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Keeping science credible
What is good academic practice? In this interview, Christiane Thiel, Vice President for Research and Transfer, talks about a good error culture and the responsibilities of individuals and institutions in this area.
Professor Thiel, last autumn the university adopted its new Regulations for Safeguarding Good Academic Practice. Can you tell us what this is about?
The guidelines of the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the university's regulations are the foundation for academic work. They define the right and wrong way to go about it. The goal is to ensure academic integrity and to make sure that to the best of our knowledge we researchers collect, evaluate and present data according to the principles of good academic practice and based on the latest research findings. In addition, the guidelines describe what measures institutions need to take to promote and safeguard academic integrity.
The DFG first defined these standards in 1998.
This step was taken back then because several high-profile published studies had had to be withdrawn because they contained data that had not been properly documented and even manipulated data. Since then, the guidelines have been frequently updated and higher education institutions and research institutions are required to implement these standards at their institutes. This is a prerequisite for continuing to receive funding from the DFG. Ultimately, it is about maintaining the credibility of science.
Which aspects of good academic practice are particularly important in your view?
As Vice President for Research and Transfer, Open Science, free access to scientific findings and the FAIR data principles are at the top of my agenda. FAIR means Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable. The aim is to ensure that researchers make their data easily findable and publicly accessible and that they document it in such a way that, for example, a study is understandable, and also so that errors can be detected.
What basic conditions must the university create for this?
As an institution we must provide an infrastructure for the management of data, for example. Repositories, as digital infrastructures, enable data to be found easily and ensure that it is securely documented for extended periods. The university launched a new research data repository called "dare" this year. Of course, a large number of subject-specific repositories have already existed for years, as well as corresponding national and international initiatives. One example is the National Research Data Infrastructure (NFDI). The University of Oldenburg became a member of the NFDI this year, and last year researchers at the university secured funding for the NFDI4Energy consortium.
Together with sociologist Prof. Dr Martin Heidenreich, chemist Prof. Dr Katharina Al-Shamery is an ombudsperson at the university and the main contact for matters relating to good academic practice. What are her tasks in this role, and why has the number of disputes increased recently?
What are the responsibilities of the researchers in this respect?
The managements of academic institutions in particular, but also the heads of individual research units, must implement structures that ensure good academic practice. The new guidelines address this aspect even more clearly than before. As a person in a leading capacity, I have a duty of care. It is my responsibility to educate my staff about good academic practice, ensure that standards are implemented and, for example, introduce doctoral candidates to this area of responsibility. The university offers courses on the fundamentals of good academic practice. Doctoral candidates should be able to discuss different aspects in these courses, because what is right or wrong is not always clear. Every student should take a course on this subject, at the very latest when they start their bachelor thesis.
Is academic misconduct a significant problem?
I think there are different degrees of misconduct. It's rather unusual for someone to falsify or fabricate data, but cases of sloppy documentation of research data or of a data analysis containing errors are certainly more frequent. This is not necessarily misconduct. But there should be an open discussion about it and a critical assessment of how and why the errors occurred.
What else can institutions and researchers do to raise awareness about good academic practice?
On the one hand, it's important to have a good error culture – to deal openly with errors and address them as soon as they are detected. This should always be done within the research units first. In the last instance, there are the ombudspersons. These are experienced researchers who maintain absolute confidentiality in their work. On the other hand, the DFG guidelines call on institutions and heads of research units not to cement power structures because avoiding this helps to prevent abuse. Doctoral candidates and staff are always to some extent dependent on the leaders of their research group, which can make it difficult for them to point out errors. But measures such as a more independent review of doctoral theses or better preparation for leadership tasks can help prevent potential abuse.
The DFG guidelines and the university's regulations also reflect another aspect – namely that academic achievements are assessed more in terms of quality rather than just quantity nowadays. Is the academic culture changing?
For some time now the DFG has placed a greater emphasis on research content, rather than on the number of publications. This is because the pressure to publish as much as possible in order to secure funding was one of the factors that triggered academic misconduct. Nowadays, other criteria apply – such as adherence to the FAIR principles. This is a lever that the university can also use, for example when filling positions. According to the guidelines, commitment to teaching or knowledge transfer can also be considered in evaluations. Many things are still in the early stages but will play an increasingly important role in the future.
Interview: Constanze Böttcher