FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

General information on the ombuds system

1. Who may apply to the Ombudsman?

Any researcher with a connection to the German research system can contact us with a request for advice or mediation in the sphere of good scientific practice (GSP).

2. Should I turn to the local ombudsperson or to the national committee (German Research Ombudsman) if I need advice or some kind of “arbitrator” in a case of conflict in research?

Every researcher is free to apply either to the ombudsperson of his or her own institution or to the German Research Ombudsman. Local ombudspersons usually have more detailed knowledge of the arrangements and procedures of the institution in question, and can be contacted locally. The German Research Ombudsman is an external contact, which can be particularly helpful in conflicts between people from different institutions. However, it is not a superior body to the local ombudspersons.

3. For which concerns is the Ombudsman the right port of call?

The Ombudsman advises on general questions relating to research integrity and on questions relating to specific cases of conflict in this area. The main tasks include confidential mediation in specific cases of conflict as part of ombuds procedures, provided that these conflicts are based on misconduct that can still be remedied (see also Question 4). If a matter falls outside the Ombudsman’s remit, we may be able to suggest other organizations which might be able to provide appropriate advice.

4. What is meant by the term “remediable misconduct”?

There are a number of practices that can be considered incompatible with good scientific practice, but which can be reversed or corrected (also referred to as questionable research practices or QRP). These include conflicts over authorship, conflicts regarding the use of data, or conflicts resulting from inadequate mentoring (often during the doctoral phase, but also regarding the mentoring of Master’s students).

The best-known forms of fraud in science – such as data falsification, data fabrication, and plagiarism (also known as”FFP”) – typically constitute irremediable misconduct.

5. In which cases can the Ombudsman not help?

1) Cases of alleged serious scientific misconduct (such as plagiarism, data manipulation and data falsification) are out of scope for an Ombudsman mediation as such types of misconduct cannot be remedied. In Germany, the respective university or the research institution concerned is responsible for the investigation (and if necessary the sanctioning) of such cases of scientific misconduct. If we are able to confirm indications of irremediable misconduct, we immediately forward the enquiry to the institution responsible for the investigation.

2) If a matter is already subject to litigation, or if it is foreseeable that at least one of the parties will seek to initiate legal proceedings regarding the matter, no ombuds procedure can be conducted (see also Question 6). The Ombudsman also does not offer legal advice.

3) If a conflict is based on a purely content-related controversy, the Ombudsman cannot make an assessment. Scientific discrepancies must be discussed and resolved in the respective scientific communities.

If we discover that one of the above points applies, you will receive a written message in which we substantiate why the Ombudsman is unable to take further action in relation to your request.

6. I have already hired a lawyer and am planning to resolve a dispute regarding misconduct in court. Why is the Ombudsman not able to advise me even though there has been manifest scientific misconduct?

The most important principles of ombuds work are impartiality and confidentiality. Successful conflict mediation depends to a considerable extent on whether these principles can be guaranteed. In the case of conflicts that have already been subject to litigation, there is a danger that information from the confidential ombuds proceedings, which are aimed at mediation, may be cited in the court proceedings for the benefit of one of the parties. It is therefore impossible to conduct ombuds proceedings in parallel with court proceedings on the same subject-matter or on closely-related subject-matters. If a party calls in a lawyer in the course of ombuds proceedings, the Ombuds Committee halts its mediation or discontinues the proceedings.

7. I am not sure whether misconduct or a violation of the GSP rules has been committed. What should I do?

It is advisable to first contact the local ombudsperson or the Ombudsman and describe the situation. It is usually possible to ascertain in a discussion or written exchange whether there are indications of a GSP infringement, and what further action appears to be most expedient. A confidential consultation also serves to protect the whistleblower from negative consequences.

Sending enquiries to the Ombudsman

8. What documents or information should my enquiry to the Ombudsman contain?

In order to process your enquiry, we first of all only need a brief description of the matter. It can be helpful if you enclose the most important documents, if available. We will let you know if we require further information or supporting documents in order to assess the facts.

You can use our contact form to submit your enquiry. As an alternative, you can also send us an e-mail. Please note that you must attach our enquiry form to your e-mail.

You are also welcome to telephone our office first (see contact details) and describe your concerns in order to find out whether we are the right port of call.

