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The Moderator

Focus on “Good Research Practice”: An Interview with Professor of Physics Joachim Heberle, Head of the Newly Established Office of the Central Ombudsperson at Freie Universität Berlin

Jul 14, 2021

Joachim Heberle, professor in experimental molecular biophysics, has many years of experience as an ombudsman. He has demonstrated his dedication to making good scientific practice transparent and fair.

Joachim Heberle, professor in experimental molecular biophysics, has many years of experience as an ombudsman. He has demonstrated his dedication to making good scientific practice transparent and fair.
Image Credit: David Ausserhofer

Physicist Joachim Heberle, who was appointed as a German Research Ombudsman (Ombudsman für die Wissenschaft) by the German Research Foundation in 2014, has been selected for the recently established position of Central Ombudsperson for Good Scientific Practice by the Executive Board at Freie Universität Berlin. He understands his new role as “moderating, not pronouncing judgments.”

Conflicts in academia can take on many forms – from stormy relationships between students and supervisors, to personal disagreements and allegations of data manipulation and plagiarism, right through to arguments surrounding authorship and use of data. And if a conflict reaches fever pitch, it may even require mediation.

Authorship of research publications can be the subject of some particularly fierce disputes, as these often serve as proof of an individual researcher’s output. Heberle explains, “We frequently have to clarify who could or should be considered the primary author, as in, who contributed the most content to a project or a publication.” Situations like this call for someone who can tactfully navigate the complexities of human interactions – in other words, an ombudsperson. This word, derived from the Swedish word “ombudsman,” meaning “representative,” is used to refer to an independent authority to whom employees can report any interpersonal issues they may be experiencing at work.

Early Reporting Is Key

“Ombudspeople moderate conflicts and resolve them in conjunction with both parties,” says Heberle. “We try to get the people involved to understand the other side’s perspective and help them reach a compromise.”

It’s very important to him that researchers voice concerns as soon as possible, either to a local ombudsperson in their own department or to him as central ombudsperson. Taking this step early on helps him to assess the nature of the conflict: “Sometimes you don’t even know if it’s a case of academic misconduct or poor personnel management. In any case, we’re able to provide assistance and recommend which steps should be taken next.”

However, an ombudsperson doesn’t make decisions or pronounce judgments. This task lies with the permanent investigatory commission at Freie Universität Berlin, which rules on severe cases of academic misconduct and can also enact sanctions if necessary.

Consultation, Networking, Workshops

Heberle affirms that knowing the guidelines and principles of good scientific practice inside out and complying with them is a crucial part of life as a researcher. After all, researchers pledge to comply with these regulations every time they hand in a final paper or sign a contract for third-party funding.

That is why the new authority’s responsibilities include making the DFG Code of Conduct for Good Research Practice more visible on the university’s websites and other communication channels, setting up networking opportunities for ombudspeople in different departments and at other universities, and offering support services and courses on academic integrity.

Heberle says that an important issue for ombudspeople will be to address the supervisory relationship between professors and doctoral students. “The power dynamics make this an asymmetrical relationship. But both parties are often considered almost equals in terms of their expertise on a specific research topic, so finding the proper balance is a challenge for all those involved.”

Setbacks Are Part and Parcel of Research

Questions related to good scientific practice don’t just come from doctoral students, but increasingly from supervisors, too. “We still have a lot to do here in Germany to ensure that this relationship has positive connotations. Other countries are further ahead in this respect.”

Heberle says that one of the best things about his profession is being able to accompany students on their journey from the beginning of their bachelor’s program into their postdoctoral career, and sometimes even watch them as they progress to a professorship. It is important to him that he practices what he preaches when it comes to honesty and transparency. This includes learning how to cope with disappointment: “If an experiment doesn’t end up producing the results you expected, then you should be able to talk about it openly. It quickly becomes obvious that both an enthusiasm for research and being able to deal with setbacks are core components of life as a researcher."

Office of the Central Ombudsperson Is Here to Stay

Freie Universität Berlin has a well-developed structure of “persons of trust” or Vertrauenspersonen within the individual departments who address conflicts of this nature. “These people are doing really great work,” says Heberle, “but they are only appointed for a limited period of time. The next person has to be trained to do the job, as they usually haven’t had any previous experience as ombudspeople.”

This is where the Office of the Central Ombudsperson can offer ongoing support, as it can serve as a sort of repository of expertise and experience, teach decentralized representatives about their tasks, and offer further training. A central ombudsperson can also serve as a neutral party, particularly when it comes to conflicts that arise in cross-departmental research projects.

Heberle has set another objective for himself: “The local ombudspeople currently don’t have that much to do with each other. I would like to find a better way of putting them in touch in order to facilitate knowledge transfer and pool our experience.”

Ombudsman for the German Research Foundation since 2014

Heberle will occupy the position of ombudsperson while continuing to fulfill his role as professor. He will be supported by another staff member in the Office of the Central Ombudsperson to receive and work on cases, process statistics, and organize contact details and appointments.

“We are about to introduce a procedure for members of Freie Universität Berlin to reach out to the Office of the Central Ombudsperson for assistance,” he says. This includes, for example, an electronic inbox that would guarantee the anonymity of those who submitted a complaint or request for help. “Anyone who gets in touch with us to report a conflict should not suffer any disadvantages.” While the person who reported the issue tends to agree to rescind their anonymity in the course of the moderation process, this first step offers them a sense of security.

Heberle has been involved in upholding good research practice for many years as a German Research Ombudsman for the German Research Foundation. He didn’t expect his career to take this path, he says, “They asked me, I thought about it for a few days, and then I said yes.”

Heberle still reflects on the colleagues who he’s had throughout the years who have ended up in a conflict of this nature. He was once very relieved and grateful for a mentor who defended him against the head of an institute where he worked. “This is often even more difficult for women – something we knew even before the #metoo movement rose to prominence.” While academia has its dark sides, Heberle hopes to illuminate this field by ensuring transparency. As a moderator, he hopes to contribute to making research at Freie Universität Berlin as transparent and fair as possible.

This article originally appeared in German on July 2, 2021, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.

Further Information

You can find all of our articles and more information on the topic on our “Good Scientific Practice” website.

We started the Focus on “Good Research Practice” series with an interview with Professor Marianne Braig, Vice President for Research.