical arguments and engage in interactive debates. To formulate a critical analysis of the elaborated topics and defend one's own arguments in short academic essays.


Session 1: Publish or perish

10 October 2013, 14:00-17:00 - Facultaire vergaderzaal Decaan John Vincke, Faculty Political & Social Sciences, Korte Meer 5, 9000 Gent

15 min introduction by Sigrid Vertommen en Koen Bogaert on the general context and the aims of the course.

In this first session, we ask the students to reflect on their publication strategies and the research climate in which they are developed. Topics that will be discussed include the politics of indexing and ranking, the politics of internationalization and the politics of performance measurement. The session will consist of two lectures and a group discussion on individual publication strategies.


Koenraad Debackere(external link) is not only the chairperson of the 'Vlaanderen in Actie(external link)' action plan, but also of the Centre for Research & Development Monitoring (ECOOM(external link)). This Center is an interuniversity consortium with participation of all Flemish universities (KU Leuven, Ghent University, VUB, UA and UHasselt). Its mission is to develop a consistent system of R&D and Innovation (RD&I) indicators for the Flemish government. This indicator system has to assist the Flemish government in mapping and monitoring the RD&I efforts in the Flemish region. ECOOM's activity supports the Flemish government's ambition to consolidate and further develop its position as a European innovation intensive region. To serve this ambition, a well-developed RD&I indicator system is needed. This is the challenge the Flemish government has taken on, together with ECOOM. To this end, ECOOM collaborates intensely with all relevant actors in the Flemish RD&I system: universities, research institutes and industry. The government agencies EWI and IWT are close partners in this endeavor.

Nick Schuermans(external link) is a post-doctoral research associate at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the KU Leuven and the Centre on Inequality, Poverty, Social Exclusion and the City at the University of Antwerp. Nick’s research focuses on innovative ways to nurture cross-cultural and cross-class solidarity in diversity. Together with Bruno Meeus and Filip De Maesschalck, he has written about the changing publication strategies of Belgian geographers. Even though he applauds the tendency to publish in Web of Science journals, he is afraid that the one-sided focus on Web of Science publications hampers the role of academic geography, and other disciplines, in society as a whole. Should we only care about the impact factors of our Web of Science articles or also about their impact on society at large: that is the question Nick wants to address.

Group discussion: What is your current publication strategy? In what kind of journals do you want to publish? Which motivations do you have to publish there? Would another science be possible if you would broaden your publication strategies?

Reading list:

  • Debackere, K., Glänzel, W. (2004). Using a bibliometric approach to support research policy making: The case of the Flemish BOF-key. Scientometrics, 59 (2), 253-276.
  • Schuermans, N., Meeus, B., De Maesschalck, F. (2010). Is there a world beyond the Web of Science? Publication practices outside the heartland of academic geography. Area. 42, 417-424.


Session 2: Political economy of academic knowledge

6 November 2013, 14:00-17:00 - LL.M Room, Faculty Political & Social Sciences, Binnenkoer Universiteitstraat 4, 9000 Gent

During the second session we will elaborate on the current function and role of academic knowledge within global knowledge economies and the ongoing commodification of academic knowledge. We will discuss how this affects our research agendas, the quality of our research and the dissemination of our academic work.


Chris Kesteloot(external link) is professor of social and economic geography at the KU Leuven . His research focuses on urban development and inequality. He is also a member of the Vooruitgroep, and a strong proponent of the slow science movement.

Sigrid Sterckx is a (fulltime) professor of Ethics at Ghent University and a (10%) professor of Ethics at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). She lectures courses in Theoretical Ethics, Methods in Ethics, Contemporary Continental Ethics, Global Ethics, Environmental Ethics and Applied Ethics. Her current research focuses on ethical aspects of biobanking, organ transplantation and patenting of human body material (particularly genes and stem cells); ethical issues regarding human enhancement (attempts to enhance non-disease related traits); medical decision-making at the end of life (particularly terminal sedation); environmental ethics and governance, focusing inter alia on climate change and global as well as intertemporal justice; and ethical aspects of the patent system. She has (co-)authored numerous publications in international journals and books. Sigrid also serves on various advisory boards and commissions, including the Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics which advises the Federal Government, and works as an ethics consultant for various EU research projects.

Group discussion: Different topics such as the funding of universities, the property regimes of academic journals and open access will be discussed.

Reading list: to be confirmed


Session 3. Academia and society

19 December 2013, 9:30-12:30 - Auditorium E (ground floor), Faculty Political & Social Sciences, Department of Conflict & Development Studies, Universiteitstraat 8, 9000 Gent

In the third session, we will focus on the interrelations between academia and society. By focusing on the controversial case of Barbara Van Dyck, we aim to initiate a debate on the social, the political and economic role of academics. Who poses the research questions we address as a scholar? Whose interests are we serving with our knowledge? The session will consist of two lectures and a group discussion on the Barbara Van Dyck case.


Martijn Duineveld(external link) is working on Evolutionary Governance Theory in the fields of geography, urban and coastal planning. He holds a position as Assistant Professor at the Cultural Geography chair group at Wageningen University. He is especially interested in the dynamics of power, knowledge and places. He has published extensively on the contributions of science to society at large. In our company, he will look at the role of science in the transition towards a meat industry.

Anneleen Kenis(external link) is a PhD researcher at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the KULeuven. Her research focuses on ecological citizenship, sustainability transitions and politicization. In this field, she is not only engaged as a researcher, but also as an activist. Drawing on her experiences with action research, her presentation will focus on the social position of the university and the field of tension between scholarship and activism.

