“We are counselors to people who are worried about something”
What is meant by Good Scientific Practice and what should it take into account?
At the MDC we have set clear Rules for Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice (GSP), which everyone working in a scientific role must acknowledge in their contract and be bound by. We are currently adapting this code of conduct to the DFG’s new guidelines. I see Good Scientific Practice as encompassing everything that is or should be associated with the ethics of responsible research. This includes everything that maintains our trust in science. Such trust can’t be taken for granted. We need to earn it, and we need to do science the way it’s supposed to be done.
Good Scientific Practice comprises a large number of elements. First, we have the very elementary rules for what we do not do: we don’t lie, we don’t plagiarize and we don’t treat our colleagues badly. On the positive side, the GSP rules specify the ethical principles that our research follows at the MDC. It’s critical, however, that we put our employees in a position to do these things. Not everyone knows how to take a critical approach to an experiment or an analysis, or how to throw a cherished thesis overboard because it collides with the reality that an experiment reveals.
How can researchers be self-critical?
They need to continually monitor and question what they’re doing. Through dialogue with other researchers and, most of all, through dialogue in the lab. It quickly becomes obvious when you’re violating the Rules for Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice in the lab. This is where an ombudsperson like me comes into play. We are the people that researchers can turn to when they sense something isn’t right.
I can’t talk about specific cases here, of course. Because when someone comes to us they are always assured confidentiality. Besides, I’m relatively new to this role. But I did have a similar role for many years – as the center’s first PhD Ombudsperson.
How did you end up in that role?
The position was created following an unfortunate case of really serious academic dishonesty at the MDC. It was a terrible blow to science – shortly after the center was founded – and we at the MDC weren’t the only ones who learned a lot from it. The case involved two oncologists, Friedhelm Herrmann and Marion Brach, who in the early 1990s manipulated numerous publications on a large scale. They used false data, they described experiments that they never did, they actively committed fraud. All those things were blatant violations of Good Scientific Practice. These violations were investigated and processed by the DFG; lawyers got involved too. The investigation found specific grounds for suspected fraud or undeniable instances of fraud in over 90 publications.
At the MDC we started thinking about how to identify and prevent dishonesty and fraud, and how to create a climate at the research center and in the research groups that would enable individuals to report violations when they notice irregularities. This particular case of fraud was reported by a whistleblower, a PhD student who was working in the department in question. He went public.
We responded by setting up an ombuds office for PhD students so that young researchers would have a way to report suspected misconduct in their research groups. I served as the PhD Ombudsperson for several years. We never had another case like that one again, by the way.
Let’s go back to possible examples of misconduct that you would handle…
Instances of plagiarism would be one example. This includes fraud and intentional inaccuracy in PhD theses, incorrect quotes or quotes from other research or publications without including citations. When someone notices something like that and they feel uncomfortable – and they should feel uncomfortable! – they can come to us.
Sloppiness, errors, selectively chosen data
Do you see many cases of plagiarism?
This kind of misconduct is usually not very common in the natural sciences. What is more important is the issue of honest descriptions of experiments. This encompasses a lot, from honest mistakes to sloppiness to selectively choosing which data to use when analyzing your experiment – or which not to use because it does not line up with the results you expected. At the far end of the spectrum would be things like fictional control cases and full-on fraud. Using gels multiple times or simply inventing data are two examples of this. An ombudsperson should be called in for any of these things, and all of these things would ultimately be penalized too.
You said earlier that there haven’t been any serious cases of scientific misconduct in the more than 20 years since the last case. What are your day-to-day duties?
An ombudsperson’s job, as I understand it, is mostly about preliminary issues, and it involves much smaller things. It’s mostly about what’s known as credit allocation, which concerns questions like who needs to be credited with a specific experiment or finding, who should appear in the list of authors, and who should appear where in the list of authors. Another such question is who should be allowed to claim an experiment as their own in their PhD thesis. In cases where there is uncertainty or a dispute, an ombudsperson can be called in. We start a conversation, mediate and share arguments and opinions. We try to negotiate behind the scenes before there is a dispute over a publication or a patent or, in the worst cases, a scandal.
“The process is strictly confidential”
Does it require courage to be a PhD student and take a conflict with a supervisor or a colleague to an ombudsperson? Young researchers are in a dependent relationship, after all.
It shouldn’t require any courage to take the first step. Everything remains confidential. Anyone who comes to us can absolutely depend on that promise. An ombudsperson is often a kind of agony aunt that acts as a neutral party. We provide our opinion or advice that might de-escalate the problem. However, as the conversation moves on, we regularly pose the question of how we should proceed. Should we confront the boss or colleague who is being reported? Should we do it together, or should the ombudsperson do it alone? We put our heads together with the person who is making the complaint to decide how we might proceed. When we do take action, it’s always by mutual agreement.
What if you learn of something that could have legal consequences? I’m sure there are statutory requirements that overlap with the GSP rules. When are you forced to act?
When we are dealing with a real criminal offense, of course we have to reevaluate the situation. When there is suspicion of a serious violation, we need to bring in other parties, starting with the Board of Directors or the Legal Department. But even then we don’t do anything without first consulting with the person submitting the complaint.
I think it’s really important to point out that we are not the police; we don’t walk around the institute looking for cases of misconduct. In the vast majority of cases we are counselors to people who are worried about something. I want to try to understand and solve the conflicts that these people find themselves in. Our job often overlaps with that of other points of contact at the MDC. For instance, if a male group leader bullies a female group member and treats her badly in the lab, it’s a clear violation of Good Scientific Practice. But it also touches on the areas of responsibility of other counseling services at the MDC. That’s why, when it’s appropriate and necessary, we attempt to get in touch with those services – like, in this example, the Staff Council, the Women’s Representative, the PhD Representative and the Anti-Harassment Task Force… Sometimes we can hand over the reins to one of them, and sometimes we have to.
So a very large part of our work is based on good will. Sometimes, when that good will runs out, we are no longer able to solve the problem by providing guidance and advice. That’s when we need to take a different route and start a formal investigation. We have a clear Code of Procedure at the MDC for that too.
How does the MDC ensure that all researchers and lab staff are familiar with the GSP rules? Do new employees receive training?
Each employee has to acknowledge the rules in his or her employment contract. But we at the MDC should naturally make sure that rules are a matter of course for everybody, regardless of their position in the group hierarchy or their social background. An example: Not everyone is comfortable contradicting their group leader or questioning their superior’s instructions. Not everyone has learned or been trained to do that. But in my opinion, this is an integral part of critical science. It is a learning process that we should actively support. To my knowledge, there have yet not been any mandatory information events or seminars at the MDC dealing with the rules of Good Scientific Practice. We are currently considering organizing such an event. We should perhaps incorporate this into our guidelines, which we plan to revise in 2020 to bring them in line with the new DFG Code of Conduct. These, I believe, should be adopted and supported by the Scientific Council.
Interview: Jutta Kramm
The ombudspersons do not have office hours, but can be contacted at any time:
Phone: +49 (0)30 9406 3420
Phone: +49 (0)30 9406 4265