New report on freedom of research at Aarhus University: Researchers experience threats to their academic freedom. Sometimes from their managers and colleagues

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In February of last year, the senior management team commissioned an independent survey of the state of research freedom at Aarhus University. The results of the survey are now available in the form of a report, and the conclusion is clear: researchers are exposed to unreasonable pressure, both from inside and outside the university. And the rector intends to put a stop to it.

2019.01.10 | Lotte Bilberg

[Translate to English:] Rektor Brian Bech Nielsen og lektor Merete Wiberg. Wiberg har stået i spidsen for den styregruppe, som universitetsledelsen først på året nedsatte til at lede en undersøgelse af forskningsfriheden på AU. Collage: Omnibus.

Translation: Lenore Messick.

The report, entitled ‘A survey of freedom of research in relation to publication at Aarhus University’ reveals that many researchers have had to deal with pressure to change, postpone or even drop the publication of inconvenient research results. 

As the title of the report indicates, the survey, which was carried out by the Danish Centre for Social Science Research (VIVE), focussed on a narrow aspect of research freedom at AU. In addition to exploring the extent to which researchers experience threats to their research freedom in relation to publication, VIVE was also tasked with determining where these threats come from – for example stakeholders in ministries, agencies, special interest organisations or in connection with income-generating activities. Or from managers, supervisors or colleagues at the university.

Sixteen percent have felt pressure

It should be a matter of course that there is freedom of research at a university, so the survey’s conclusions are disheartening reading. Here are some of the central findings in the report:

Seven percent of the researchers who participated in the survey state that they have experienced pressure to change their research results within the past five years. One in ten has experienced pressure to postpone publication of results. While one in five has been under pressure to supress their results completely. 

Overall, sixteen percent of the participating researchers have been subjected to at least one of these three forms of pressure. In other words, someone has tried to prevent them from communicating their research in a way that accurately represents their methods and results.  

Researchers from all faculties

The majority of researchers in the survey who have encountered this kind of pressure are from ST (21%), followed by researchers from Arts (18%), HE (12%) and Aarhus BSS (also 12%).

And – something many in the AU community may find particularly depressing – this pressure doesn’t only come from stakeholders from outside the university’s yellow brick walls. It also comes from within.

Some of the examples of the latter VIVE cites in the report include situations in which a researcher’s results come into conflict with those of other researchers – or when they complicate management’s attempts to develop relationships with an external stakeholder in order to attract funding. And there are cases in which the results of a study are at odds with how a more prominent researcher perceives a field – or whose academic prestige is at stake when a new study threatens to overturn previous conclusions. 

The rector is determined to act

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen freely admits that he is surprised that so many researchers at his university have dealt with threats to their freedom of research. But after all, the majority of the researchers in the study have not felt this kind of pressure, he points out – although he admits in the same breath that he has a hard time mustering satisfaction about the study’s results. 

“So I will restrict myself to being satisfied that with this report, we’ve gained a good tool we’re going to use to relieve the pressure on the significant minority who state that they’re under pressure in relation to their freedom of research. And we will do everything in our power to reduce it.”

Associate Professor Merete Wiberg headed the steering committee appointed by the senior management team in early 2018 to direct the survey of freedom of research at AU. There’s no doubt in her mind that the rector means what he says when he promises that actions will be taken to protect researchers from extraneous influences in relation to their research.

“I am absolutely convinced that this is not just grandstanding. The rector is committed to doing something about this, and to doing it together with the academic councils,” Wiberg says. 

The senior management team and the four academic councils already discussed the report’s conclusions at a meeting in December, and the rector will be meeting with the chairs again in early 2019. 

“And the academic councils will also be discussing number of different proposals to ensure freedom of research this spring,” Wiberg adds. 

DEBATE: Contact your union representative if your freedom of research is threatened

An independent body at each faculty

The proposals to be considered have been put forth by the steering committee in an attempt to ensure that researchers who experience attempts to compromise their freedom of research are protected. 

