Research Integrity

Worth knowing: Research integrity from a Danish perspective

Note: The text on this site is an unofficial translation of the original Danish text “Værd at vide – Forskningsintegritet i et dansk perspektiv.” Find the original text in Danish here

1. Background

From a historical perspective, the focus on scientific conduct and misconduct is relatively new in both international and Danish contexts. In Denmark, the subject became a public focal point with the establishment of the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (Udvalgene vedrørende Videnskabelig Uredelighed, or UVVU) in 1992. The UVVU was the first central authority to deal with serious breaches of research integrity. Initially, the UVVU was an experimental scheme covering only the field of health science, but in 1998, it was extended to all research areas by the Danish Act on the Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (BEK 933 of December 15, 1998, in Danish). In 2003, the rules governing the UVVU were laid down directly in the law. This law has since been revised, which means that, over time, there have been several different definitions of scientific misconduct.

Since the establishment of the UVVU and the 1998 act, the internationalization of research has been steadily increasing. This development has led to the fact that research often occurs in major collaborations across departments, research institutions, and national borders. This means that it becomes more and more relevant to pay attention both to good scientific practices and to pitfalls that can lead to the opposite, to achieve scientific conduct that is as optimal as possible.

In the wake of a number of significant cases of questionable research practice in both Denmark and other countries, since the turn of the millennium, several initiatives designed to improve the handling of cases regarding scientific misconduct and questionable research practice have been launched and executed.

From a Danish perspective, a working group set up by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science and the organization Universities Denmark in 2014 devised The Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, which establishes a framework for good scientific practice in Denmark based on common principles and standards.

In April 2017, the Danish Parliament adopted a new law regulating research integrity: Act on Research Misconduct etc. The act is based on a December 2015 report (only available in Danish) on the Danish system for handling research misconduct. The report was drafted by an expert committee that included representatives from the Danish universities and former chair of Rektorkollegiet (College of Rectors) Professor Jens Oddershede as chair.

The law distinguishes between scientific misconduct and questionable research practice. With the adoption of the law followed the establishment of a new committee named the Danish Committee on Research Misconduct (NVU). The NVU replaced the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, and the NVU is now the central body that, by law, deals with cases of scientific misconduct. However, cases of questionable research practice are handled internally at the research institutions.

2. Purpose and definitions of the act

First and foremost, it is important to elaborate on the subjects covered by the act of 2017. Cf. Section 2, the law applies to:

  • Cases concerning research conducted with full or partial Danish public funding.
  • Cases concerning research conducted at a public research institution in Denmark.

Furthermore, the act also applies to cases concerning research misconduct by privately funded research not covered by the above mentioned, if agreed to by the companies involved.

2.1 Distribution of responsibility

One of the primary objectives of the act of 2017 was to establish a clear division of responsibility between the central national misconduct body – the Danish Committee on Research Misconduct – and the Danish research institutions.

Therefore, the law determines that the Danish Committee on Research Misconduct will handle all cases of research misconduct, whereas the remaining instances of questionable research practice will be handled by the research institution in question. This means that the research institutions today MUST NOT deal with an alleged case of scientific misconduct internally. Such cases MUST be reported to the NVU, and it is the responsibility of the research institution to do so.

An important note to this is that Section 3 of the act presents new definitions of scientific misconduct and questionable research practice. This is done to exactly define which cases can be handled internally at the research institutions and which cases should be reported to the NVU.

2.2 Scientific misconduct:

Is defined as fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism (FFP)committed intentionally or with gross negligence when planning, performing or reporting research.”

  • Fabrication: Undisclosed construction of data or substitution with fictitious data.
  • Falsification: Manipulation of research material, equipment, or process as well as changing or omitting data or results, making the research misleading.
  • Plagiarism: Appropriation of other people’s ideas, processes, results, texts, or specific concepts without giving due credit.

However, the law defines a de minimis level in Section 3, subsection 2, which states that scientific misconduct does not include: “cases of fabrication, falsification and plagiarism which have only had little significance in planning, performing or reporting research.”

In addition, no questions regarding the durability of scientific theories and questions about the research quality of a scientific product are covered by the definition of scientific misconduct.

2.3 Questionable research practice (QRP):

Is defined as “Violation of generally accepted standards for responsible research practices, including the standards in The Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity and other applicable institutional, national and international practices and guidelines for research integrity.

2.4 Other Definitions:

The law also defines a scientific product, a researcher, and a research institution. It is important to point out that a researcher is defined both as a Ph.D. student, a person with a Ph.D. degree, or a person with equivalent qualifications (more in Section 3 of the act).

3. Handling cases of questionable research practice

3.1 Guidelines

Questionable research practice was not regulated by law before the act of 2017. However, as mentioned, according to Section 19 of the act, it is now the research institution’s responsibility to process cases of questionable research practice as defined in Section 3 of the act. Section 20 also states that on its website, the individual research institution must publish guidelines for processing cases. Available guidelines for the individual universities can be found below:

3.2 Practice committees

Since few people get involved in cases of possible research misconduct, knowledge related to possible questionable research practices will be the most relevant information for the majority of academic employees at the research institutions. As previously described, the law’s definition of questionable research practice is as follows:

– “Violation of generally accepted standards for responsible research practices, including the standards in The Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity and other applicable institutional, national and international practices and guidelines for research integrity.”

