Project overview

Project leaders: René van Woudenberg, Jeroen de Ridder, Rik Peels

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Funded by Templeton World Charity Foundation

September 2020 – August 2023

1. Research Questions

The big question this project addresses is: How can universities enable epistemic progress—both policy-wise and in the humanities? We concentrate on two more specific sub-questions: Which institutional and policy arrangements and procedures foster responsible research practices, i.e. practices that enable epistemic progress, and how can such progress be measured? And: How can the humanities, theology included, realize epistemic progress?

The project does two things. First, it develops institutional policies and procedures for universities that facilitate epistemic progress. Specifically, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs, as we call them) for research integrity will be designed as well as training and support programs for mentors and supervisors. Second, it aims to contribute directly to epistemic progress in the humanities by carrying out replications of two cornerstone studies, by clarifying the nature of a prominent type of humanities explanations, namely non-causal explanations, by clarifying the relations between the sciences and the humanities, by writing a textbook on the philosophy of the humanities defending the possibility of progress in the humanities, and by articulating what progress in theology can amount to.

2. Importance

This project is important for two different reasons. First, the academic world has been shaken by reports about questionable research practices (QRPs) that are thought to be responsible for the replication crisis in certain fields of research (most notably social psychology and the bio-medical sciences.) Also, there are reports of cases of research misconduct (cases of fabrication and falsification of research data and plagiarism). This has led academic institutions all over the globe to develop codes for responsible research conduct. However, it is one thing to develop such codes, but quite another for them to have transforming effects. The research we propose is important precisely because it addresses further implementation.

Second, the project addresses the epistemic value and respectability of the humanities. In modern universities the humanities are, in the main, not valued as highly as the natural or the bio-medical sciences. In many countries the humanities and entire humanities departments are under threat. Still, the humanities are important, because they can give us knowledge and insights that cannot be obtained in other ways. It is the ambition of this project to explore and explain the possibilities of epistemic progress in the humanities, and to instantiate such progress itself.

This project is relevant to different groups of people: (1) University administrators and policy makers who are responsible for fostering responsible research practices; they can learn about and use the SOPs this project will develop. (2) University boards interested in measuring how well they are doing in meeting five core epistemic responsibilities. (3) The academic research integrity community. (4) Philosophers of science who are working on the question whether replication studies in the humanities are possible, who are studying the relations between the various sciences, and who are working on non-causal explanations. (5) Professors teaching undergraduate courses in the humanities who are looking for a textbook treatment of what the humanities are and how they compare to the sciences. (6) The general public.

3. Overview of the Subprojects

Part I of the project concerns institutional and policy aspects of epistemic progress in academia. It has three subprojects. The first one addresses the question of what epistemic progress consists in and how it can be assessed. It is the development and implementation of an assessment tool, as laid out in a previously published white paper (titled “Academia’s Big Five”). Subproject 2 studies what epistemic progress in science and the humanities amounts to. Subproject 3 focuses on responsible research practices, especially through the installment of standard operational procedures within research organizations. For this subproject, external funding from the European Union has been secured.

Part II addresses progress in the humanities: what it is and how it can be realized. Subproject 4 discusses the idea of replication in the humanities and proposes two replication studies. Introducing replication studies in the humanities, we think, is a genuine case of epistemic progress. The next subproject is premised on the idea that progress in the humanities depends, in part, on being clear about the nature of the non-causal explanations that we find in the humanities, and on being clear on how the humanities relate to the sciences and the social sciences. Subproject 6 explores the idea of epistemic progress in theology.

The research will be carried out by René van Woudenberg, Jeroen de Ridder, Rik Peels, Lex Bouter, Joeri Tijdink, Gijsbert van den Brink, Stephen Grimm, Vincent Traag, 1 PhD, and 3 postdocs.

4. Impact

When successfully completed this project will result in the adoption of SOPs within a number of universities worldwide, but especially in Europe and North America, and there will be a validated tool by which universities can assess the degree to which they bear five key epistemic responsibilities. There will furthermore be an analysis of what epistemic progress in groups as well as individuals amounts to. Moreover, there will be pioneering and potentially agenda-setting replication studies in the humanities, there will a textbook (tentatively called “A Philosophy for the Humanities”) that, due to its orientation, can provide a new view on the field, and there will be a reasoned view about what progress in theology is. Moreover, three summer seminars, a number of smaller workshops and a conference will be occasions for sharing and discussing ideas.