“Among other measures, we have proposed the creation of an independent body in the shape of a sort of ombudsman at each faculty who researchers would be able to contact anonymously, because the report states that a mechanism of this kind outside one’s own research group can be necessary,” Wiberg says.

The rector is positive about this proposal, but has been informed that there are restrictions on the use of the title ‘ombudsman’. 

“So we’re currently proposing a ‘research ambassador’, for lack of a better word,” the rector explains.

The senior management team has also received the steering committee’s other proposals positively.

“They ticked all the boxes, really. This also goes for the proposal to create a central committee, similar to the current Research Practice Committee. This committee will also be be completely independent of management and will report to the management about the nature of the cases reported. And about the number, so we’re in a position to follow up on whether the measures we’ve taken are actually working,” the rector says.  

However, Rector Bech Nielsen emphasises that the different measures should be seen as a work in progress, in the sense that the proposals have not yet been discussed with the parties whom it would be relevant to involve in the work of developing safeguards on freedom of research.     

Managers need additional training

The report also makes it clear that managers at centres and departments/schools need to be better prepared to handle concrete cases related to pressure on researchers. In interviews, managers at this level have stated that they take cases of this kind seriously. But at the same time, it is evident that very few of them have clear guidelines that can help safeguard freedom of research. 

For this reason, the rector also supports a proposal to provide managers with additional training.

“There is also a need for clear guidelines on what constitutes crossing the line at the local level. What one person perceives as a dialogue can be perceived by someone also as pressure in an asymmetrical relationship. So we have to clarify what constitutes illegitimate pressure,” the rector explains. He continues:

“In any case, I’m pleased to read that management takes it seriously. But that should be a given: after all, supporting freedom of research is one of management’s tasks.”  

The background for the survey

The senior management team commissioned the survey last February in the wake of repeated assertions from various quarters that AU researchers were being exposed to attempts to influence their research results, both internal and external.

READ MORE: Hey researcher! What’s your take on freedom of research at AU?

At that time, researchers who advise and perform research for the ministries had recently been shoved into the media spotlight again after criticism of the models and data they had contributed in connection with the research behind the government’s agriculture package.

At the same time, management was accused of twisting the arms of some of the researchers involved in order to prevent them from making any more statements to the media about the case. And as you may know, this is just one of the episodes which has called the conditions for the exercise of freedom of research at AU into question. 

FACT BOX

  • In August, 4,379 researchers at AU received a questionnaire in connection with a survey of freedom of research at AU.
  • 1,488 researchers (34%) chose to participate in the survey, which was performed by the Danish Centre for Social Science Research (VIVE).
  • VIVE also conducted a series of interviews with managers in order to illuminate their role in relation to the issue.

Highlights from the report

Researchers who work for ministries or with income-generating activities are at greater risk of being exposed to pressure than other researchers.

Researchers have the same risk of being exposed to pressure regardless of whether they are professors, associate professors or assistant professors. And in this regard, it makes no difference whether a researcher is a member of permanent staff or more loosely affiliated with AU.

And neither gender nor age influence one’s risk of getting squeezed between the interests of impartial scientific inquiry and the interests of stakeholders. However, the survey does indicate that researchers who have received their PhD within the last five years are exposed to a greater risk of pressure to change their results. 

Who participated in the survey?

All researchers at AU were offered a chance to take the survey. Just over one in three (34%) chose to participate. Both sexes and all age groups are represented. But some groups are overrepresented relative to the general researcher population at AU. This applies to researchers who are:

  • Over the age of 40
  • heads of department, professors or associate professors
  • come from Arts or Aarhus BSS

But although VIVE notes that there are imbalances in the responses received, several analyses of participation bias ultimately indicated that non-response along several parameters only have a minor influence on the representativeness of the study.

A survey of freedom of research in relation to publication on the Aarhus University (in Danish)

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