Country Report Germany
National Research Integrity Landscape
Germany has a national institutional structure for research integrity: a national research ombudsman (the German Research Ombudsman) that serves as a nationwide mediator in conflicts on correctable suspected research misconduct. The formation of this national research ombudsman complements the network of the local ombudspersons in research institutions, whereby scholars and researchers are free to submit inquiries to the local bodies or to the national research ombudsman. There is no (legal) obligation to seek the national research ombudsman in cases of suspected research misconduct. Besides the national research ombudsman, there are other organisations in Germany operating nationwide, such as the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), having investigatory and decision-making authority in research misconduct cases within its scope (i.e., misconduct related to research proposals and/or DFG-funded research projects). The DFG provides more detailed information on guidelines and processes related to research integrity on their website (see here and here). Apart from these structures, non-university research institutions (Fraunhofer, Helmholtz Association, Leibniz Association, Max Planck Society) have also appointed ombudspersons within their institutes, who may be contacted in cases of suspected research misconduct. Moreover, in 2011, an initiative in promoting research integrity and preventing research misconduct was taken by two scientists and a mediator who worked inside the national and a local office dealing with GSP and misconduct who founded Team Scientific Integrity (Team Scilnt). This, after they earlier had published the “Curriculum ‘Good Scientific Practice’ for Courses in Science and Medicine” on behalf and in cooperation with the German National Ombudsman and supported by DFG. At present, the team includes more (associate) members who conduct workshops and trainings, give presentations on good scientific practice and research integrity, and advise research institutions that wish to implement or revise regulations or procedures concerning good scientific practice and research integrity. The team also counsels individuals on protecting their scientific integrity. Further than that, the team develops curricula and teaching materials for courses, workshops, presentations and trainings. Research on the prevalence of misconduct and the knowledge of researchers about good scientific practice and research integrity is an additional field of activity http://www.scientificintegrity.de.
German Research Ombudsman (Ombudsman fuer die Wissenschaft)
In 1999, a national institutional structure for research integrity was established by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), following Recommendation 16 of the DFG-Memorandum “Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice”, which was initially published in 1998 and revised in 2013. The German Research Ombudsman was established as a non-profit collegial body. Its committee (Ombudsman Committee) is supported by an administrative office (Ombudsman Office). Both the committee and the administrative office act independently from the DFG. Based on the DFG-Memorandum, all institutions of higher education, particularly universities and (private and public) research institutions were asked to appoint independent ombudspersons. These local ombudspersons can also be addressed with questions concerning good scientific practice and/or in cases of suspected research misconduct.
The German Research Ombudsman is governed by the DFG-Memorandum “Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice”, (published in 1998 and revised in 2013) holding 17 recommendations on research intregrity.
Mission(s) and tasks
The German Research Ombudsman’s tasks are (a) giving general consultance on good scientific practice (b) mediating in cases of correctable suspected research misconduct (e.g. in authorship conflicts or conflicts related to research data), and (c) safeguarding research integrity in all academic disciplines. It does not offer trainings but members of the Ombudsman Committee and Ombudsman Office’s give individual lectures on research integrity structures in Germany and on the role of the German Research Ombudsman.
Whereas the Ombudsman Office handles general consultations and initital questions on good scientific practice, the Ombudsman Committee’s mandate is examining, concluding and mediating in suspected cases of research misconduct.
The Ombudsman Committee consists of 4 experts i.e. senior researchers, representing different disciplines of research. Members are appointed by the Senate of the German Research Foundation for a 4-years-term to a maximum of 8 years.
Scope and remit
The Ombudsman Committee’ scope in examining, concluding and mediating in suspected cases of research misconduct is nationwide in that any scholar and researcher affiliated to a German university or (private or public) research institution may submit an enquiry. But also local ombudspersons, publishers or researchers based in other countries who have questions or are facing conflicts related to the German research system can address the Ombudsman (Committee). The Ombudsman Committee may handle anonymous enquiries. Its remit is restricted: it does not have investigatory powers nor can it impose sanctions. It, too, must refer serious reseach misconduct cases (not correctable by mediation, such as cases of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism) to the local committees of the university or research institution in question, which are authorized to handle these. Based on Recommendation 8 of the DFG-Memorandum, universities and research institutions are required to install such committees.
