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No ghostwriters, no freeriding co-authors. New UCPH code of conduct

Good research practice — A new 'code of conduct' at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) is a new series of guidelines for good scientific practice. The purpose: To clear up ambiguity and uncertainty.

When are you entitled to co-authorship of a scientific article? And how do you ensure independence if a research project is financed by external stakeholders?

The University of Copenhagen (UCPH) has released a new code of conduct for good scientific practice which will be used as a reference when questions and uncertainties arise in the future.

The new code of conduct is based on a national code for integrity in research, a code which has also previously served as a guideline for good scientific practice at UCPH.

Prorector for Research at UCPH David Dreyer Lassen points to a 2019 case where Aarhus University ended up retracting a report that was financed by the agriculture lobby:

When a university endorses something, you expect it to live up to a number of requirements for good scientific practice.

David Dreyer Lassen, Prorector for Research, UCPH


»After the Aarhus University beef case, it was the overall assessment among Danish universities that there was a need for clarity within research-based consultancy and public sector services,« says David Dreyer Lassen.

»We are now working out guidelines that you need to follow in order to live up to good scientific practice at UCPH,« says David Dreyer Lassen.

The updated code of conduct consists of six key principles: Freedom of research, transparency, accountability, honesty, impartiality and the arm’s length principle. None of these principles are new to UCPH. But they have not previously been put together in a reference work as a code of conduct, the prorector explains.

»On the good days, we hope that there will be virtually no need for it, because you naturally incline to behaviour in accordance with the guidelines. But for the days that are not the best, there is now one place to look in cases of doubt,« he says.

No ghostwriters, thanks

The beef case at Aarhus University set off a debate over the arm’s length principle in cases where research projects are financed by external stakeholders who may have a commercial or political interest in the results. Precisely for this reason, it has been important to clarify the guidelines for the arm’s length principle in the new code of conduct, the prorector points out.

»When external stakeholders collaborate with the university, they are also given legitimacy by the university, because when a university approves something, it expects it to live up to a number of requirements for good scientific practice. In the beef case, the research project did not live up to the requirements, because the funders from the food industry turned out to have had more direct influence on the result than was originally stated. It became unclear who was actually the author of the project,« he says.

The new code states that the researcher must be able to make »independent decisions and deliver impartial research without undue interference from economic, political, or other special interests.«

»This is to ensure that ‘ghostwriters’ don’t appear where, for example, external stakeholders have written or contributed to an article or a project, but prefer not to be the stated as the author of it, because it might look better if the results had been achieved independently,« says David Dreyer Lassen.

Who is responsible for ensuring that the arm’s length principle is upheld? UCPH or the individual researchers?

»The code states that it is the institution’s responsibility to set up an environment and framework that support good scientific practice, but that it is the individual researcher’s own responsibility that their results are reliable and produced in accordance with current practice. It is the institution’s responsibility to ensure that contracts are drawn up to safeguard the arm’s length principle, like when collaborating with external stakeholders who may have commercial or political interests,« the prorector says, and continues:

»But having said that, it is the individual researcher who has to assess whether they will be involved in such a collaboration in the first place.«

Guest authorships, no thanks

The question of awarding authorships has been given particular focus in the new code of conduct for good scientific practice.

This is partly as a result of the #PleaseDontStealMyWork campaign which was launched last year by a number of young researchers who had experienced senior researchers taking over authorships or sneaking in as co-authors for scientific articles, even though they did not significantly contribute to the project.

READ ALSO: New campaign to stop the theft of research

But even though the new code has put a focus on awarding authorships, the guidelines in the area are still relatively broad. So any doubts will probably require individual assessment in specific cases.

»The code states that you need to have made a significant contribution to either the idea or the design of the work, and that you need to have worked on the actual text to be able to obtain an authorship of a scientific article,« says David Dreyer Lassen, who emphasises that the guidelines, by necessity, need to be elastic.

»There are large differences across traditions and subjects in terms of when you can become a co-author, and the rules therefore have to be relatively broad. But regardless of the subject area, there will always be stories where some people will see guest authors suddenly appearing on an article who may not have made a significant contribution to it.«

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The new code of conduct includes a clear guideline on where to go if you experience something problematic, like, for example illegitimate guest authors.

»In specific cases where there are disagreements over authorships between researchers, we recommend that you go to one of the faculty’s ‘named persons’ who will help clarify who has the rights to what, and to mediate in the event of a conflict between colleagues. And it is our hope that both PhD students, supervisors, and senior researchers are aware of what the framework is in terms of gaining a co-authorship,« says David Dreyer Lassen and adds:

»There are also many places where it is important what position you have on the list of authors. If you have been involved in developing the idea, you are in one place, if you have the ultimate responsibility, you are the last author, and if you take on a responsibility for it, you are the first author,« says David Dreyer.

If they really take the code of conduct seriously, and permit themselves to get tough and sanction the people who break the code, it might have an effect.

Mads Paludan Goddiksen, Postdoc at the Department of Food and Resource Economics, UCPH


He also says that UCPH — as the first university in Denmark — has tried to widen the assessment criteria for researchers beyond the number of authorships.

»It has never been the case that we only talked about citations or authorships, but have always looked at the overall quality of the research production. You have many other tasks as a researcher than publishing, and that is why we have six criteria that give merit, namely research, teaching, societal influence, management, external funding and the academic community. And this is clearly an attempt to signal that you will also be assessed on other things than, say, the number of citations.«

Do you think that your alternative criteria for awarding merit can have an impact on the international research community?

»No, I think it will be much harder to change that. An initiative from the European Commission and partners has introduced something similar, so I think that people are slowly starting to think differently – also outside Denmark. But Denmark will most likely not be the one that sets international standards in this area.«

Has value as a signal

Mads Paludan Goddiksen is a postdoc in the Section for Consumption, Bioethics and Governance at the Department of Food and Resource Economics and conducts research into various aspects of good scientific practice. He believes that even though there is nothing new in the updated code of conduct, it may still have value as a signal.

»When UCPH works out their own code of good scientific practice, they signal that it is important for the university, and that management actually takes it seriously. It will be interesting to see how it is incorporated into practice,« says Mads Paludan Goddiksen and continues:

»A thorough effort needs to be made to ensure that it is widely known, understood, and prioritised. It will be particularly exciting to see how the practice committee [that adjudicates scientific practice disputes at UCPH, ed.] will handle cases of authorship in the future. If they really take the code of conduct seriously, and get tough and sanction the people who break the code, it might have an effect.«

In terms of external collaborations, however, there is one unclear point in the new code of conduct, according to Mads Paludan Goddiksen.

»In the Danish code of conduct for research integrity, which the UCPH code is based on, it clearly states that it is the institution’s responsibility to enter into contracts that comply with the arm’s length principle. I think this has dropped out of the UCPH code of conduct, and that’s unfortunate because it seems as if responsibility has been pushed downwards,« he says, and continues:

»But in general it’s a really good thing that UCPH has this code. It has value as a signal, and it can become a useful tool in the future if it is integrated properly into practice.«