Saturday, December 3, 2011

DFG: Good scientific practice

The DFG, the German federal research financing board, held a conference on good scientific practice on Nov. 29, 2011 in Berlin. I was not asked to talk, but was permitted to attend the closed conference.

The first session was about the current state of quality assurance at the large extra-university research institutions. Since universities are financed by the state governments in Germany, the federal government can't give them money directly. The solution has been to move the research out to research institutions, but that has the problem of them not being doctorate granting institutions. So they keep close ties with universities, often offering the universities money if they will award a professorship to a deserving department head so that he (rarely she) can be proposing doctoral candidates to the dissertation board. The professors are then usually then "loaned back" to the research institution.

One interesting link I noted was to a talk that Max Weber gave in 1922 on science as a profession (Wissenschaft als Beruf). But most of what they were talking about seemed to be great ideas that are not really anchored in reality. Each of the sessions had a long time for discussions, and the 200 people in attendance were not shy about asking questions or giving statement.

I found one statement to be very fitting - the woman asked why we were being so concerned with the "bad children", the plagiarizing or falsifying doctoral students. Shouldn't we be looking more closely at the "bad parents", the doctoral advisors? I fully agree with this! I was also pleased that persons other than myself called for a national board such as the ORI in the USA. It was a bit sobering to hear people such as the rector of a large southern university state that he regularly uses so-called plagiarism detection software even though he knows that it doesn't work, but as a deterrent, because the students think that it does find plagiarism. 

The second session was about the current situation in Germany for securing good scientific practice. A bit of history was explained, for example, how the Hermann/Brach case led the DFG to formulate their rules for good scientific practice. Wolfgang Löwer, the Ombud for good scientific practice at the DFG gave an interesting talk on hierarchies vs. independence of the researchers. He mentioned a case that was mentioned in the press a few days later about a curious case of a doctoral student being accused of plagiarism, because she reused texts that she herself had written under a pseudonym for her advisor.

Diethelm Klippel from the University of Bayreuth summed up the conference that was held there a few days ago (I hope to report on that soon as well), and then Christopher Baum from the medical university in Hanover gave a good overview of the problems associated with whistleblowing.

The third session was entitled "Promotion - Quo vadis?" and was more or less a round of back-patting.

The symposium closed with a very interesting podium discussion, and a number of politicians showed up for this. The DFG filmed the discussion and has it available online. I feel that it is a consequence of the work invested in GuttenPlag and VroniPlag that this podium - with the vice president of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (Klaus Dicke), the president of the DFG (Matthias Kleiner), and the chair of the Wissenschaftsrat (Wolfgang Marquardt), the journalist who broke the zu Guttenberg story (Tanjev Schultz) and the doctoral student (Tobias Bunde) who initiated the signatory list - actually took place.

There were lots of good discussions during the breaks - I hope that something comes of this and not that people feel that they've done enough now. There is plenty more to do. I insist that we need Beratung, Transparenz and Kontrolle, (advice, transparency, and control) and that that needs to be in a federal, independent entity. We'll see how it goes in the new year.

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