Whereas general consultations and initial questions can be dealt with by the Ombudsman Office by phone, the enquiry with the Ombudman Committee must be submitted to the Ombudsman Office in writing. All persons involved must commit to strict confidentiality. Reporters (i.e. ‘whistleblowers’) are asked to reveal their identity which then will be kept strictly confidential. However, anonymously submitted enquiries will also be dealt with. The strict principle of confidentiality for all persons involved remains valid also after a case has been closed. The Ombudsman Office forwards all (written) enquiries to the Ombudsman Committee which jointly discusses these in confidential meetings. When the reporter has requested legal assistance elsewhere, the Ombudsman Committee refrains from accepting the case, as confidentiality can no longer be guaranteed when a lawyer or court is (or is about to be) involved. Also, if a local committee or a local ombudsperson has already come to a conclusion in a case, the German Research Ombudsman will not re-open that case unless there is substantial evidence that the local body has handled the case in an erroneous, defective, incomplete or biased manner. After opening a case, the Ombudsman Committee requests written evidence i.e. documents relevant to the reporter’s allegation. Usually, the accused party is allowed to submit a statement and bring forward their perspective on the matter (including evidence). However, the Ombudsman Committee does not contact the accused party and/or third persons (e.g., local bodies) without the reporter’s explicit (written) consent. Should the reporter refuse their consents, only limited advice can be given. In such cases, the process cannot be pursued further, nor will any third parties be informed. The same applies when a suspicion cannot be confirmed. If a suspicion can be confirmed, and the misconduct is correctable, the mediation process will be initiated by discussing the matters in question with the reporter and the accused party. Such discussions will involve e-mails, letters, telephone communication and in some cases personal interviews with both parties. Where the professional expertise of the Ombudsman Committee is insufficient, it will request confidential support from external experts. Based on the information provided, it will come to a conclusion – based on the rules of good scientific practice.
Definition of research misconduct
A definition of research misconduct can be found in Recommendation 8 of the DFG-Memorandum. This holds that the more than 400 universities and more than 200 (private and public) research institutions in Germany shall establish procedures for dealing with allegations of research misconduct including a definition of categories of action which seriously deviate from good scientific practice and are held to be research misconduct ‘for instance the fabrication and falsification of data, plagiarism, or breach of confidence as a reviewer or superior.’
Conclusions and appeal
The Ombudsman Committees’ conclusions hold (a) a proposal to withdraw the accusation as the suspicion could not be confirmed, or (b) a proposal for a compromise between the parties (such as proposed remedies for authorship conflicts) based on the principles of good scientific practice, or (c) that a severe scientific misconduct is evident which cannot be remedied by mediation. In case of the latter, the case will be transferred to the competent local committee of the university or research institution in question. If the case is linked to DFG-funding, the DFG, too, will be notified. The Ombudsman Committee is not bound by time limits in writing its conclusions. The conclusion and recommendations will be delivered to the party or parties involved. The recommendations are non-binding. It is not possible to submit an appeal regarding a local investigation, as the German Research Ombudsman operates as an alternative consultation and mediation body in parallel to the network of local ombudspersons. It is not an appeal body for local bodies.
Follow-up and monitoring
The follow-up and monitoring in general takes place by the research institutions which are authorized to impose sanctions. The national research ombudsman is not authorized to do so i.e. it does not monitor the cases it handled nor do involved parties have to report to the German Research Ombudsman afterwards.
The German Research Ombudsman publishes an Annual Report on its website (in the German language). In fact, based on Recommendation 16 of the DFG-Memorandum, the German Research Ombudsman must annually report on its activities to the DFG. In this way, its founder – that is not entitled to have insight in cases or in the contents of the advices or conclusions of the German Research Ombudsman – and the public, receive an overview on its work, the number and the nature of cases and the procedure according to which cases are being handled. In its Annual Report, the German Research Ombudsman also reports on current trends and developments related to research integrity in the German research system.
For further information on the German Research Ombudsman, see: www.ombudsman-fuer-die-wissenschaft.de; https://www.dfg.de/en/research_funding/principles_dfg_funding/good_scientific_practice/index.html
For questions on the German Research Ombudsman, e-mail to: Dr. Hjördis Czesnick, Saskia Welde or Fanny Oehme (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Last update: May 2019