Organisation and Procedure
The Ombudsman is organised as a collegial body. All allegations and inquiries are jointly discussed using the individual expertise of each member to its full capacity. The members of the Ombudsman communicate regularly about the various inquiries and meet for face-to-face discussions in one- to two-day sessions every eight to ten weeks.
In principle, the Ombudsman can be consulted in all general questions concerning good practice in science and research. In addition, and more specifically, the Ombudsman advises scholars in all cases of suspected misconduct and may serve as an arbitrator in conflicts between parties affiliated to German research institutions and universities. The purpose of this support is to mediate between parties in order to resolve conflicts within the rules of good practice in science and research.
The German Research Ombudsman operates as an alternative consultation and mediation body in parallel to the local ombudspersons at universities and research institutions. Scholars are free to submit inquiries to local bodies or to the German Research Ombudsman.
All issues brought to the attention of the Ombudsman are treated with strict confidentiality. Other people, institutions or governing bodies involved are notified only with the explicit consent of the informant ("whistleblower"). This strict principle of confidentiality remains valid once a case has been closed.
General consultations and initial questions about problems related to good practice in science and research can be handled by telephone, but the mandate for the Ombudsman to examine an alleged case of misconduct requires the submission of a written inquiry
Handling allegations of scholarly misconduct
Where a reported incident relates to scholarly matters, the Ombudsman will open a case. Prior to any further procedures, all persons and entities involved must commit to maintaining strict confidentiality. The Ombudsman will request further information (e.g., e-mails, letters, or any other documents relevant to the allegations) from the "whistleblower" and, if necessary and feasible, request permission to contact the accused party. In cases where a local ombudsman’s committee has already been informed, the German Ombudsman may also ask for permission to contact that body for further information. Without the explicit consent of the party submitting the inquiry, the case will not be pursued further, nor will any third parties be informed.
Limitations on the handling of cases
As there is no hierarchy in place for different ombudsman’s bodies, the German Research Ombudsman has no authority above that of local committees. Thus, if a local ombudsperson has already come to a conclusion in a particular case, the German Ombudsman will not re-open that case. However, the Ombudsman can do so if there is substantial evidence that a local committee handled a case in an erroneous, defective, incomplete or biased manner.
Furthermore, where the inquiring party has already requested legal assistance elsewhere (e.g., by contacting a lawyer or labour court), the Ombudsman is required to refrain from accepting the case, as confidentiality can no longer be guaranteed.
Pursuit of solutions
In accordance with its primary mandate as a mediator, the German Ombudsman aims to resolve conflicts by discussing the matters in question with both the inquiring parties and the accused parties. Such discussions will involve e-mails, letters, telephone communication and in some cases personal interviews with both parties. Where the professional expertise of the committee is insufficient, the Ombudsman will request confidential support from external referees.
All conclusions that emerge from the investigation will then be delivered to both parties and may comprise different elements:
- a proposal to withdraw the accusation due to irrelevance
- a proposal for a compromise between the parties (e.g., proposed remedies for authorship conflicts)
- a conclusion that severe misconduct is evident and warrants sanctions on the accused party. Since the Ombudsman is not empowered to impose legal sanctions, such cases will be transferred to the competent bodies (see below).
Irremediable scholarly misconduct
Where the Ombudsman identifies sound reasons for severe misconduct which cannot be remedied (e.g., substantial plagiarism, intentional data manipulation, or theft of scholarly materials or authorship), the case will be forwarded to investigation committees with a mandate to impose sanctions. As set forth in the DFG memorandum on "Good Scientific Practice" (see above), all German universities and research institutions have established bodies that are able to impose such sanctions where appropriate. This is particularly relevant if the misconduct is related to the attainment of academic degrees (e.g., a master’s degree, Ph.D. or Habilitation) or scholarly awards. If the case in question is linked to DFG funding, the DFG Office of Scientific Integrity will be notified.