Twenty-six researchers express “deep concern” about management’s handling of a case involving questionable research practices

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Once again, both the rector and the dean at Nat have stressed that AU researchers are free to express critique of research practices. Their latest statements are a response to a critique of management’s handling of the controversy surrounding the retraction of a paper in Nature by 26 researchers at the Department of Biology.

2021.03.09 | Marie Groth Andersen

[Translate to English:] Institut for Fysik og Astronomi. Foto: Ida Jensen/AU Foto

Update 19 February ´21: Correction: The original article misstated the departmental affiliation of the researchers as the Department of Bioscience. The error has been corrected.

“From where we sit, it looks as if management has tried to silence staff who blow the whistle on questionable research practices, and they’ve been very slow in dealing with the case. This kind of suppression of our rights and obligations creates a sense of insecurity.”  

This is the central message of a short letter addressed to joint union representative for academic staff at AU, Olav W. Bertelsen, as well as AU’s two academic staff representatives on AU’s board, Anne Skorkjær Binderkrantz and Peter Balling. 

“Deep concern”

In the letter, twenty-six researchers from the Department of Biology express “deep concern” about management’s handling of an ongoing controversial case at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The case, which raises issues of questionable peer review and research practices, centres on an article published in Nature that was retracted after errors in the data were discovered. 

The story was covered by the national newspaper Berlingske. One particularly shocking revelation in the newspaper’s coverage was an email from Kristian Pedersen, dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, to Fleming Besenbacher, chair of the Carlsberg Foundation, about the critique of the Nature article: Pedersen wrote that he was on the verge of “gagging several mouths with duct tape and tying their hands behind their backs until they come to their senses”.

The dean’s duct tape comment sows doubts

A remark the dean has apologised for, both in Berlingske and in a statement on AU’s staff website, medarbejdere.au.dk. Nonetheless, this explicit admission of a desire to shut the mouths of staff sows doubts about the dean’s trustworthiness, the 26 researchers write:

“The very fact that such an idea occurs to our leader sows doubts about how genuine and deeply anchored his respect for the generally accepted code of practice for research as the guiding principle of our work.” They also make it clear that they view the dean’s remarks as undermining the very foundations of science:

“When we see that staff risk reprisals for doing their duty as researchers, we fear that the most fundamental preconditions for good, credible research are under threat.”

Discussed at after-work meeting

One of the 26 researchers who signed the letter is Henrik Balslev, who’s a professor of ecoinformatics and biodiversity. He told me that the letter emerged out of a discussion of the case at an after-work meeting at the Department of Biology.

“That those kinds of words could come out of our leader’s mouth really offended us – he’s supposed to set an example and lead us in our work as researchers,” Balslev said.

Shouldn’t be swept under the carpet

In the letter, the 26 researchers also criticised management for handling the controversy at a sluggish pace, referring to the fact that the case has been dragging on for over four years. And it’s not yet over, because the faculty hasn’t yet clarified whether there are additional aspects of the case that ought to be considered by the research practice committee.   

“It seems as if our executive management would rather sweep the case under the carpet and make it disappear. But cases of this kind shouldn’t be suppressed, obviously. We need to get all the cards on the table and discuss this in an appropriate way so we can get to the bottom of things and solve the problems – and if necessary, set down some guidelines to make sure nothing like this happens again,” he said.

The case affects him strongly, even though it’s not taking place at his department.

“I’m disappointed in management. But it also embarrasses me when my colleagues at the University of Copenhagen start one of our meetings by asking: ‘How are things going with the Nature case?’”

Critique from other faculties as well

The 26 researchers from the Department of Biology are not the only AU researchers who have expressed criticism of the faculty’s handling of the case. In an op ed in Berlingske on 29 January, Associate Professor Nina Javette Koefoed of the School of Culture and Society criticised the management's handling of the case, which, according to Koefoed, raises several fundamental questions:

“Why did AU’s management allow this case to go on for so long? And now that the case has been investigated, why has management not yet taken a clear stand in support of the colleagues who lived up the principles and reported the questionable research practices? And just as importantly, what are the consequences of allowing these unsound research findings have been allowed to stand for three years?”

In the op ed, she argues that this case reveals a need for “an open and constructive discussion of how, under the difficult conditions the universities operate under, we can ensure that we have robust processes and transparent managerial support, so that staff dare to speak up about academic concerns, cases are handled quickly and the results are communicated openly and proactively”.

