Where should the line be drawn - and who should deal with those who cross the line?

Proposals from an expert committee will lead to more cases of scientific dishonesty – or, at least, questionable research conduct – being dealt with locally at the universities. However, the committee faces the difficult task of drawing a line between questionable research conduct and scientific dishonesty, as well as defining which cases should be dealt with centrally by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), and which should be dealt with locally.

[Translate to English:] Illustration Morten Voigt

"We’re in the process of determining a definition of dishonesty that must make clear which cases need be dealt with centrally and, by extension, which cases can be dealt with locally. I can’t say precisely what the definition will contain at the moment. But it is quite clear that we will give the universities a larger role, as they will be given responsibility for handling more cases on dishonesty – and, in any case, cases of questionable research practice."

This is the message from Professor Jens Oddershede, who is the chairman of the expert committee that was set up in the wake of the Bente Klarlund Pedersen case (a high-profile Danish case on scientific dishonesty that began in 2011, ed.) by then Minister for Higher Education and Science, Sofie Carsten Nielsen, earlier this year. The committee will present its recommendations towards the end of the year.

A new practice in Denmark?

One of the most important tasks faced by the committee is to find a Danish definition of the concept of “Questionable Research Practice” (QRP). In an international context, QRP refers to cases where a researcher can be blamed for breaches of good scientific practice, but without it being possible to criticise the person for actual scientific dishonesty.

The expert committee must also assess whether QRP is a concept that should be used in cases of scientific dishonesty in Denmark. As things stand today, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) do not have this option, as the DCSD can only make decisions that characterise a researcher as either scientifically dishonest or not.

What is negligence
and what is gross negligence?

Oddershede is confident that a whole lot of head scratching will take place as the committee tries to reach an agreement on a Danish definition of QRP.

What factors make it difficult to discuss the line between questionable research conduct and scientific dishonesty?

"The fact that the dividing line between negligence and gross negligence is not always completely clear. That was one of the things that the whole Bente Klarlund Pedersen case was about," he says.

He continues:

"We can also focus on the many plagiarism cases. If a researcher repeats something from one of his or her earlier articles in the next article that is in principle plagiarism, as he or she has not written something new. But at the same time, this is perhaps also something that most people would consider to be less serious. But what if, instead of reusing something someone had actually written, they instead wrote some elegant sentences in the introduction, which were taken from another researcher? And what if they took a figure from another researcher's article and copied into their own article without mentioning the source? If that person copies half of their article from another person, then the majority of people would probably think that this was plagiarism and that it was also dishonest. So if we now say that clear dishonesty is black, while what we could call ordinary tittle-tattle is light grey, then we’re left with a dark grey area. And this, of course, is where there are some dividing lines that are anything but trivial."

Agreement on responsibility

While Oddershede prefers not to discuss the specifics of the committee's QRP discussions, he is clearly prepared to discuss the committee's opinion on a clear-cut division of responsibility for dealing with cases at a central and local level:

"We must have clear guidelines for what should be dealt with by the universities and what should be dealt with by the DCSD. We don't expect to present a detailed description of this, but need to have a clear agreement about who is responsible for what."

He also emphasises that drawing the boundary between the two levels is a difficult task.

"My personal opinion is that the DCSD currently receives cases which should have been dealt with by the universities and that dealing with these cases locally would be a good idea as it would most likely lessen the conflict. There is furthermore a principal of subsidiarity that applies to the ethical aspect which states that cases should be dealt with there where the competence to do this is greatest."

What about borderline cases?

Even though the committee will do everything it can to ensure a clear division of responsibilities, borderline cases will always arise, in which there will be an element of doubt about whether a case ought to be dealt with centrally or locally. This is a situation that the committee will also address, emphasises Oddershede.

"Should you be able to say for example: We started to deal with this case at the university, but things have gotten a bit too complicated for us, so we would like to send it on to DCSD. Should the DCSD then be able to say: The university should have dealt with this case, so we will send it return to Aarhus?"

- and transparency about the cases

You mention that dealing with cases where the expertise to do this is found is a good principle. But has the committee discussed the possible risk of management wishing to influence a local committee charged with the task of investigating matters that may tarnish that university's external reputation?

"Yes, that’s something we’ve talked about a great deal. We have also talked a lot about transparency and openness and how to ensure that management can’t sweep things under the carpet if the whole thing gets to be too uncomfortable for the university. Should there be some reporting requirements? And if so, how should this be done? We have talked a lot about this and we will present some suggestions, as these are aspects that you have to expect will need to be taken into account."


What does the Minister for Higher Education and Science want examined?

“The expert committee for the study of possible adaptations of the framework for the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD)” is the very descriptive name of the committee, which was set up by the former Danish Minister for Higher Education and Science. Professor Jens Oddershede sits at the head of the table.


Members of the expert committee

Professor Jens Oddershede, dr.scient., University of Southern Denmark
Professor Kirsten B. Hastrup, dr.scient.soc., University of Copenhagen
Professor Jens H. Schovsbo, dr.jur, University of Copenhagen
Professor Kirsten Ohm Kyvik, MD, University of Southern Denmark
Professor Anne-Mette Hvas, Consultant, Aarhus University
Professor Lotte Jensen, dr.scient.pol., Copenhagen Business School
Professor Lars Døvling Andersen, Aalborg University

Translated by Peter Lambourne