Sunday, March 27, 2016

New Approaches to Academic Misconduct in Denmark and Sweden?

There have been a number of high-profile cases of academic misconduct in the past few years, both in Denmark and in Sweden. The Swedish government has just issued a directive requesting that an independent examiner look at the necessity of changing the rules for investigating cases of academic misconduct in research. They request that a proposition be made for a timely and legally secure process for dealing with accusations of academic misconduct. ("En särskild utredare ska undersöka behovet av en ny hantering av ärenden som rör utredning av oredlighet i forskning och lämna förslag som säkerställer en tydlig och rättssäker hantering av misstänkt oredlighet.").

This comes on the heels of news (Retraction Watch reports) about a Swedish researcher who has been dismissed from the Karolinska Institut on multiple charges of academic misconduct

Denmark is a bit further along in the same process. They have had quite a number of scandals, so the UVVU (the Danish organization that looks at accusations of academic misconduct) has already prepared their own suggestions. They have a page with a number of links, and a relative thorough collection of the current practices in seventeen countries:Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Croatia, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Switzerland,  Sweden,  USA. Unfortunately, the report appears to only be in Danish. 

ScienceNordic has a nice overview of the the major scandals in Denmark and Sweden, including many links, in English.

The problems arise when lawyers are called into scientific disputes and judges decide what is and what is not good science. I think we need a sort of "Godwin's law" in science. If you involve a lawyer, you lose the argument. We need to focus more on peers discussing the science, although there do need to be sanctions for those found to have committed academic misconduct.

The Danish report lists the wide spectrum of possible sanctions found in the various countries (p. 20-21):
  • Issuing a correction
  • Reprimand
  • Supervision of future research
  • Suspension from scientific work
  • Retractions
  • Disciplinary sanctions such as being put on probation for future academic work
  • Rescinding of academic titles
  • Rescinding of the right to advise PhD students 
  • Withdrawal of internal resources
  • Repayment of research funding
  • No permission to apply for research funding, usually for a set number of years. 
The report makes it clear that there does need to be a system for appealing such a judgement and in particular the whistleblowers need to be protected.  It will be interesting to see what the Danish government decides to do and whether the Swedish report will be much different from the Danish one.

Update: fixed Goodwin -> Godwin


  1. There are a number of issues that go beyond the researcher and the research, in many cases the organisation they work for is complicit in the Misconduct and this would have to be considered. In some of the more sever forms of misconduct the misuse of public funding or Grants from charities is a form of fraud that should be dealt with by the courts. Then there are the convoluted ways in which drug companies have manipulated research results, even when the researchers have been aware of this. There are so many ways in which misconduct can cause significant harm, that the law must play a significant part.

  2. Oh yes, there are many such problems, but I don't think the law needs to be part of this. It is the responsibility of the universities and journals to inculcate a culture of honesty and to sanction on its own terms. If there is a suspicion of misuse of public funding or charity grants - don't give them any more money. Insist on transparency, many eyeballs find many faults in research. Generally you cannot give money and expect certain results, science funding just gives money to try something out. That is why we as scientists owe transparency: what did we do, what happened, how do we interpret this, what might have gone wrong, how would we change that next time.

    The problem is that the courts and lawyers often do not understand what exactly science is. We don't have absolute truth, that's left to religion. But instead there are indicators that lead us to understand something. We deduct from certain circumstances certain others. Our peers keep us from jumping to conclusions. Doubting someone's results is not an attack on their character, but on their science. Too many people currently misunderstand this.

    I have myself have had to remove blog posts because of legal threats. These threats were mounted by people who did not want me to write about misconduct. I would have preferred transparent evidence to support their positions, not silencing tactics.

  3. I understand what your saying Debora and totally agree that attempts to suppress discussion is in itself a form of misconduct, but we live in a time of increasing censorship of opinion. I'm increasingly coming to the view that research that does not meet certain standards of transparency, including sharing data, should be labelled as unreliable if they are published at all. I'm not really talking about the results of research, the whole reason for doing it is to find something out, in fact the publication bias towards certain results is a real problem. The sort of examples I was thinking about were in cases where grants are misused and where it can be showing that this was always the intent, which can involve sums of millions of dollars, its fraud. I know things can go wrong in all sorts of ways in which case I would totally agree that the law shouldn't be involved. The other example is in drug or medical research, which potentially puts people at risk for financial gain. I know that companies have been fined large sums of money (though rarely enough to dent their profits) but there does need to be forms of control that effect the production of such evidence. Maybe this could just be in the ways companies can include secrecy clauses. I think we need to be careful about trying to put scientists above the law, the people who should be monitoring things often have a vested interest in not doing so. I think when people threaten legal action they do so in the hope that this in itself will silence people, in the majority of cases there would be no possibility of winning, its bluster, but a real problem if they have the money to cause significant problems to people. This happens now, perhaps there is a role for the law in providing a mediation service that could dismiss these threats without financial penalty. It won't happen of course, lawyers would loose money.

  4. Oh, I don't mean that scientists should be above the law - the problem is that academic misconduct is not trivial to define and things such as "intent" are extremely hard to prove. Adding lawyers to the mix shifts the focus from the science to "winning". And if you don't have the money, you can't fight for your rights. There are those who are making money off academic misconduct, but if you try and write about what they are doing, they come with lawyers and threats. Some are idle, some are not, I've had both. We need to focus more on transparency of research, get away from "owning" the results (patents, copyrights) and more towards contributing to the common good.

  5. "... in particular the whistleblowers need to be protected."

    I would like to ask from you to elaborate how to protect the whistleblowers? My experience says that it is big risk for yourself to even uncover clear cases of plagiarism. You can blow the whistle or work as a scientist but you can not do both.

  6. Protection of whistleblowers must come from the top - they must be seen as instrumental to good academic practice and those responsible must do everything in their power to protect the whistleblowers. Something like the German Ombudssystem is not perfect, but it offers a place for people to air their issues and for the Ombud to decide if there is a case. It is vital that the Ombudspersons are committed to furthering good scientific practice and that they are not involved in normal department politics. So having a retired professor is often a good choice for such a person.