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Press Release No. 58 | 9 December 2016
Scientific Misconduct: Decisions in Two DFG Cases

Joint Committee decides to withdraw Heisenberg professorship and issue written reprimand

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) is again taking steps in response to scientific misconduct on the part of researchers in receipt of DFG funding. At a meeting in Bonn on 8 December 2016, the Joint Committee of Germany's largest research funding organisation and the central self-governing organisation of the German research community decided to take disciplinary action in two cases in accordance with the DFG Rules of Procedure for Dealing with Scientific Misconduct. In each case, the Joint Committee followed the recommendation of the DFG’s Committee of Inquiry on Allegations of Scientific Misconduct.

In the first case, the Joint Committee concluded that scientific misconduct had occurred by pharmacologist Professor Dr. Kathrin Mädler, who is employed at the University of Bremen and was selected to receive a Heisenberg professorship by the DFG in 2014. An investigation into Mädler’s conduct began in March 2015 after an allegation of scientific misconduct was made in relation to a series of her publications. As the allegations were also being investigated by the University of Bremen at that time, the DFG procedure was initially deferred. The University of Bremen also deferred the appointment process associated with the awarding of the Heisenberg professorship. Once the university had completed its investigation in September 2016 – and the rector had concluded that Mädler was guilty of repeated negligence and breach of duty of care – the Committee of Inquiry on Allegations of Scientific Misconduct restarted the DFG procedure.

Following a careful examination of the allegations and on the basis of several statements, the University of Bremen’s investigation report and a hearing with Mädler, the committee came to the conclusion – as previously reached by the university – that data had been falsely presented in six publications which relied on DFG funding. The descriptions of certain results presented in figures did not correspond to the blot shown. In addition, figures were used from older publications, having been produced in a different context and bearing no relation to the experiments being described.

The DFG committee held Mädler responsible for this falsely presented data due to her role as the leader of the working group and as corresponding author of the publications. In the committee’s view, there is no evidence that Mädler was personally responsible for the false presentation of the data. Rather, the committee concluded that other authors who belonged to Mädler's working group were responsible for the reuse of the figures, which Mädler did not dispute during the hearing. However, the committee came to the conclusion that Mädler had grossly neglected her supervisory duty towards these research staff, giving rise to joint responsibility and also scientific misconduct in accordance with the DFG Rules of Procedure.

As an appropriate measure in line with the DFG Rules of Procedure, the investigation committee recommended to the Joint Committee that the Heisenberg professorship awarded to Mädler in 2014 be withdrawn. The Joint Committee has now decided to follow this recommendation.

“In view of the errors and shortcomings in supervisory and organisational duties, Ms. Mädler no longer satisfies the requirements for the awarding of a Heisenberg professorship. The Heisenberg professorship, which is regarded as a career milestone, is awarded by the DFG to only a few individuals each year. It is not project funding but personal funding associated with strict standards, not the least of which is research integrity, and recipients are important role models. Ms. Mädler no longer satisfies these requirements, and for this reason she would not be awarded a Heisenberg professorship today,” said the Secretary General of the DFG and president of the Committee of Inquiry on Allegations of Scientific Misconduct, Dorothee Dzwonnek, following the decision. However, the committee did not consider that further measures, such as a ban on submitting proposals, were appropriate, as Mädler should as a matter of principle continue to have the opportunity to apply for third-party funding.

In a second decision, the Joint Committee issued a written reprimand to another researcher. In this case, it was noted during the review of a DFG-funded paper, recently presented for publication, that the paper contained identical figures to a previously published study. Following a preliminary investigation by the DFG Head Office, a formal procedure was instigated. In this procedure, following in-depth investigation and on the basis of statements by the researcher in question and her working group leader and an expert statement, the DFG investigation committee came to the conclusion that the researcher was responsible for the false presentation of data in the submitted manuscript owing to the fact that she was credited as corresponding author. The committee found no evidence that the false representation of the data was done personally by the individual in question. However, as corresponding author she ought to have spotted the erroneous figures.

The committee recommended to the Joint Committee that, as an appropriate measure, a written reprimand be issued. This, in the committee’s view, adequately acknowledges the seriousness of the scientific misconduct while making clear the responsibility borne by a corresponding author. The Joint Committee has now followed this recommendation with its decision.

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