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Health intensifies focus on integrity and the arm’s length principle

Health is now revising its standards for the responsible conduct of research that all of the faculty’s researchers are required to comply with. This is being done in the wake of two serious cases from other faculties which have brought the independence of the research carried out at Aarhus University into doubt.

A clear, written collaboration agreement taking into account integrity and the arm’s length principle must be finalised before a researcher from Health can collaborate on research and development projects with business and industry, special interest organisations and other external partners.

This is stated in the Standards for the responsible conduct of research at Health, which have now been further clarified to reflect the incorporation of freedom of research into AU’s general policy for this area last year.

"Back then the university had the so-called nitrogen case, and now we’ve got the ongoing ‘beef case’ about a report that violated the applicable guidelines for research integrity, to the detriment of Aarhus University as a whole," says Dean Lars Bo Nielsen.

“Even though we haven’t had a case like this at Health, under the circumstances it’s fitting to emphasise that the standards are not just a vision that we’re striving for. They are the rules governing our work. All of us. Every single day,” says the dean.

Everything must be declared

A collaboration agreement must be drawn up for projects with external partners which specifies the respective responsibilities, rights and obligations of the parties.

Vice-dean for Talent Development Lise Wogensen Bach headed the working group which revised the standards. She explains that it is not enough to provide an account of who initiated the project, write protocols and specify who has responsibility for the collection of material and data and its interpretation.

“There also has to be a specification of who writes the manuscript – whether it is the researcher from Health or a researcher from the company – as well as who presents the results to the general public,” says Bach. She points out that in the beef case, the report’s introduction, front page and press release were among the elements that contributed to the report’s lack of credibility.

“The aim is to protect both the individual researcher and the credibility of our research, even when it is assessed by the outside world”, she says.

TTO uses a fine-toothed comb

Lise Wogensen Bach also emphasises that in future it will only be possible to sign collaboration agreements after they have been reviewed with a fine-toothed comb by the university’s TTO – Technology Transfer Office. From now on the TTO will carefully review all clauses concerning e.g. publication, rights, confidentiality, compensation and exclusivity.

“We’ve emphasised that the TTO has a particular obligation to prevent a contact from slipping through in which someone has overseen an important detail. For example, this might be a company that demands exclusivity in an area which in reality prevents a researcher from collaborating with others. And of course, we can’t accept this kind of thing," says Bach.

Authorship – what counts?

All authors must comply with the criteria for authorship, and just as nobody who is entitled to be cited as an author can refuse authorship, neither is it possible to make an unjustified claim to authorship. In this version of the standards, there is a particular focus on the role of ‘supervisors’, because in some places there may be a tradition for crediting a supervisor as an author of publication, even though the supervisor has not contributed to the study.

Otherwise, when it comes to the publication of research findings, the rule is that all results should of course be published. Including when the study does not produce the expected findings. In this way the new standards are a combination of do's and don'ts which, according to Lise Wogensen Bach, everyone can benefit from reading or re-reading, no matter where they are employed at the faculty.

Moral compass and practical reference work

She encourages researchers to view the Standards for the responsible conduct of research at Health as both a kind of moral compass and a practical reference work when embarking on new research projects and collaborations.

“There will be information which is self-evident, both for junior and more experienced researchers, but there are also new aspects such as changes to the rules for reporting which everyone needs to be aware of, not least in connection with GDPR,” says Bach.

Lars Bo Nielsen agrees. He points out that as a new measure, the responsibility to be familiar with and comply with the rules at Health has been written directly into the standards.

“As senior management, we must ensure that everyone who carries out research has access to and knowledge of Health’s standards for the responsible conduct of research. And as researchers we have a duty to know and comply with the rules – and it’s important we have these discussions in our research groups,” says Nielsen.

Download Standards for the responsible conduct of research at the Faculty of Health

The working group behind the revision consists of

Information meetings at the departments

All members of academic staff at Health must be familiar with and comply with the faculty’s revised standards for the responsible conduct of research at the faculty. Over the coming months, the departments will therefore hold information meetings to present and discuss the most relevant changes to the standards.

Last Tuesday, the faculty management team at Health approved the revised standards for the responsible conduct of research. In connection with this, it was also decided to offer supplementary local meetings at the departments, so that all employees can get an insight into the revised principles for research integrity, freedom of research and good scientific practice at AU and Health.

The faculty management team also decided to follow up on workflows and the wording of agreements in collaboration with the Technology Transfer Office (TTO), and that the departments must draw up guidelines for record-keeping and documentation in connection with project management.