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The University of Copenhagen's special advisor: My most important role is mediation

Professor Jørn Hounsgaard is the “named person” in good scientific practice at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen. The cases he sees are dominated by personal conflicts. That is the way it is when research is driven by passion and ambition, says Jørn Hounsgaard.

When professor of neuroscience at the University of Copenhagen, Jørn Hounsgaard, agreed to be the faculty’s named person for handling all enquiries concerning good scientific practice, he had no idea what he was getting into. Two and a half years later he can divide the enquiries he gets into two stacks: One very small stack with only one case concerning dishonesty and another much bigger stack of cases that are basically personal conflicts. 

This division does not surprise Jørn Hounsgaard.

"Research is lifeblood and a lifelong investment, so there is a lot at stake for the people involved. Disagreements about issues such as authorship can become bitter disputes that grow and grow, if they are not dealt with at an early stage," says Jørn Hounsgaard.

The Faculty of Health Science’s scheme with a named person is an offshoot of the Milena Penkowa case. However, the enquiries Jørn Hounsgaard has received so far are of a completely different calibre. A large number come from PhD students and young researchers with questions about rules for data storage. They can be dealt with on the telephone.

Conflicts where help is needed to find a solution

Other enquiries – those that end up as regular cases for Jørn Hounsgaard – often have to do with disagreements about co-authorship. These are where personal conflicts smoulder and they are the cases where Jørn Hounsgaard acts mediator.

"There is no legislation or articles you can use to settle these kinds of disputes. Basically, the parties must find a solution themselves. My role is to help them get to the point where they can do this," says Jørn Hounsgaard. Since he started in the role, he has averaged one case a month where meetings are involved.

Specifically, he offers to meet each of the parties in the dispute individually to shed some light on all aspects of the conflict. Subsequently, the parties meet with Jørn Hounsgaard acting as mediator.

"I offer them a voluntary meeting and it is important to signal that I am available as a mediator and not as a judge. What the parties have in common is that being involved in this type of conflict is very stressful. This makes it even more important that I appear to be open and accommodating. On the other hand, it has turned out that it has virtually no importance if my academic knowledge of their field of research is minimal," says Jørn Hounsgaard.

As a general rule, he does not take a position regarding the cases. There must not be any doubt about his neutrality when he is handling the case. If the need arises, Jørn Hounsgaard can ask for help from the faculty's legal experts, but otherwise his primary role involves sparring with the parties to the conflict and otherwise exercising patience.

"Personal conflicts can draw out and they do not always end with a good solution. But a slightly unsatisfactory solution can still be better than a perpetual conflict", says Jørn Hounsgaard.

Read about the appointment of the special advisors at Health (link)