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AU’s rector: We have to learn from our mistakes

It’s important to stay focused on the future, even though we’re currently explaining the mistakes of the past, says Rector Brian Bech Nielsen in a statement on the investigation of the Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture reports.

Photo: Lars Kruse

Statement by Rector Brian Bech Nielsen

Unfortunately, the beef report and the subsequent investigation of 55 DCA reports have shown that mistakes have been made at the university. The worst mistakes, however, are the ones you don’t learn from. This is why it’s very important to me that Aarhus University comes out of this stronger, and that we use this constructively in our future efforts for society.

The executive management team at Science and Technology carried out the investigation of the DCA reports on the university’s own initiative. The investigation had two objectives: first, to ensure that the contributions of partners involved in individual DCA reports were accurately and fully disclosed, and second to identify any recurring problems in order to learn from them and assess what measures need to be put in place to create a stronger defence of research integrity in future. Not just at Science and Technology, but at the entire university.

There are no indications that the amount of external funding the university receives will decrease in coming years. This means we must equip ourselves even better to safeguard research integrity and to handle the pressure and suspicion that can accompany this type of funding.

The follow-up process is underway 

The investigation of pressure on freedom of research performed by VIVE last year resulted in a number of new initiatives. In addition, over the last few weeks, I and the rest of the senior management team have made a number of decisions that will effect employees’ daily work in different ways. So the investigation of the DCA reports does not mean that the case is now closed– by no means.

  • Science and Technology has introduced new guidelines for research collaboration (link in Danish), and more transparent guidelines for collaborative projects are also being drafted at university level. One aspect of our efforts is about creating a more accessible overview of the various rules, codices and guides that already exist at national and local level.

  • The university is developing courses on research integrity for all researchers, including courses or workshops held for individual research programmes that will provide a forum for researchers to openly discuss the challenges they encounter in working with external partners, in addition to online courses that must be taken at regular intervals, for example every other year. Our overarching goal is to create a culture characterised by a higher degree of dialogue about the practical and theoretical dilemmas collaboration with external partners can entail.

  • We need to implement a more transparent process for the exceptional cases in which it may be necessary to allow external partners to comment on reports. This dialogue must be completely open, which means that it must not take place by means of track changes in a draft report, but rather in separate documents which are ultimately included in the publication as appendices, so that the comments of the external partner and the researchers’ response to them are visible to all. Naturally, it must also be clearly disclosed that the manuscript has been made available for such comment. The aim of such measures is to increase transparency and to make it clear that it is the authors who are responsible for the report itself.

  • At the same time, if there has been correspondence with the project’s external partners, we must ensure that it is possible to link to the correspondence in its entirety from the report. In other words, correspondence must be archived with care so that it can be made available to the public through a link in the report after the conclusion of the project. 

Scientific criticism must not become an attack on scientists 

I am fully aware that these measures taken as a whole are time-consuming for researchers involved in external projects. But as the current case at DCA illustrates, these measures are first and foremost about protecting the integrity of the researchers, the university and research itself.

It’s understandable that researchers who contributed to the DCA reports are frustrated about having inappropriate motives laid at their door. About how much attention is being focused on the 34 reports (far from all of which are fullblown research reports), when researchers from the same research programmes publish about 500 peer reviewed articles annually – well-regarded researchers at the very top of international academic rankings. It’s regrettable that the lack of transparency around the DCA reports can give rise to doubts about the integrity of these researchers.

It goes without saying that our findings and methods are always open to scientific criticism – this has always been an absolutely necessary dimension of the very nature of science. If we are more transparent, we will avoid cases in which scientific criticism devolves into a question of integrity, as has happened here.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to thank the many AU employees who have long been – and still are – working overtime to clarify the history of working relationships which in some cases took place years ago at DCA and to respond to an avalanche of requests for access to documents. Of course, it’s understandable that the media take an interest in the mistakes that have been made. At the same time, I’d like to repeat the point I made at the beginning of this statement: that we have a responsibility to society to learn from our mistakes and look to the future. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

It’s worth emphasising that Aarhus University will continue to be a university that engages in society in every way. An open university that collaborates with both public and private sector partners. A university that actively uses its knowledge to create value for society and our fellow citizens. This is the course we have set, and we will continue to follow it.  

The beef report case in brief