Group discussion: Should scientists refrain from politics? Or should their professional background encourage them to take up a well-informed role in social debates? Is it legitimate that science is being stimulated by corporate interests? Or should scientists work independently from both economic and political interests?

Reading list:

  • Duineveld, M., Kuijer, G. (2007). Tevens zal dit onderzoek een belangrijke bijdrage leveren aan... Over het politiek maatschappelijke 'nut'  van sociaal wetenschappelijk onderzoek. Wageningen: WUR.
  • Duineveld, M. (2012). Doing things with varkens and words : discursieve technieken in de strijd om transitie van de grootschalige veehouderij. Wageningen: WUR.
  • threerottenpotatoes.wordpress.com(external link)


Session 4: Precarity at University

23 January 2014, 14:00-17:00 - Auditorium E (ground floor), Faculty Political & Social Sciences, Department of Conflict & Development Studies, Universiteitstraat 8, 9000 Gent

In the fourth session we want to elaborate on the working conditions within the academic world and pay attention to the fact that only a small minority of academic staff enjoys job security. The majority works on temporary contracts and projects and is forced to constantly think about, work towards and apply for new types of funding. This is an extra concern, aside from the pressure and obligations that come along with their actual academic work. This aspect of precarity can also be situated within broader concerns and evolutions of precarity that are related to the University and their role within education. In recent years, and especially in other parts of the world, the public aspect of higher education has fallen under scrutiny, and as a result, triggered protests among students against the privatization of education. In countries such as Chili, Canada and the UK students engaged in strikes and demonstrations after government decisions were made to raise tuition fees considerably.  In Belgium as well, students of all universities recently protested in a joint action (28 March 2013) to demand more public investments in higher education. Can we observe, at a global level, a more structural relationship or evolution between the precarious working conditions of a large segment of the academic professional population and the increasing financial efforts and risks that students have to take in order to be able to graduate from university (e.g. through student loans, student jobs, etc.)?


Rhiannon Colvin(external link) is a member of The Really Open University, a British group that was involved in the 2010 student movement against the raises in fees, and aims to transform university. The Really Open University produced publications and held multiple workshops around what it would take to Rethink and Reimagine the university, all of which culminated in a six month project called 'The Space Project' that aimed to take radical research and education outside of the university institution. (to be confirmed)

Dora Meade(external link) is an editor at The Roundhouse Journal(external link), an independent publishing platform for the reflexive application of critical theory to practice. Its focuses are contemporary social, political and educational movements.

Jan Danckaert(external link) (VUB – ACOD) obtained a PhD on the subject of nonlinear optics in 1992 at the VUB. In 2001 and 2002 he was a visiting scientist at IMEDEA (now IFISC), CSIC-UIB, Palma de Mallorca, Spain. As from 2005-2006 on he is full professor at the VUB. Jan is ACOD representative for academic staff at the VUB. (to be confirmed)

Reading list: to be confirmed


Session 5: Authority in academia

19 February 2014, 14:30-17:30 - Blauwe zaal, Vleugel C (ground floor), Faculty Political and Social Sciences, Binnenkoer Universiteitstraat 4, 9000 Gent

The university, as a center of knowledge production, takes a unique position within contemporary societies. This position cannot be decoupled from the question of authority. If universities play a crucial role in the technological, social and economic advancement of contemporary society and contribute to the development of new ideas, young researchers have to be aware of the role of academic authority on the one hand, and the ways in which authority and power itself shape academic knowledge on the other. What informs the current debates on academic authority? How can we explain and understand this, and how can we change it?


Paul Verhaeghe(external link) is a clinical psychologist,  psychoanalyst and professor at Ghent University. Over the last decade his main research interest is the impact of societal change on psychological and psychiatric problems. He has also written on the impact of neoliberal managerial techniques and meritocracy on the organization of university.

Reading list: to be confirmed


Session 6: Another science/university is possible! Introducing a slow science ethics and politics

26 March 2014, 14:00-17:00 - LL.M Room, Faculty Political & Social Sciences, Binnenkoer Universiteitstraat 4, 9000 Gent

In this closing session we will connect all the main questions and answers raised in the previous five sessions and integrate them into a crucial discussion on ‘how another science/university is possible’. Isabelle Stengers will shortly introduce the idea behind ‘slow science’ after which we will discuss possible new horizons and critical modes of thought on how science and Academia could be conceptualized and organized in the 21st century.


Isabelle Stengers(external link) teaches philosophy at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. As a philosopher of science, Stengers has written extensively on the production of academic knowledge She is especially interested in the crucial challenge, both political and cultural, of an active ecology embedding our many diverging scientific practices in a democratic and demanding environment, against both the ideal of their sovereign autonomy and their submission to social demands. She recently published a book Une autre science est possible! (Another science is possible, 2012) in which she holds a plea for slow science.


Christopher Parker teaches Middle Eastern history and politics at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies of the Ghent University. His research interests centre around globalization and the realignment of politics in the Middle East. He is also interested in the sociology of knowledge and theories/methods of critical social research.

Group discussion: How can we be researchers in 21st century Academia?

Reading list:

Teaching material

Articles and texts to prepare, provided through Zephyr

Number of participants




Evaluation criteria (doctoral training programme)

active participation in at least 4 seminars; reading and prepatory essays (1-2 pages) for each seminar

Registration fee

Free of charge for members of the Doctoral Schools

Registration procedure

Registration is closed on 3 October 2013. For information please contact Sigrid Vertommen.