Ombudspersons at the Max Planck Institutes and other Institutions

In conjunction with the “Rules of Good Scientific Practice”, the Senate of the MPG resolved in the year 2000 that there is to be an ombudsperson at each MPI and additionally one ombudsperson for each Section.

The Ombudsperson Scheme and its objectives

The ombudsperson scheme fulfils an essential function of scientific self-control with respect to integrity and good scientific practice by offering all scientists at each Institute the opportunity to receive confidential advice in cases of conflict touching upon issues of good scientific practice. The establishment of the ombudsperson scheme is aimed at two aspects: 1. the implementation of the “Rules of Good Scientific Practice”, and thus a preventive effect in order to guard against irregularities in the science system and to give junior scientists a feeling of confidence in handling the rules; 2. scientific self-control and, if applicable, the revelation of rule violations. For this purpose, the Max Planck Society has deliberately embarked upon the path of scientific selfcontrol. Present-day science is highly differentiated, highly cooperative and highly competitive at the same time. Therefore, agreement on common rules is indispensable, just like the control of their respect. Above all the scientists themselves have a vital interest herein.

Who are the Ombudspersons at the MPIs, and what is their task?

All employees of an Institute, who exercise a scientific activity, elect ombudspersons for a term of three years. The talks conducted by the ombudspersons are confidential if the solution of a conflict at an Institute is possible and successful. The ombudspersons of the Institutes have no reporting obligations regarding the initially confidential talks they conduct within the framework of their activity. However, the ombudspersons of the Sections produce an annual report for the President in anonymous form, in which they present an overview of the cases with which they were concerned. These reports allow obtaining at least an approximate overview of the type and frequency of certain conflicts, problems and problem categories. Every two to three years, the Chairperson of the Ethics Council of the MPG invites all the ombuds - persons of the Institutes and Sections to a joint meeting. Should the need arise, the ombudspersons can receive advice from Unit VIIb of Administrative Headquarters. Confidentiality means double protection. On the one hand, it means protection for those who are looking for advice or those who intend to attract attention to possible scientific misconduct at their Institute or within their Research Group. For the latter, it is frequently of crucial importance that they do not jeopardize their own scientific career by voicing a suspicion. However, the protection of those accused is just as important. Indeed, not every suspicion expressed turns out to be true on closer inspection. In cases of suspicion, it is therefore the ombudsperson’s duty to collect and investigate any provisional indications at first. Only if this collection and investigation results in tangible indications will the Managing Directors and, as the case may be, the Vice President of the Section be informed. Subsequently, these will decide on the further course of action.

Scientific misconduct

In practice, the ombudsperson scheme shows that there is a need for dialogue at the Institutes and within the Research Groups with respect to the handling of the rules. As a rule, the ombudspersons are not so much concerned with serious violations in the sense of potential scientific fraud, but with conflicts resulting from scientific practice. Thus, around eighty percent of the talks conducted by the ombudspersons refer to issues relating to authorship that is to say to issues of fair appreciation of scientific contributions by individual persons to a certain publication. Cases of authorship conflicts do generally not constitute serious violations of scientific integrity and systematic diligence. In this context, the scientific quality of the respective publication is almost never at issue. Merely the assessment of the respective scientific contributions must be clarified. In the interest of scientific selfadministration and -control, these assessments are therefore to be made primarily at the respective Institutes with the support of the ombudsperson. If suspicious facts of scientific misconduct are revealed, the ombudspersons can – and must, if necessary – initiate a preliminary investigation and pave the way for the formal procedure based on the “Rules of Good Scientific Practice and Procedure in Cases of Suspected Scientific Misconduct” by involving the Managing Directors and the Vice President of the relevant Section.

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