geralt, Pixabay-Lizenz

Procedure in case of conflict

Many conflicts involving research data can be avoided with good prevention. At the start of every research project, it should be established what rights and duties all researchers have to the data resulting from the project. Ideally, a written agreement on usage rights that complies with the German Research Foundation's (DFG) Code of Conduct Guidelines for Safeguarding Good Research Practice’ should specify who can use which data and when. This should not only cover the specific project duration, including scenarios such as a researcher changing institutions, termination of PhD projects or contracts expiring, but also the end of the current project. In the event of a conflict, these records can provide assistance in finding a fair solution for all parties involved.

I am involved in a RI conflict

In the event of conflicts involving possible violations of research integrity (RI), anyone seeking advice should contact an ombudsperson, regardless of whether they are accused of having violated RI, whether they themselves fear that they have violated RI, or whether their research is affected by possible violations by others. Researchers in Germany can either contact the local ombudsperson/office at their institution or the national body German Research Ombudsman. In the case of externally funded projects, the relevant offices of the funding organisations can also be contacted. At the DFG, the Research Integrity team is responsible for RI issues. In general, enquiries can be made by telephone or email. Submitting an (anonymous) enquiry via the DFG Incident Reporting System is also possible.

Ombudspersons and ombuds offices work strictly confidentially and only approach third parties with the explicit consent of the researcher who made the initial enquiry. The German Research Ombudsman also accepts anonymous enquiries; in the case of local ombudspersons this depends on the institution's statutes. In the course of the enquiry, the persons involved are asked to describe the facts of the case in as much detail as necessary and, if possible, to submit comprehensive supporting documents. It is open to the researcher who made the enquiry to leave it at counselling or to enter into mediation, provided that the case involves a remediable RI violation. In any procedure, all persons involved are always heard before an assessment is made. Every step is taken in consultation with the person who submitted the original enquiry.

In the case of irremediable misconduct, such as data falsification, data fabrication or plagiarism (see also Research integrity Conflicts and Research Data), a preliminary assessment is carried out to determine whether there is sufficient suspicion to have the matter investigated by a committee. In line with the principle of self-regulation in science, it is the responsibility of the institution concerned to investigate evidence of research misconduct. If the misconduct is linked to a DFG-funded project, the Committee for the Investigation of Allegations of Scientific Misconduct of the DFG becomes active.

I have observed a potential RI violation

As an uninvolved whistleblower, you can also contact the above-mentioned bodies. It is generally recommended that you consult with a professional person of trust beforehand. Documenting the incidents or obtaining evidence can be helpful, but should always be done within the bounds of what is legal. Moreover, the suspicion should be shared with as few people as possible. As long as a potential RI breach has not been investigated, it is also important to protect the accused from an unjustified loss of reputation. According to the DFG Code of Conduct, ‘[k]nowingly false or malicious allegations’ can themselves constitute research misconduct.[1] Conversely, knowing about the data falsification by others without reporting it, can also considered research misconduct. As whistleblowers can sometimes suffer disadvantages, they should proceed with caution and consider mitigating measures, such as an anonymous reporting. Further advice can be found in the ENRIO Handbook on Whistleblower Protection in Research.

The protection of whistleblowers is enshrined in Guideline 18 of the DFG Code. In addition, the German Whistleblower Protection Act (Hinweisgeberschutzgesetz; HinSchG) provides for standardised regulations on whistleblowing. It is intended to ensure better protection for both whistleblowers and those affected by reports. The law mandates the establishment of internal reporting centres for institutions with 50 or more employees. Universities are therefore increasingly setting up compliance centres or whistleblowing systems where, in addition to research misconduct, information on corruption, harassment or discrimination can also be reported. Which aspects of academic work fall within the scope of the law under Section 2 HinSchG has yet to be conclusively assessed.


[1] Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). (o. J.). Guideline 18. Complaints and respondents. (accessed April 30th 2024)