April 06, 2018

German White Paper on Scientific Practices has Fostered University Ombuds Programs

In 1997, following a scientific scandal, the German Research Foundation (DFG - Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) provided recommendations to its member organizations to safeguard scientific best practice. An update was published in July 2013. This document, "Proposals for Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice" ("Sicherung guter wissenschaftlicher Praxis") was the impetus for the appointment of Scientific Ombuds in many German universities. Moreover, DFG has offered the services of its own German Research Ombudsman (Ombudsman für die Wissenschaft) since 1999 to supplement the work of university Ombuds.

The "Proposals for Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice" contains two sections that endorse the work of Ombuds:
Recommendation 5: Impartial Counselor (Ombudsman)
Universities and research institutes shall appoint independent mediators (ombudspersons) to whom their members may turn with questions concerning good scientific practice and in cases of suspected scientific misconduct. Universities and research institutions shall ensure that the identities of the independent mediators (ombudspersons) are known throughout the institution.
Commentary
An impartial and qualified mediator (or a small committee of such members) should advise the members of universities and research institutes on questions of good scientific practice. It would be part of their task to receive possible allegations of scientific misconduct in confidence and pass them on to the responsible authorities of the institution, if appropriate. They should be appointed from the institution’s faculty.
It is important that this function, which may also have a significant effect in preventing scientific dishonesty, be entrusted to persons of proven personal integrity and that they be equipped with the independence required by the task. In order to avoid conflicts of interest, the function should not therefore be performed by pro-rectors, deans or persons who have other managerial responsibilities in the institution.
The universities and research institutions should provide the independent mediators (ombudspersons) at their establishments with the support they require to carry out their duties. In addition to putting the names of the ombudspersons on the website and in the prospectus, this also means offering them practical assistance and maintaining a positive attitude towards their work. To render the mediation work more effective, institutions should consider ways in which to reduce their workload of the independent mediators (ombudspersons). Due to concerns about potential conflicts of interest, a deputy must always be appointed for an independent mediator (ombudsperson).
Members of universities and research institutes will normally prefer to discuss their problems with a person or persons locally available and familiar with local circumstances. They should not, of course, be obliged to do so if they prefer to turn immediately to the national “Ombudsman” proposed below (Recommendation 16).
* * *
Recommendation 16: Ombudsman for Science
The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft should appoint an independent authority in the form of an Ombudsman (or a small committee) and equip it with the necessary resources for exercising its functions. Its mandate should be to advise and assist scientists and scholars in questions of good scientific practice and its impairment through scientific dishonesty, and to give an annual public report on its work.
Commentary
Formulating norms and recommendations for good scientific practice only lays a foundation for their effect in real life. Difficulties in observing basic principles usually arise in their implementation. This is because the distinction between “honest” and “dishonest” is much easier in theory than in the actual circumstances of an individual case, with the involvements and value conflicts which come into play.
This is true for judging both one’s own conduct in science and for doubts cast upon the conduct of others. The latter often confront scientists and scholars – particularly those still engaged in establishing their career – with the question whether the interest of disclosing dishonest conduct of another scientist (who may be their elder and/or their superior) weighs up the consequential risks to their own career. This provides a challenging dilemma. “Whistleblowers” may become victimized. To provide a way out of the isolation of such a conflict, the commission recommends that the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft take the initiative of appointing an Ombudsman (or a body of Ombudspersons) for science and scholarship.
Such a mediating person or committee should be vested with a clearly specified mandate which might, for instance, be based on its appointment by the DFG Senate and a commitment to report to it annually (30). It should not have a mandate to conduct its own investigations like, for instance, the Office of Research Integrity of the US Public Health Service (31). Through its personal authority, integrity and impartiality, it should become a competent and credible partner, to whom scientists and scholars may turn with their problems and who, if need be, may take up indications for serious concern and bring them to the attention of the institutions involved. The commission regards it as important that this mediating authority be accessible to all scientists and scholars whether or not the research in question is supported by the DFG.
By appointing such a mediating authority, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft would support public confidence in good scientific practice by demonstrating the attention which science and scholarship give to their own self-regulation (32). This does not diminish the desirability that universities and research institutes appoint local independent counselors (Recommendation 5). The two measures are complementary.
The full report is available in German and English, as is information about the DFG Ombuds program. (DFG "Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice"; German Research Ombudsman.)

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