Skill sheets. An integrated approach to research, study and management

What can psychologists learn from economists when it comes to learning?

When it comes to studying skills, usually psychologists are asked for advice – cognitive and developmental psychology provides insights into how we think and learn new things. Therefore, the fact that this book was written by an economist is somehow surprising. But it shows that psychology can benefit from adopting the economical point of view on the market of knowledge. Rob van Tulder is professor of international business at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and his book is mainly dedicated to students of management and business. However, not only business students can benefit from it. Van Tulder combines his knowledge (citing psychological and marketing findings) and didactic skills to create a handbook of research skills that can and should be developed throughout the whole academic career. Additionally, he gives economical reasons to argue why it pays off to use those skills.

In the recent case of Diederik Stapel, who was publishing fake data for about 10 years, an investigation revealed outrageous moral and financial consequences for science, field and university. The committee formed to investigate the nature of this breach of scientific integrity aimed to investigate the kind of research-culture enabled such behavior for such a long time. One of important factors listed in the report is the insufficient academic criticism and lack of clear and transparent guidelines for controlling research behavior. Although van Tulder’s book was published before Stapel’s fraud was made public, it already describes examples of academic environment that can create a very fertile soil for such behavior.

Van Tulder describes academia as being governed by the rules of a bargaining society – participants engage in calculating behavior and seek to maximize output through minimum effort. Bargaining society is a world where meeting deadlines is more important than the quality of the job (Deadline-society) and where quick and open is better than thorough and closed (Wiki Society). As it becomes more and more difficult to judge the quality of steadily increasing amount of information, academics (being just people) use heuristics such as status to judge the quality of other’s work. Such rules cause distortions in the academic status, since it gradually becomes more important to network than to work – you are who you know and who knows you. Such academic circles lead in the end to the creation of the pseudo-intellectual society, where academics strive not to be right, but to be proved (and published) right. Criticism is only used as a tool – to publish another paper. In addition, only a closed and specialized circle of peer reviewers decide about „the truth“. No wonder that the report about Diederik Stapel concludes: This is possibly the most precarious point of the entire data fraud. Scientific criticism and approach failed on all fronts in this respect. The falsification of hypotheses is a fundamental principle of science, but was hardly a part of the research culture surrounding Mr Stapel.

The skills, such as reading, listening, writing, presenting, project management and self-management, are arranged on a Skill Circle that constitutes a thread line of the book. The Skill Circle is based on two axes: social scale (individual vs. group skills) and process scale (input vs. output orientation). An interesting effect arises from the combination of different skills, e.g. reading and writing (Effective writing requires re-reading time and again, p. 16) or presentation and writing (Our thoughts are half-formed and unexamined when they’re still inside our heads. Through talking about them, writing them down, debating them, teaching them (...) we work out our beliefs and ideas and make them better, p. 16).

As evidenced by the subtitle, An integrated approach to research, study and management, van Tulder tries to show that this set of basic skills is necessary for success in all those areas. These skills are carefully and precisely described, so they can serve both as guidelines for students, as well as evaluation criteria for lecturers. A detailed index of required skills, included at the beginning of every chapter, enables an overview of the appropriate academic level (bachelor, master, PhD).

The main limitation of this book, and concomitantly its main strength, is that it is written with business students in mind. In times when governmental savings reach higher education, economical arguments for ethical research might be the most convincing. Psychology students might find some guidelines and ideas less relevant or unnecessary. The author does not concentrate on any specific skills, such as data processing, as he already takes this knowledge for granted (p. 21). One would not find advice on how to structure one’s environment to increase productivity either. But what I find most inspiring about the book is that it gives clear descriptions of what constitutes good research skills and academic environment, while keeping it within physical and economical feasibility. And what makes the book distinctive from other study self-help books and guides is the philosophical perspective on the problem of a bargaining society. Because describing the rules is one thing. Whether academics want to make use of them or not, is another question. After all a person is not shaped by the skills (s)he has, but by the choices (s)he makes on the basis of these skills (p. 23, cf. Boers, Lingsma, 2003). The case of Diederik Stapel proves this sentence right.


Van Tulder, R. (2007). Skill Sheets. An Integrated Approach to Research, Study and Management. Benelux: Pearson Education

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