This definition covers a wide range of possible scenarios, where the center of the case may be more or less deliberately performed by the researcher/researchers. This establishes a grey zone. Cases of questionable research practices may, for example, address very different topics such as no or inadequate handling of data, misleading presentation of own or others’ research, lack of citation, disputes about authorship, etc.

Several Danish research institutions have established special internal bodies called practice committees, with the purpose of handling internal cases. Often, the practice committees also have responsibility for the ongoing work to ensure responsible research practice among the academic staff. Each institution sets up rules that determine the competencies of the practice committees. Information about the individual committees at universities can be found through the links below:

At the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), the cases are not handled by a practice committee. Instead, the university’s guidelines state that “Complaints about questionable research practices should be done according to DTU’s overall management structure, i.e. to the nearest manager. If for some reason this is not possible, the suspicion may also be reported to persons higher up in the management structure or to the Head of Department/Center leader. It is always possible to go to the research dean with suspicion.”

Further information on handling cases at DTU can be found in the university’s guide to dealing with cases of suspected scientific misconduct and questionable research practice at DTU.

3.3 Named persons

In addition to the practice committees, some Danish research institutions have appointed special advisors – so-called named persons – from the individual scientific environments who will help support good scientific practice within their respective research areas. The advisors’ tasks may vary depending on the institution, but examples of tasks include guidance and counseling in good research practice, advice on suspected questionable research practice, and mediation in relation to possible conflicts that relate to good research practice.

For example, listen to Professor Jørn Hounsgaard on his tasks as named person at the Faculty of Health at the University of Copenhagen in the video here:

More information about the special advisors – named persons – at some of the Danish research institutions can be found by following the links below:

 

4. Processing cases concerning scientific misconduct

4.1 The Danish Committee on Research Misconduct (NVU) in general

As previously mentioned, the NVU, with the adoption of the act of 2017, is now the central body that processes cases concerning research misconduct in scientific products. The NVU consists of a chairperson – a High Court judge – and 8-10 academic members who represent different scientific research areas. The members are appointed for a period of 4 years, with the possibility of an extension for up to 6 years in total. The cases are settled by a majority of the votes cast. In the event of a parity of votes, the chairperson has the deciding vote. During processing of a case, external experts can assist the NVU. Read more about the Danish Committee on Research Misconduct in Section 4-9 of the act of 2017 and find the current composition of the committee here.

4.2 Preliminary process

When a case has arisen at the research institution where the relevant research is taking place, the institution must ensure that the notification material contains information about the scientific product, the researcher(s) involved, as well as the allegations and grounds for the alleged scientific misconduct. After receiving a notification, the research institution is obliged to report and present the case to the NVU within three months if the required material is present. The research institution may reject the case if the necessary material is not available.

In the past, before the act of 2017, many cases of suspected scientific misconduct were handled internally at the research institutions. The idea behind the new system, in which, by law, cases must be reported to the NVU, is, among other things, that no cases are swept under the carpet or trivialized.

A case may also be raised by the NVU on its own initiative if there is a well-founded suspicion of scientific misconduct. In that case, the research institution is obliged to supply the necessary material. However, the remarks of the act note that the committee should only use this possibility in exceptional circumstances.

4.3 Decisions in cases concerning scientific misconduct

The NVU may reject further examination of a case within three months of receiving it if: (1) the case is not covered by the committee’s authority;, (2) the case is deemed to be manifestly ungrounded, or it is determined that the case will not result in the conclusion that research misconduct has occurred; (3) the costs of processing the case are disproportionate in relation to the significance of the case; or (4) the case has very little connection with Denmark.

Cases accepted for further examination by the NVU shall be processed and completed within 12 months.

If the NVU determines that research misconduct has not occurred but determines that a case may involve issues concerning questionable research practice, the NVU may refer such issues to the relevant research institution for further consideration; see Section 17 of the act.

When the NVU determines that research misconduct has occurred, the committee, according to Section 16(2) of the act, may decide:

• That the researcher be required to withdraw the scientific product
• That the affected research institution(s) be informed of the research misconduct
• That the researcher’s employer be informed of the research misconduct
• That the editor publishing the scientific product be informed of the research misconduct, possibly with a requirement that the editor withdraw the scientific product or take similar measures
• That any foundation etc. that has provided full or partial funding for the research carried out be informed of the research misconduct.

The remarks of the 2017 act state that the measures mentioned above do not prevent the NVU from initiating other measures in accordance with the applicable rules in the given area, for example, if it is necessary to inform a supervisory authority or submit a notification to the police. At the same time, other authorities are also able to impose further sanctions on the researcher.

This means that the research institutions where the researcher(s) in question are employed will ultimately often decide the consequences in a case of scientific misconduct. If the researchers are found guilty, it may cost the persons involved anything from losing their current employment or funding or forgoing a future career in research. That is why it is very important that these cases be handled carefully and seriously, since it can cause enormous consequences for those involved.

Since the act has been adopted so recently, no annual reports from the NVU are available at the time of writing, and therefore, the system is still untested. Only the coming years will show how the new system will work in practice.

Decisions by the Danish Committee on Research Misconduct may not be appealed to any other administrative authority, except for cases where the Danish court system or the ombudsman may be relevant.