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Scientific integrity – indispensable even in times of crisis

good scientific practice

Researchers in Germany are required to follow the rules of "good scientific practice" in their work. These rules are an important quality assurance tool, which also aim to ensure smooth cooperation between scientists and define common rules of conduct. In Germany, the "Ombudsman for Science" committee set up by the DFG acts as a central advisory body for all scientists and academics conducting research in Germany on questions and conflicts related to good scientific practice. Dr. Czesnick is the head of the committee's office. We asked her some questions about the work of the committee and about good scientific practice in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Note: the interview was translated from German. See original German version

Dr. Czesnick, what exactly is the task of the Ombudsman for Science?

Czesnick: The "Ombudsman for Science", a body set up by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), provides confidential advice on questions of good scientific practice. In conflicts relating to possible scientific misconduct, the body has a neutral role and tries to mediate (in ombudsman proceedings). However, this is only possible if the suspected misconduct can still be corrected, such as in the case of conflicts of authorship or data use. On the other hand, it is not possible to mediate in cases of suspicion of plagiarism or falsification of data - after a preliminary examination, the committee forwards such indications to the competent body of the university or non-university research institution concerned, such as the commission for investigating scientific misconduct of the respective institution.

How is the committee structured?

Czesnick: The Ombudsman Board consists of four experienced professors from different fields. This is important because the "Ombudsman for Science" advises scientists from all disciplines. The current members of the committee are Prof. Dr. Joachim Heberle (Free University of Berlin, Physics), Prof. Dr. Daniela Männel (University of Regensburg, Bio-Medicine), Prof. Dr. Renate Scheibe (University of Osnabrück, Biology) and Prof. Dr. Stephan Rixen (University of Bayreuth, Law), who is also the spokesperson of the committee. The honorary committee is supported by an office in Berlin. The staff of the office also provide advice.

The focus of your work is on ensuring conformity with the DFG's "Guidelines for Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice". What are important points of "good scientific practice"?

Czesnick: Good scientific practice is primarily about honesty, fairness and transparency in joint cooperation in science. This refers, for example, to the fact that a scientific achievement should always be attributed to the people who did the work (when it comes to establishing authorship or "credit" for ideas; one might also think of correct citation practices).It should be possible for those who have collected the data to work with it - but scientists should not block the publication of data out of self-interest either, because that would not be fair to the scientific community and the public.  It is often a matter of balancing interests. Especially at the beginning of their careers, scientists should be well trained and supported by more experienced colleagues with regard to scientific integrity; they should learn to assess and evaluate their own performance as well as the performance of others. Fair cooperation also refers to cooperation between institutions. These are all aspects of good scientific practice. In working with conflicts in science, it is as true as usual that every story has (at least) two sides. In ombudsman work, it is therefore very important to always listen to all those involved and to demand evidence for statements.

Of course, Germany stands not alone in research. What about the internationalisation of quality standards in science? Are there generally accepted rules globally?

Czesnick: There are international guidelines on scientific integrity, which the scientific community - at different levels - has agreed on. For example, there is the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (published by ALLEA, 2017), which serves as a basis for many national guidelines. International guidelines are also regularly developed within the framework of the World Conferences on Research Integrity, such as the Singapore Statement (2010), the Montreal Statement (2013) or the Hong Kong Principles (2019). Publishers and international associations, such as the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), have also published recognised guidelines, e.g. on authorship.

Numerous countries have written national rules on good scientific practice that take into account the circumstances of the scientific landscape of the respective country. The fact that the structures for scientific integrity, such as the responsibilities of national and local "Research Integrity Offices", vary from country to country is shown, for example, by a European comparison of the members of the ENRIO network (the European Network of Research Integrity Offices, The "Ombudsman for Science" has been an active ENRIO member since 2010 and has held the Vice Chair since 2019. The exchange there often gives us impulses for the resolution of conflicts.

"Publish or perish!" is a statement that every person in science is confronted with during the doctoral period at the latest. Does this pressure to publish sometimes stand in the way of "good scientific practice"?

Czesnick: The immense pressure to publish undoubtedly encourages competitive thinking. In science (as in other areas of life as well) this can boost performance, but it also has neagtive consequences. For example, we are increasingly seeing real "battles" for certain positions in the ranking of authors, such as first and last authorships, as these are still frequently used as a central performance criterion by reviewers, employers in science, but also by research funding institutions. Doctoral students or postdocs still hear the argument that it would be "better for the institute" if the head of the institute or group was prominently featured in an article despite a minimal contribution - this is clearly a matter of metrics and reputation.But there is another way: there are many scientists of integrity who are committed to promoting young researchers and who admit to themselves (and others) mistakes and correct them immediately.  We see this in ombudsman work as well. It shows again how important teaching scientific integrity is at all career levels.

In times of the coronavirus pandemic, research is, in a sense, under the microscope. This reveals some weak points in the system. Many scientific control processes are based on peer reviews and are time intensive. In your opinion, how much does the peer review process suffer from the current situation in which society and politics want quick results and corona virus research has increased immensely? Do you see "good scientific practice" at risk due to the strong acceleration of research and publication in the face of the pandemic?

Czesnick: The rules of scientific integrity should of course also be respected in times of crisis - the ENRIO network already called for "research integrity" to be maintained during the pandemic in a statement at European level in April 2020. The DFG has also pointed out the importance of scientific quality standards, especially during the pandemic. This means that there should still be a critical and honest examination of ones own data and results as well as the results and conclusions of colleagues in science. In recent months, we have been able to observe such critical discourses as well as - unfortunately - the withdrawal of contributions in which inconsistencies had been noticed by colleagues. Whether, for example, certain factors were overlooked due to particular haste (and, as you have already noted: society's demand for rapid results and solutions) can rarely be clearly determined in retrospect. We suspect that the urgent need for rapid research results also led to oversights or mistakes, which were then immediately uncovered by the professional community. Even in the pandemic, the already established self-correction mechanisms of science are effective. The expert community identifies weaknesses and errors in research approaches during peer reviews, but also after the publication of results - regardless of whether publications are preprints or postprints.

How do you assess the consequences of the pandemic on science? Will processes have to be optimized in the long term?

Czesnick: The pandemic will certainly have many consequences - it is not yet possible to conclusively assess exactly what these consequences will be. How important and helpful it can be for researchers to have skills in the field of science communication was particularly evident during the pandemic. Digital communication channels as an alternative to meetings and business trips should continue to be increasingly used in the future. They save time, which can then be used for research, and also improve the compatibility of private or family life and work. The problematic aspects of the science system exist independently of pandemics. They have been debated for years, e.g. at conferences on scientific integrity or at the symposia for ombudspersons which we organise regularly. This year, for example, the focus was on abuse of power and dependencies in the science system. In conflict counselling we continue to receive (despite the pandemic) mostly "classical" questions about plagiarism, research data or authorship. Currently, we receive more conflicts about authorship than usual - possibly because many scientists invest their time in the home office to complete manuscripts. Otherwise, the pandemic so far had little impact on our ombudsman work. Since universities and non-university research institutions are currently facing many new challenges due to the pandemic (such as the organisation of digital teaching), the processes in the science sector may be somewhat slowed down at the moment. However, we certainly do not see a standstill, the issues of good scientific practice remain as important as ever.

Dr, Czesnick, thank you very much for answering our questions! 


Interview: Dr. Dana A. Thal for the German Research Platform for Zoonoses

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