To what extent does ignorance liberate wrongdoing

Counter naivety, insecurity and ignorance with a clear information policy!

An interview with Prof. Dr. Sabine Broeck, person of trust for suspected scientific misconduct at the University of Bremen

AStA:They are well connected (inter) nationally. How do you assess the damage to the reputation of German universities abroad and in Germany after Guttenberg's fall?

Sabine Broeck: At first I feared that this reputation would be seriously damaged. For example, I have already received very realistic emails from American colleagues. Inquiries were made as to whether it would now become the mode of German science to treat doctoral degrees like items of clothing that one simply takes off after use.

Much has been done in the last few days, especially through many small and large initiatives on the part of young academics (for example the huge signature campaign to the Chancellor), but also on the part of many colleagues who have opposed the unbearable trivialization of scientific work in the tabloid press . With these initiatives, our high standards have been emphatically represented in public. Hopefully a differentiated picture is circulating abroad as well.

However, it is very worrying how nonchalantly large parts of the political elite and also the German public have dealt with demands on academic integrity and quality ... and I hope that my colleagues abroad know how to differentiate.

AStA: What do you, as a confidant, do and what should be done to avoid such a case at our university?

Sabine Broeck: There is this commissioner 'office' on the initiative of the German Research Foundation (DFG), which a few years ago determined the German universities to comply with the standards of good scientific practice in a very detailed and carefully argued decision.

These standards of course contain a clear rejection of plagiarism as a form of intellectual theft. This behavior is incompatible with scientific integrity. It is also explained very clearly which various errors constitute plagiarism. In addition to plagiarism, other cases of scientific misconduct are recorded, such as exploitation of the work of the offspring, botching of patents and other cases; the German universities are clearly required to deal with such cases and, if necessary, to impose sanctions.

As a contact person for people who suspect cases of scientific misconduct by other people, the shop stewards, like myself, are available so that university authorities can first carefully examine any cases. This office was set up nationwide at German universities on the initiative of the DFG, so that there is a contact point for clarifying any cases without having to slip into denunciation within the university.

The University of Bremen takes this responsibility seriously; there were actually individual cases to be dealt with during my term of office. However, one cannot say that this is a bigger problem here and we hope that it will stay that way.

This is - I assume - also due to the fact that at the university at all levels, i.e. already when submitting written assignments in the bachelor's degree programs, the students learn what plagiarism, i.e. scientific misconduct, is and that they do themselves in writing undertake to exclude such from their work. This continues at all levels - up to the habilitation.

AStA: The Guttenberg Case: Institutional Failure or Personal Problem?

Sabine Broeck: I cannot answer this question, because the institution that may have failed here is the University of Bayreuth, about which I cannot allow myself to make any statements. It remains to be seen what the announced investigation will reveal here.

I believe that the German scientific institutions and their representatives such as the DFG are in principle well positioned to avoid dismissing cases of scientific misconduct as trivial offenses. The extent to which these structures then take effect is so difficult to assess across the board - and in scandals such as the Guttenberg case, scientific misconduct has also mixed with politics, which is a very inglorious mixture ...

There is probably more the question of how much steadfastness a larger scientific public can muster to maintain our standards. That happened in this case, albeit with a little delay. In my opinion, plagiarism or other misconduct in science is initially the responsibility of the individual who commits it out of ignorance (often the case with young students) or in order to gain an advantage.

Our institutional responsibility lies in countering naivety, uncertainty and ignorance of scientific standards among the young generation and colleagues with a clear information policy and offensive setting of proven claims, so that everyone knows what they are getting into if they still want to try ...

However, I do not believe that such an information policy or even possible sanctions can prevent the criminal energy of individuals. You know that from other areas of society as well. Nevertheless, we have to make a great effort and will certainly continue to do so, if only to avert harm and ridicule from all those who pursue scientific work with integrity.

As an institution, we owe it to ourselves to keep pushing for the quality of scientific work, which consists of careful research, critical reflection and an open discussion of previous science. If individual people think that they can “steal” scientific merits for their careers or other purposes, this disavows these individuals, not the universities as a whole.