The dean responds to criticism

On Friday 12 February, Dean Kristian Pedersen wrote a mail to all employees at the faculty in response to the letter from the 26 researchers. He writes: 

“I acknowledge that my comments may have tarnished confidence in the academic debate at the faculty. I have learned from my mistakes, and there should be no doubt that there is room for open and healthy academic debate at our faculty.”

But the dean denies the allegations of sluggishness: 

“I do not believe that it is correct to accuse management of passivity on this matter.”

He refers to a timeline that describes the progress of the case and management’s actions. 

Henrik Balslev also told me that the dean has invited the 26 researchers from the Department of Biology to a meeting to discuss the case.

AU’s rector: Employees are free to express critiques of research practices 

The rector also commented on the case this week. Like the dean, he denies the accusation that management has been too passive in its approach to dealing with questionable research practices. 

“The departmental management team intervened when the case developed from a scientific dispute into a question of research integrity. The faculty’s adviser for the responsible conduct of research and the university’s research practice committee got involved on several occasions at management’s request,” writes the rector in a statement on medarbejdere.au.dk.

At the same time, the rector also stresses that AU staff are free to criticise research practices.

“There is and there must always be room for free, critical debate at Aarhus University,” he writes.

A good idea to reconfirm management's support for principles of research integrity

Joint union representative Olav W. Bertelsen is one of three recipients the letter from the 26 researchers was addressed to. When asked whether the repeated criticisms indicate that management has not succeeded in convincing staff that they have the support of management in cases of this nature, he replied: 

“My interpretation is that this case – in particular the email from Kristian Pedersen we’ve seen –has initiated a debate and a desire for confirmation that management’s position is what it should be.”

Bertelsen pointed out that debates of this kind take time – and rightfully so – because they give rise to discussions between management and staff at several levels. Most recently, the case was discussed at a meeting of the Faculty Liaison Committee (FSU).

“We (academic staff members of FSU, ed.) agree that the dean presented a credible apology for the duct tape-mail at the meeting, and on that background, we are reassured that we as researchers have his support, and that he also takes academic integrity seriously,” Bertelsen said. 

Nonetheless, Bertelsen is still looking forward to the next deliberations on the case, which will take place in the Main Liaison Committee (HSU), the highest level of the liaison committee system. 

What do you expect will take place at that meeting that hasn’t yet taken place?

“It’s my impression that there is general satisfaction with the apology that Kristian Pedersen has made. But I expect that we will be assured of the general principles that apply with regard to research integrity at the HSU meeting. And discussing these principles in a somewhat broader context is a good idea, because all leaders at all levels will have an opportunity to confirm that they support these principles. This should be beyond question, but it’s right and proper to have that reaffirmed,” Bertelsen said. 

The HSU meeting will take place on 5 March.


The facts of the case so far

In an article  on 17 January, Berlingske described the saga of a research paper by two physicists from AU, Jacob Sherson and Klaus Mølmer, which were published in the prestigious journal Nature in 2016. 

In the article, the two physicists claimed that humans performed better than a computer algorithm in a computer game simulation of a complex problem in quantum physics. These findings made quite a splash; but they were also contested, among others by three researchers from the same department as the authors of the paper: the  Department of Physics and Astronomy. 

The article was subsequently retracted as a result of their criticism – and not least  because an attempt to recreate the experiment  revealed an error in the data cited in the paper that invalidated the researcher’s findings. 

Flemming Besenbacher, chair of the powerful Carlsberg Foundation, was irked by the persistence with which the authors’ fellow researchers at the department pursued their critique. Which may have something to do with the fact that the foundation gave Sherson a massive grant after the publication of the Nature paper. In an email correspondence between Besenbacher and the two researchers that he forwarded to Rector Brian Bech Nielsen, Besenbacher calls the critics “baboons”; he also accuses them of soiling their own nest and characterises their actions as “disloyal”.

The case ended up on Dean Kristian Pedersen’s desk. In a mail to Besenbacher, the dean writes that he was on the verge of “gagging several mouths with duct tape and tying their hands behind their backs until they come to their senses”. In Berlingske, the dean apologised for these statements, which he described as inappropriate. And in a statement published on 18 January on medarbejdere.au.dk, he apologised unreservedly for his statements. In Berlingske, Besenbacher apologised for his tone, but maintained that the three critics from AU had behaved disloyally.

Translated by Lenore Messick

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