Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
26 February 2024

Science
& Education

Minority teachers and students self-censors

What can you say and what’s better left unsaid? A ‘considerable minority’ of researchers, teachers and students has applied self-censorship over the past years, a report reveals.

Some statements are applauded, others are met with angry responses – or both at the same time. Sometimes people prefer to hold in their words rather than deal with criticism (by the media, internet trolls or colleagues).

But how prevalent is self-censorship? At the insistence of the House of Representatives, Minister Dijkgraaf had the matter researched by the agency Technopolis. The report was published the week before the Christmas holiday.

Quarter

Between students and teachers it happens regularly, the report shows. In disciplines such as economics, behaviour & society and law, a quarter of teachers applied self-censorship in talks with students in the past three years.

Vice versa, students in almost all fields do the same when in contact with teachers and fellow students. Especially in programmes like law and educational sciences this occurs relatively frequently.

“It worries me that there are researchers, students and teachers who feel limited when expressing themselves, even to the point of censuring themselves, and I expect a free and open academic culture is and will remain a priority at all institutions”, the Minister responds in a letter. “At the same time, I do not expect that higher education and science are unique in this respect.” He points to the polarisation of the societal debate and the ‘politicisation’ of topics in society.

Magnifying glass

In general, researchers apply self-censorship less frequently than others. But in healthcare, 24 percent has done it in press releases, interviews or informative website texts, for example.

How could the latter be explained? Those interviewed suggest healthcare was under a magnifying class during the COVID pandemic. The pressure to perform and the hierarchy in the field are also said to contribute to self-censorship.

In comparison, in the agriculture & nature sector only 1 percent of researchers say they have applied self-censorship for whatever reason. For natural scientists, this figure is 2 percent.

Contradictive

Some of the outcomes seem to contradict one another. For instance, only few people at law faculties say that they apply self-censorship, but they do indicate they’re very concerned about the subject: half of the respondents believe the diversity of perspectives is under threat.

Please note, however, that only 24 people at law faculties completed the questionnaire. The report analyses the responses of just under five hundred teachers and researchers, out of the approximately five thousand that were approached. (The response rate was higher amongst students: 39 percent. 841 students completed the questionnaire.)

And how do the respondents actually define self-censorship? Academic freedom isn’t the same as freedom of speech. Sometimes the reason you’re biting your tongue may be that you don’t have enough evidence to support your opinion. Or as Dijkgraaf puts it: “Academic freedom is bounded by conducting research and by principles of scientific integrity such as honesty, meticulousness, transparency, independence and responsibility.”

People can also subconsciously adapt their behaviour, without seeing this as undesirable themselves. This means they are trained to think in specific ways and conform to certain opinions. This ‘brainwashing’, as the report calls it, is difficult to measure.

Threats

What’s more, the authors of the report can’t say if things were better before. Polarisation in society might have contributed to self-censorship, but there are no previous measurements. In five years’ time, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science will have this research conducted again, Dijkgraaf promises. “Until then, the Ministry will of course monitor things closely.”

Dijkgraaf points out what he has done already. For example, he wants to have better insight into the complaints and reporting procedures at higher education institutions. He has also set up the WetenschapVeilig safety hotline, which offers help to researchers faced with threats and intimidation. The conversation on academic freedom must continue, he believes.

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