Dean: There should be no doubt that there is room for open and healthy academic debate at our faculty

Email from Dean Kristian Pedersen to all employees at the faculty.

[Translate to English:] Stort billede.
[Translate to English:] Foto: AU Foto.

Dear colleagues at Natural Sciences,

I am writing to you directly to address a matter that I wish to clarify.

You are probably already aware of the situation regarding the scientific article published in Nature in 2016 that was retracted due to an error. The Berlingske newspaper has been covering the story for some time. The newspaper has among other things, also mentioned my highly regrettable comments which have caused anger, disappointment and concern at the faculty. This is completely understandable. The language I used was inappropriate, and I can guarantee that it will not happen again. I have previously explained, and apologised for the comments in an editorial on the faculty website.

I am bringing the matter up again because I think I should explain how we at the department and faculty have dealt with the matter and how we will continue to deal with it. Interest in this case extends beyond employees at the department where it originated. This week, a number of other researchers at the faculty have expressed their concern that management may have tried to silence employees who have raised concerns about the scientific practice and about management being slow in dealing with the case. These concerns may create a sense of unease at the faculty and apprehension that the fundamentals for good and honest research are at threat.

Firstly, I would like to thank everyone who voiced concerns. I would like to make it clear that academic criticism is at the foundation of good research. The role of management is neither to reinforce nor to muffle critique. We must ensure the proper framework and conditions for academic debate and, as management, we must intervene if there are staff-related matters to be dealt with.

I acknowledge that my comments may have tarnished confidence in the academic debate at the faculty. I have learned from my mistakes, and there should be no doubt that there is room for open and healthy academic debate at our faculty.

I do not believe that it is correct to blame management for passivity on this matter. Once the case escalated from the issue of academic criticism to becoming a question of research integrity as well, the department management team involved the faculty adviser for responsible conduct of research in the matter. The adviser at the time assessed that the conflict was mainly of an academic nature, and that it should therefore be resolved by the researchers themselves. The department management team also contacted the secretariat of the Research Practice Committee. At that time, they assessed that it was a matter of academic disagreement and referred to the adviser. 

As the process continued, and no progress was made in the academic dialogue between the parties, the head of department once again intervened and instructed the researchers behind the article in Nature to hand over the disputed codes. At the beginning of 2020, the case was submitted to the Research Practice Committee by the department management team, and the committee stated that due to delayed response it was a case of questionable research practice. The course of events are further outlined in this time line.

This matter has been very difficult and has personally affected a number of those involved. It has also affected collaboration and the professional relationships of the parties involved. Together with the department management team, I have held a number of meetings with the parties to clarify events and to work towards concluding the matter and restoring a good working climate. Our efforts are still ongoing.

We must learn from this case. Professional criticism between colleagues is part of our DNA; part of our culture. At the same time, we must ensure a good and constructive work environment where criticism does not impede collaboration, does not negatively affect the work environment, and does not result in personal consequences for the individual. It is especially important that we as management learn from the matter to assess how we could otherwise have got involved in the process, so that we can forge a better basis for dealing with difficult cases in the future.

Furthermore, we are also clarifying whether there are outstanding points of criticism about research integrity to be assessed by the Research Practice Committee.

Now, I would like us to look ahead. I hope we can do that together with my assurance that we at the faculty can continue to engage in academic and professional debate based on mutual respect.

Kind regards,

Kristian Pedersen