19.07.2019 | KPMG Law Insights

DFG revises guidelines on good scientific practice

DFG revises guidelines on good scientific practice

“Guidelines to ensure good scientific practice” – this is the name of the new code of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), which was adopted by the DFG’s General Assembly at this year’s Annual Meeting in Rostock on July 3, 2019. In addition to the revision of the Code of Procedure for Dealing with Scientific Misconduct (VerfOwF), it was drawn up by a commission of experts in consultation with the codes of the four major non-university research organizations, the Max Planck Society (MPG), the Fraunhofer Society (FhG), the Helmholtz Society (HGF) and the Leibniz Association (WGL), and is intended to serve as a guideline to help the addressees concerned to align their work and processes accordingly and to avoid errors.

Reasons for the revision

In its press release, the DFG cites “the many changes in scientific work, caused, for example, by the digital transformation and by developments in publishing” as the motivation for revising the code. The press spokesman could be referring to the most recent plagiarism accusation against a scientist who submitted a research proposal to the DFG and plagiarized in the process. The latter had made verbatim copies from other publications without correct citation and admitted his mistake at the hearing by confirming that he had failed to check the text of the application before submitting it – although it was part of his duty to do so. The DFG responded with a written reprimand.

The good scientific practice for a scientific success

In good scientific practice, the communication process is essentially characterized by trust in the honesty and fairness of the parties involved. With an additional science compliant behavior, a common success should be ensured and scientific misconduct should be avoided.

The concept of good scientific practice has been a fixed expression for scientific standards since the end of the 1990s and was shaped in a guiding way by the DFG due to a particularly serious case of scientific misconduct and recorded as “recommendations”. Even though good scientific practice is not conclusively defined, the principles of scientific work can be seen in it. This also includes trust in the honesty of those involved, which demands that research is the search for truth and that unfair methods cannot be reconciled with this.

Scientific misconduct as a negative image

The negative image to good scientific practice represents scientific misconduct. This is the case when the rules of good scientific practice are violated and thus at least grossly negligent behavior leads to a violation of core scientific obligations. This science-related behavior is directed at core obligations as the spitting image of upholding scientific honesty and trust.

Plagiarism as an expression of the prohibition of manipulation and falsification counts, along with the violation of intellectual property of others, the impairment of the research activity of third parties and the joint responsibility for scientific misconduct, as a group of cases that violate the core scientific obligations and thus are to be subsumed as scientific misconduct. They are not compatible with the scientifically compliant behavior that is essential for scientific cooperation, which requires not only economic success but also mutual trust.

Assessment of misconduct by universities and scientific organizations

According to the ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court of December 11, 1996, which was followed by the Federal Administrative Court in its ruling of July 31, 2013, the assessment of scientific misconduct and the responsibility to act dutifully within the framework of the scientific enterprise lies primarily in the decision-making sphere of the universities and other scientific organizations. This responsibility is supported by the Federal Administrative Court with the ruling of 21.06.2017, which denies the fundamental right protection of Article 5 paragraph 3 sentence 1 GG to scientific misconduct. Furthermore, the German states have also included the obligation of scientific honesty and the generally accepted principles of good scientific practice in their higher education laws. The DFG made use of this priority sphere of decision-making at this year’s annual meeting in Rostock and revised the Code.

The new code “Guidelines for safeguarding good scientific practice

In its press release of July 4, 2019, the DFG announced that the recommendations for ensuring good scientific practice and the rules of procedure for dealing with scientific misconduct (VerfOwF) had been fundamentally revised at the annual meeting of the largest research funding organization and central self-governing body of science in Germany.

With the new code “Guidelines for Ensuring Good Scientific Practice”, the DFG provides scientists, universities and other non-university research institutions with 19 guidelines that formulate appropriate standards for scientific work and offer the addressees the opportunity to “align their actions, internal structures and their processes with the guidelines. In this way, a culture of scientific integrity is to be anchored in scientific institutions, which is conceived less in terms of violations of good scientific practice than in terms of the professional ethos of scientists,” says DFG Vice President Prof. Dr. Malis Hochbruck.

All addressees at all career levels should continuously add to and renew their knowledge of the new guidelines. In addition, in order to continue to receive funding from the DFG, member universities and member institutions of the DFG must incorporate these guidelines into their university laws and statutes in a legally binding manner. Furthermore, ombudspersons are to be appointed for suspected cases of scientific misconduct. In order to maintain their independence, they must not be members of a central management body.

The DFG does not provide any further information on the revision of its rules of procedure. The only indication given in the press release was that the VerfOwF has been revised with regard to the facts of scientific conduct and the regulations on the course of the procedure. The DFG does not report more severe sanctions.

Criticism of the DFG

In the past, the DFG itself has been subjected to various criticisms on several occasions. In addition to being accused of being a “monopoly without control” (FAZ article of 18.11.2011), a former DFG reviewer also criticizes the association with unprofessionalism, such as unobjective arguments against the funding application and unfounded standardized rejections to increase the chances of their own application (SPON article of 03.10.2011). In particular, the manipulation scandal from 2010 pushed the DFG further and further into a corner and caused increased criticism: the head of the Department of Immunology and Cell Biology at the Research Center Borstel (FZB) published manipulated data and “grossly neglected her supervisory duties,” according to the DFG after a two-year review. The consequences of the manipulation were the denial of further study reviews and the application for research funds as well as the exclusion from the committees of the research community – with retroactive effect. This generous credit is considered too lenient a punishment for gross scientific misconduct (SPON article, 12/12/2012).

Whether such criticisms and negative headlines can be prevented in the future with the new code remains questionable. The new guidelines are intended to bring scientists up to date with the latest scientific practices at all times-assuming they are followed and adhered to by applicants.

By adhering to them, the DFG expects to prevent or reduce cases of plagiarism, since, especially in experimental science, results must be traceable and clean, accurate and correct documentation is necessary for this purpose.

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