May 282011
 

April 13th, 2011 by Prof. Dr. Siegfried Hunklinger, Ombudsman of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft,

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When: 10.15 a.m. Where: University of Mainz, Philosophicum,  Jakob-Welder-Weg 18, Auditorium P4


Interview with Prof. Hunklinger

Listen to the full Interview (in German)

In 1997, one of the biggest cases of scientific misconduct in the history of medicine was detected. Eberhard Hildt, co-worker of the esteemed cancer researchers Friedhelm Hermann and Marion Brach, turned to his former Ph. D. advisor Peter Hans Hofschneider asking for help. He had noted obvious irregularities in his new lab that could only be due to fraudulent behaviour. At the end, it turned out that in 94 publications Hermann and Brach had committed forgery.

As a reaction to the scandal, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft issued a commission on professional self regulation in science. The commission’s recommendations included establishing a team of ombudsmen for science, to whom scientists can turn in case they observe scientific misconduct. One of them is Siegfried Hunklinger. Being a former professor for physics at Karl-Ruprecht University, Heidelberg, he held the office of an ombudsman from 2005 until May 2011. In May, he was succeeded by Katharina Al-Shamery, professor for chemistry at the Carl-von-Ossietzky University in Oldenburg. More information about the ombudsman can be found at http://www.ombudsman-fuer-die-wissenschaft.de/
During his visit in Mainz, we talked to Prof. Hunklinger about his work as an ombudsman and about recent developments in scientific conduct.

JUnQ: Professor Hunklinger, you are Ombudsman for Science. What does an Ombudsman do?

Hunklinger: Scientists may contact the Ombudsman if they are involved in a dispute con- cerning good scientific practice. When someone comes to us with a problem, we try to do justice to both sides. We do not judge, instead we mediate.

JUnQ: Can you give an example on how you mediate?

Hunklinger: First, we ask the whistleblower, who contacted us with a complaint, to describe the issue in written form. This already helps us to understand what the issue is about. However, there is always an opposite party, the accused person, whom we also interview. The truth often lies between both views. Usually, we can solve many problems on the basis of the two written statements because we understand what the problem is and on whom to put the bigger portion of the blame, if it is even appropriate to speak of blame. Next, we propose a solution. For instance, if the authorship of a publication is controversial, one can add further authors or change the acknowledgment. In many cases, an agreement is achieved in this way. If this does not work, we summon both parties to a hearing. Sometimes it helps just to talk to each other. This kind of mediation also often leads to an agreement. The third case is the most unpleasant: Data are evidently counterfeited or manipulated. This is beyond our means. We will inform the appropriate institutions, for example the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft or the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. These institutions are in charge of imposing sanctions, we only mediate.

JUnQ: How many cases are there per year and of what kind are they?

Hunklinger: There are approximately 50 to 60 cases per year. Most of them concern dis- putes over the authorship of publications. Besides that, there are plagiarism allegations, counterfeits, and disputes with journal publishers. Mobbing is noteworthy as well. Higher positions often put pressure on people that are not liked for any reasons. This can cause severe misconduct.

JUnQ: If one looks at the great scientific scandals like the ones involving Jan-Hendrik Schoen and Hwang Woo-suk, one question comes to the mind: Why do scientists do this and what drives them? Do you have an answer to this question?

Hunklinger: No, actually not. Concerning Schoen, I can understand him a little bit. He was at the beginning of his career and wanted to reach the top. The path he pursued was fantastic. If people had not realized the fraud, he would have become director of a Max-Planck institute and things would have turned out well for him. Concerning Hwang, I do not understand him. He was a well-recognized scientist and did great things. For example, he cloned dogs and he did excellent science after the scandal. It is incomprehensible to me why he faked results in the meantime. The pursuit of becoming famous cannot be the reason as he was already famous. Maybe I lack the right mindset to understand this case.

JUnQ: What are appropriate means to prevent such cases of fraud?

Hunklinger: We are not able to make it impossible, this is hopeless. However, we can improve the system if young scientists resist fraud and if they do something against it. For example, they should contact an ombudsperson to get advice. This does not have to be the Ombudsman for Science, there are also local ombudspersons.

JUnQ: Do you think that the self-control mechanisms in science are sufficient to unveil fraud in its early stages?

Hunklinger: I do not consider them to be sufficient. There will always be scandals, we cannot completely avoid them. But I neither consider external control mechanisms helpful, scientists are normal people.

JUnQ: Science is much more regulated compared to 50 years ago. People often regret that scientific freedom is curtailed and that scientists spend a lot of time doing administrational work. Do you think there is a connection to scientific misconduct? Is there too much regulation and not too little? Hunklinger: I’d like to agree, science was much freer 50 years ago. There was no pressure to publish as many articles as today. It was not necessary to create a publication out of every tiny result. This benefited science and we should try to get back to that state. But it is a long way.

JUnQ: There are public efforts to measure the quality of research and make research trans- parent to society. Hirsch indices and impact factors are often employed for that purpose.
Do you think there is another way?

Hunklinger: To be honest, I have a low opinion of these measuring numbers. Things may have changed, but in my days, the situation was as follows: When someone was appointed to a professorship, everybody knew that this was a good man without checking indices that have a random nature. In my opinion, the important thing is to talk to the people concerned. This will lead to reasonable decisions.

JUnQ: Professor Hunklinger, we thank you for the interview.

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