Getting It Right from the Start
Focus on “Good Research Practice”: Britta Anstötz, a nanostructure researcher at Freie Universität Berlin, wants to help others by leading good scientific practice workshops
Aug 24, 2021
In 2001, a young physicist published a series of groundbreaking articles in prominent scientific journals, one right after another – until his colleagues became suspicious and discovered that he had faked his results. “Of course, this is an extreme case,” says Britta Anstötz. There is no reason to conclude that scientific work in general is an untrustworthy business. “In comparison to the vast number of people working in science and research, scientific misconduct is actually quite rare,” she adds. Anstötz graduated with a degree in nanostructure science and went on to complete a doctorate in materials science. Today, she coordinates the Ultrafast Spin Dynamics graduate program at Freie Universität’s Department of Physics. She recently signed up for a training program to learn how to help instill good scientific practices in doctoral researchers.
The Ultrafast Spin Dynamics graduate program is part of the Collaborative Research Center/Transregio 227, which brings together researchers from Freie Universität Berlin and the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg (MLU), as well as from the Fritz Haber Institute, the Helmholtz Center Berlin, and the Max Born Institute. “Transregio projects are funded through the German Research Foundation,” Anstötz says, “which means we are required to provide our doctoral researchers (about 40 in total) with instruction on good scientific practice.”
Early on, she wanted to organize a training course for doctoral candidates, but quickly realized that workshops on good scientific practice are in high demand. It was hard to find someone to conduct the workshop. “It took almost a year between the time I sent an initial query and when the course actually started,” Anstötz recalls. “That’s when it became clear to me that this is a pressing issue for the scientific community right now. It’s a source of intense debate, and there is a lot of work being done on it.” So she suggested to her boss, Martin Weinelt, a physics professor at Freie Universität Berlin and director of the Collaborative Research Center TRR 227, that she could start training to become a good scientific practice workshop facilitator. That way she could conduct the workshops for doctoral researchers herself.
Different Backgrounds, Shared Goals
The training program is led by experienced facilitators who were themselves involved in the development of the “Good Scientific Practice Curriculum,” which was put together by the office of the Ombudsperson for Good Research Practice. The German Research Foundation established the office, which is now its own independent entity. The training program consists of three units of instruction (each lasting two and a half days) plus homework assignments. Between the second and third units, the participants have to organize a workshop themselves, conduct it, and then receive feedback on it.
In June, it was time to put her training to the test: Anstötz held her first online workshop on good scientific practice – in collaboration with Betram Welker from Dahlem Research School, who was also taking the training course. Dahlem Research School is in charge of training opportunities for doctoral researchers at Freie Universität Berlin when it comes to cross-cutting areas and transferable skills. Good scientific practice is one of the main focus areas in that department. “Betram Welker is a political scientist. His background is in social sciences, which worked really well, because the workshop participants also came from a variety of subject areas,” Anstötz says. Their different backgrounds as facilitators made it easy for them to discuss differences between disciplines in the workshop.
Critical Conversations Foster Self-Reflection
At the start of the workshop, they addressed some basic questions: How do you define good scientific practice? What rules and regulations apply? What rights and obligations do doctoral researchers and their supervisors have? What kinds of scientific misconduct are there? “Cases that received a lot of media attention serve as helpful examples and make it easy to understand what’s at stake,” Anstötz says. Back in the 1990s, for example, the cancer research team from Freiburg, Friedhelm Herrmann and Marion Brach, got caught falsifying data that they used in some 100 publications. The ensuing scandal was one of the reasons that the German Research Foundation revised its memorandum on “Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice.”
The Franziska Giffey plagiarism case, which recently led to her doctoral degree being revoked by Freie Universität Berlin, was also a topic of debate in the workshop: Were Giffey’s actions deliberate or just negligent? And does that even make a difference in the end? Anstötz says that having discussions about diligence and integrity inspired the workshop participants to look more critically at their own research practices.
Keeping a Journal to Document the Course of Your Research
With her background as a nanoscientist, Anstötz was able to give the humanities and social sciences researchers at least one new piece of advice: Natural scientists usually keep a lab notebook to document their research. Researchers in other disciplines might do something similar by keeping a journal in which they make a note of what publications they’ve read, when they read it, and any ideas that came to mind. This kind of documentation makes it easy for other people to trace the steps in their research process and see how their work developed over time.
Once Anstötz has completed the training program, she wants to devote energy to extending good scientific practice workshops to bachelor’s and master’s students. “The earlier we can start teaching students that it is not just some minor, trivial offense if they copy from their neighbor’s lab report or adjust measurements when the data do not support the projected outcome of an experiment, the better.” After all, Anstötz explains, if you do encounter an anomaly in your measurements – some value that falls outside of the expected results – it can actually be an opportunity for new discoveries. You just need to be transparent in recording your findings and try to find out the causes for any unexpected deviations, she says.
At some point, Anstötz would also like to hold workshops for professors who are supervising doctoral researchers, in which they look at what constitutes good supervision. “Many doctoral supervisors are already incredibly dedicated to their work as mentors; however, they often feel they don’t know enough about the proper methods to improve the supervision process.”
This article originally appeared in German on August 2, 2021, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.
In addition to Britta Anstötz’s work for the Collaborative Research Center/Transregio 227 Ultrafast Spin Dynamics, she is also the coordinator of the new doctoral studies program “Natural Sciences,” established by the Department of Physics and the Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy. The doctoral studies program is open to natural sciences students interested in pursuing a doctorate and who are not yet enrolled in a structured doctoral program.