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Confidentiality is paramount

For ten years, Professor Andreas Susenbeth worked as an honorary ombudsman for Kiel University. And he was always satisfied if a conflict could be resolved before it exploded into a drama. He had reason to be pleased remarkably often.

Andreas Susenbeth
© Martin Geist

Andreas Susenbeth provided ten years’ of voluntary service as a university ombudsman.

"Members and associates of the university may consult the ombudsteam on issues concerning good scientific practice and suspected scientific misconduct." This is how Kiel University defines the function of this institution. For Andreas Susenbeth, who was part of this small team until he officially retired on 1 April this year, that sounds more exciting than it is in everyday practice. In all the years, it was almost never about the accusation of serious violations, but all the more about human fears and sensitivities, partly coupled with a lack of knowledge about the university system, and the sometimes unwritten rules which have developed there.

The most common task for the ombudsman was resolving disputes about authorship. Who should be listed in first place as the main author, who must be satisfied with a place further back, and who will possibly not be listed at all? According to Susenbeth, these questions are particularly pertinent to early career researchers. Because the number of publications has a big impact on the reputation gained, and thus ultimately the personal career. It is similar with the data or materials which underlie a scientific paper. The ombudsman said: "Anyone who has put their heart and soul into collecting data for months, tends to believe sometimes that it's personal property, but that's often not the case, because it is usually the result of paid work, and also normally not entirely accomplished by one person alone."

The real life of a university takes place in the working groups. And especially in modern science, you can almost always achieve more together than alone.

Andreas Susenbeth

It is a bit more complex with authorship. Because it can actually be legitimate that a professor is listed as the main author of a publication, although the relevant work has largely been performed by a doctoral researcher or another employee. "From the idea to the project application right through to specialist support, it's always also about the institution itself," explained Susenbeth. "Generally speaking, you can make this clear to people very well," said the ombudsman, who on the other hand has also taken his fellow professors to task, when necessary. In his opinion, experienced professors, whose status hardly depends on constantly producing new publications, should certainly "allow the early career researchers to take centre stage" and forego the right to the top places in the author listings, which incidentally has also long since become common practice.

As a matter of principle, the 66-year-old believes that cooperation is worthwhile when all parties feel recognised, which he considers essential, otherwise there would be too much conflict if the success of the group itself was in question. Precisely to ensure that this does not happen, the work of the ombudsteam is guided by an ironclad principle: confidentiality. Andreas Susenbeth only produced written documents about his activities for personal use, if at all, and he did not compile any statistics. Everything should remain in safe hands with him. He engaged in talks with third parties only at the express wish of the person seeking advice. "In the vast majority of cases, things could be resolved very well," summarised the ombudsman, whose aim has always been to maintain or restore the team’s ability to function. Because it is clear to him that "the real life of a university takes place in the working groups. And especially in modern science, you can almost always achieve more together than alone."

After Professor Susenbeth’s retirement, this valuable service will be provided by his successor, the chemist Professor Gernot Friedrich, and the philosopher Professor Christine Blättler, who continues in her role for the humanities and social sciences.

Author: Martin Geist

Dedication to "clean" science

Whereas the ombudsteam plays an important role in everyday conflict management at Kiel University, the "Committee for the Investigation of Scientific Misconduct" is only required very rarely. Seven seasoned scientists from various disciplines constitute this committee, and become active if plagiarism is alleged or scientifically improper methods are suspected. As with the two-person ombudsteam, all members of the university, from students to professors, can call on this committee. (mag)

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