Hundreds of researchers have signed an open letter to get politicians to examine freedom of research

The University Act should be revised, there should be more basic funding for research, and freedom of research should be examined by a commission. These are the proposals in a letter signed by 1274 university professionals who wish to set research free. “Success in the world of research is no longer about quality”, says initiator Maria Toft.

Maria Toft is a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen and one of the initiators of the campaign. She was also behind the #pleasedontstealmywork campaign. Photo: Private Photo: Privat
Rasmus Ejrnæs is a senior researcher in the field of biodiversity at Aarhus University and one of the initiators of the campaign. Photo: Private Photo: Privat

In recent months, the campaign #pleasedontstealmywork has resonated through the world of research and given rise to 120 reports of so-called research theft. Now the initiator of the campaign, PhD student at the University of Copenhagen Maria Toft, is ready to take another step in the discussion about problems in the world of research.

On 3 June, she and several co-initiators published an open letter on academic freedom, which was printed in the Danish newspaper Politiken.

The letter, entitled “Set research free”, is addressed to party leaders and political spokespeople for research in the Danish Parliament. Its main objective is to set up a commission with a mandate to investigate the issue of freedom of research in Denmark.

“The Set freedom free campaign is about taking a step back and saying: “Our systems, including our incentive structures for research and the way we evaluate its success, are based fundamentally on mistrust. We must bring back trust. For think of the systems we could establish if we assumed that we could trust each other. I believe ideas would flourish a lot more. Under the systems we have today, we are not utilising the potential we have at our universities,” says Maria Toft.

Request to change the University Act

In just a few days, the letter was signed by 1274 researchers at Danish universities.

As part of its main objective of setting up a commission, the letter outlines three sub-points. The University Act from 2003 should be evaluated and revised. More basic funding should be available for research and more researchers should be employed in permanent positions, and, finally, there should be a review of the incentive structures for and the financing of research.

So the letter is bold in its proposals.

The objective of the revised University Act from 2003 was to make universities more market-oriented in order to focus on growth and efficiency. The 2003 Act also changed the management structure of the universities, so that it was no longer the employees at the university who chose the management.

When considering how the act should be changed, Maria Toft refers to the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters’ white paper from last year, which mentions a number of models that could replace the current management structure, which, according to some, has created an unhealthy top-down management style.

Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters: The management of universities needs to be changed (in Danish only)

“In any case we need to look at the issue of how university departments are managed. We don’t necessarily need to go back to the introverted hippie university of the 1970s, where everything was democratically decided, but it’s probably worth looking at how we can make local management more democratic and employee-driven,” she says.

Finance structure favours the few

The letter emphasises that researchers need to ask the “big questions”. Research need not be conducted as quickly as possible, and the answers researchers are looking for need not be immediately obvious. The authors of the letter claim it should be possible to ask questions such as “What is the idea behind this?” and “Should we view this field in a completely new way?”.   

Early career researchers should be allowed to develop themselves. Something that is currently being hampered by a stagnating level of basic funding and an increasing proportion of external funding in the world of research, claim the authors of the letter. According to Maria Toft, the current structure means that a few individual researchers are favoured.

“We currently have finance and incentive structures that measure the success of research by the number of publications and not so much by the quality of these publications. And we also have a finance structure that is based on the idea that: “Well, those who have already had the most funding are obviously the most successful, so we should give them more”. Research funding thus becomes concentrated on fewer and fewer people because that’s the way we measure success,” she says.

AU researcher: We mustn’t become sausage factories

Senior researcher in the field of biodiversity at AU Rasmus Ejrnæs also helped to draft the letter. He did so because he encountered many issues at university that “frustrated and worried” him. Even though he encountered these issues at AU, he is in no doubt that they exist across all universities in Denmark.

“I have experienced a bit too much career ambition. And perhaps too little focus on creativity and originality, and knowledge and pride,” says Rasmus Ejrnæs.

The senior researcher wants to set research free, he explains, in order to avoid what he calls opportunists in the research fields. When he talks about opportunists, he, like Maria Toft, believes that, in today’s research world, it is a person’s network and number of publications that matter, while, according to Rasmus Ejrnæs, the quality of research is side-lined. He views this as the main problem, because, while he does not want to prevent talented researchers getting funding, he claims there are other talented researchers who are “suffering and giving up along the way” and research questions that are not being asked and answered.

“There are specific structural problems today, which I encounter in the ‘bigger is better’ mindset. Some of the large grants are awarded to a few people in a small subject area, which drains the rest of the department’s resources. The idea is that this should lead to top-class research, but, instead, I think it just makes us into a kind of sausage factory, where the gifted lead researchers end up running everything, and the many PhD students help these researchers and add volume. But I’m afraid we’ll lose the real original touch,” he says.  

He believes the senior management team should be more concerned about quality and originality, and that they should dare to trust more in researchers, he explains.

“So the fundamental demand we are making is that we do not waste the greatest asset we have at our universities – the free, engaged attention of the researcher,” says Rasmus Ejrnæs.

The “Set research free” campaign ends on 13 June. On 14 June, Maria Toft and the other co-authors will submit the letter at Christiansborg, in the hope that politicians will act on their proposals.

Objectives set out in the open letter on academic freedom

To get politicians to set up a commission to examine freedom of research, including:

1. Evaluating and revising the University Act from 2003
2. Allocating more basic funding to research and employing more researchers in permanent positions
3. Conducting a general review of the incentive structure and finance structure for research

An English summery of the letter can be read here and signed here.

Translated by Sarah Jennings