Symposium on scientific misconduct

November 20, 2003

Cases of scientific misconduct have created a stir over the last few years and, due in part to extensive reporting by the media, have become a topic of debate even by those outside the research community. Discussion has focussed not only on considerations about causes and motives, but also on the question as to how universities and other research organisations deal with scientific misconduct and how effective the processes of inquiry into concrete incidences are.

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) and the DFG Ombudsman have, for the first time, invited the ombudsman committees of universities and non-university research institutions to exchange experiences and ideas.

The two-day symposium, held on 12 and 13 November in Bonn, provided participants with an opportunity to examine in detail problems relating to scientific misconduct. On the first day of the conference, ombudsmen from various research organisations reported on their experiences during an internal meeting. The possibilities and limitations of the ombudsman system as a method of ensuring good scientific practice were also discussed. Professor Peter Hans Hofschneider from the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried gave a presentation on the difficult situation faced by "whistleblowers", whose interests often differ from those accused of misconduct.

It became evident from the reports and discussions that the strategies to combat the problem of scientific misconduct need to be applied at various points in the scientific system.

The initial aim is to increase awareness of good scientific practice among scientists and academics and thus prevent misconduct from the outset. In this context, it was stressed that researchers in leading positions have an obligation to assume responsibility in providing for and supervising young researchers. This is closely linked to furthering the process of establishing standards for good scientific practice, for example on questions of authorship, which is still at the heart of most disputes relating to misconduct.

The relationship between ombudsman committees and inquiry committees was also discussed. Here, the ombudsmen agreed that a clear definition of functions for both committees would ensure greater transparency and procedural clarity for all involved. At the same time, a permanent committee of experts should be set up to answer legal questions relating to scientific misconduct.

To improve the process for dealing with misconduct in the long term, a working group is to be set up to deal with improving protection for whistleblowers. At the same time, experience with cases of scientific misconduct is to be gathered into a collection of closed cases in order to identify problem areas and present and further develop approaches to solutions.

On the second day of the conference, to which representatives of the press were also invited, discussions focused on the potential causes of scientific misconduct and legal aspects of the inquiry process and the role of the media. In his thoughts on the causes of misconduct within the scientific structure, Professor Peter Weingart from the University of Bielefeld observed an "erosion of the behavioural code" which, he feels, can be attributed to a change in the scientific culture, where the maxims of shareholder value have now come to the fore.

Weingart pointed out the importance of the integrity of the scientific system as a whole, as breaches of the rules of good scientific practice can only be recognised and clarified within the system. Ulrich Schnabel from Die Zeit saw the role of the press in relation to scientific misconduct as that of a corrective. He feels there is a public perception that the discovery of scientific misconduct is often not followed up with legal action, which makes reporting in the media even more important as it publicises the results of inquiries into misconduct.

Finally, the presentation by Claus Christiansen from the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty provided insight into the procedures for investigating scientific misconduct in other countries. Investigations in Denmark are considerably more centralised and formalised than in Germany, and also prone to political intervention.

The DFG Ombudsman was set up in 1999 as an entity independent from the DFG. All researchers may turn to the DFG Ombudsman directly for advice and support on questions of good scientific practice.

The Ombudsman publishes its work in regular reports which are available on the internet at
http://www.rrz.uni-hamburg.de/dfg_ombud/.
-end-
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