9. How is the confidentiality of my enquiry to the Ombudsman guaranteed?

As a matter of principle, we do not contact any persons or institutions regarding your enquiry without consulting you first. If a statement by another person should appear necessary in order to mediate in a matter or to be able to assess a situation correctly, we ask for your consent beforehand. In principle, only those persons are included in ombuds proceedings whose comments are necessary in order to successfully mediate in a conflict – for example the opposing party or another body that is already involved in the matter.

10. Does the Ombudsman consult the German Research Foundation (DFG) with regard to enquiries?

No. Although the Ombuds Committee is appointed by the DFG, it performs its advisory and mediatory function independently of the DFG. The DFG is not involved in ombuds proceedings, nor is it informed about the contents of any proceedings or of the parties involved.

11. Can I also contact the Ombudsman anonymously?

Yes, we also process anonymous enquiries or enquiries submitted under a pseudonym. We need an e-mail or postal address where we can reach you in case we have any questions. Any recommendations that we make as part of anonymous advisory activities can only apply subject to reservations, as we only have your (subjective) view of the conflict or matter (see also Question 14).

We would like to point out that advice often benefits from a knowledge of the exact context, given that more specific proposals can then be made on how to proceed. We will treat all enquiries with absolute confidentiality, and will always discuss our suggestions for further action with you first (see also Question 9).

12. Can I contact the Ombudsman if the matter has already been or is being investigated by another (e.g. local) body?

We do not act in parallel if the same matter is already being dealt with elsewhere, for example by a local ombudsperson or a misconduct commission (see also Question 2). The Ombudsman is also not an appeal body for proceedings that have already been concluded, i.e. we do not initiate our own proceedings if the same matter has already been conclusively investigated.

If there are specific doubts as to the proper investigation of your enquiry, we can verify whether the procedure was carried out in a formally-correct manner. We generally contact the investigating body for further information.

Local ombudspersons can turn to us for advice if they have any doubts about specific enquiries or general questions about ombuds proceedings.

Questions about the ombuds procedure

13. How does the ombuds procedure work?

After receiving an enquiry, we first examine whether the Ombudsman can take action on the matter (see Questions 3 and 4). The enquirer may be asked for further information or supporting documents. The person(s) to whom the enquiry relates will then normally be asked for a statement. In the event of divergent statements, the Ombuds Committee contacts the persons involved in the conflict once more, asking them to specify the facts of the case (and to provide meaningful supporting documents where appropriate).

Communication usually takes place in writing. In rare cases, a mediation meeting is arranged that is chaired by the Ombudsman. If the Ombuds Committee has sufficient information, it makes an assessment based on the GSP rules (see also Questions 16 and 17). A chart depicting the ombuds procedure can be found here. For a detailed explanation of the ombuds procedure, see here.

14. What happens if I do not want the Ombudsman to contact the person(s) to whom my enquiry relates?

The Ombudsman acts in accordance with the principle of impartiality. We can therefore only make final assessments and recommendations if all the persons involved in a conflict have had the opportunity to present their perspective on the situation.

We nonetheless also offer advice for those enquirers who expressly do not wish the other persons involved to be contacted. This advice is then subject to reservations, as it is based solely on the point of view of the person making the enquiry.

15. What is the average duration of ombuds proceedings?

The aim of ombuds proceedings is to reach an agreement or to resolve the conflict as rapidly as possible. How quickly this can be achieved depends on how promptly we receive the statements and supporting documents that we have requested. The willingness of the parties to work with us also influences the duration of the proceedings. Some proceedings can be completed within a few weeks or months, but there is no maximum time limit for ombuds proceedings.

16. On what basis are the Ombudsman’s recommendations given?

The Ombudsman bases its deliberations and recommendations on the rules of good scientific practice (GSP), as formulated in the DFG Code of Conduct “Guidelines on Good Scientific Practice” (2019, currently only available in German). In addition, depending on the content of the enquiry, we also make use of other sets of rules from the field of scientific integrity, such as the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, or the guidelines of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).

17. Are the Ombudsman’s recommendations binding?

Since the Ombudsman is a body that is responsible for mediation, and not for imposing sanctions, our recommendations are not legally binding. They do however aim to prevent or remedy scientific misconduct. We therefore reserve the right to submit the facts of the case to the responsible local misconduct commission for further investigation where appropriate.

Photo by rawpixel via Unsplash