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Working environment

She led the fight against the theft of research. Now she's quitting the University of Copenhagen: »I knew it would be completely kamikaze«

Resignation — She has persistently fought against the theft of research and for more research freedom. First with the 'Please don’t steal my work' campaign and later with the 'Set research free' campaign, both of which received widespread support from Danish researchers. Now Maria Toft has resigned and will leave the University of Copenhagen. And she is happy to slam the door on her way out.

Rarely has Maria Toft been so relieved.

Maria Toft, a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), has worked hard over the course of the last year. Not just on her research, but also on being able to do her research at all. Last spring she launched the #Pleasedontstealmywork campaign that took issue with a research environment which — according to Maria Toft — pressured researchers to take credit for the work of younger colleagues.

The campaign was followed in the summer by a more general critique of Danish research conditions. Under the slogan #Sætforskningenfri or ‘set research free’, she mustered 2,252 signatures from researchers and PhD students. The #Pleasedontstealmywork campaign ended up with 107 testimonials from researchers from throughout the country across disciplines and universities. They told stories of, for example, working eighteen months on a research article, only to have your name deleted from the final product. They retold stories of supervisors plagiarizing your work, and of being fired because you do not want your supervisor to be the co-author of your article.

The campaign was covered widely in the media, and the former Minister for Higher Education and Science promised to carry out an investigation into research credit theft at Danish universities.

»Suddenly, there was a responsiveness that had not previously been there in 20 years. So this has clearly meant something. In the past, it was just considered to be spoilt researchers complaining,« says Maria Toft.

But Maria Toft no longer wants to be a part of it. Last week she resigned as a PhD fellow in political science at the University of Copenhagen.

And now she doesn’t really know what’s going to happen. »In one way what I have done is self-defeating,« says Maria Toft.

»I knew it would be completely kamikaze. But I could simply not stand it anymore.«

Odd one out at Department of Political Science

Maria Toft is completely unfiltered. She gestures intensely as she speaks, has a determined look about her, and uses a back catalogue of social science theories to analyze what she sees. She has never been good at toeing the line, she says.

»I have always stood up against authority. I have done so ever since I was a teenager,« says Maria Toft.

»I guess I just say what I think. And because I do not come from the same environment as many people that I have seen at work, I probably just think slightly differently.«

Even though the vocabulary and her analyses clearly reveal Maria Toft’s political science background, where she has worked on a PhD dissertation on environmental movements, she has always »felt like the odd one out on the programme«. Political science is the study programme that has the most distorted admission of students, she says. Among children of academics and people from wealthy homes, Maria Toft soon realised that she stuck out at the social science campus.

Maria Toft is from what she calls »the rotten banana« on the south of the main island of Zealand. She lost her mother as a 14-year-old, and was taken in to foster care, but until then she grew up with a mother who had »a bit too much of a taste for the red wine«, and who tried to get her life as a single mum with three kids and a large farm to maintain. It wasn’t easy.

On the farm in Jungshoved near Præstø, Maria Toft and her twin brother were often left on their own. So she quickly learned how to look after herself.

Dear University of Copenhagen. It’s not about me, it is about you

The last couple of years have also been tough for Maria Toft. She has been divorced. She has been examined for suspected cancer. She has lost her father. And she has been at war with two senior researchers on who should be given credit and the rights to publish research articles in a project that they worked on together. She has had the experience of being subjected to threats and sexism, and without the university being of any help.

Now that she has resigned, this certainly does not mean that she has given up, says Maria Toft, who very publicly resigned in a Facebook post. The letter of resignation was subsequently published as a featured comment in the Danish news site Politiken.

»I’ve really done everything I could, and I can therefore live with this decision. I can look myself in the mirror without shame. I cannot work somewhere that treats me that way,« says Maria Toft.

»So maybe I’ve lost my personnel case, but I’ve won my self-respect, right?«

The fight is not completely over, however. Maria Toft will now file a civil lawsuit against the University of Copenhagen management, as she believes that their behaviour is in contravention of Danish legislation on equality, working environment and GDPR.

In the meantime, the debate over whether the right people are being credited for research has started again. This is after it has emerged that a younger female researcher at UCPH was written out of a spectacular new discovery of a cerebral membrane. And Maria Toft chips in.

»It’s frightening. Incredibly frightening. But not really a surprise,« says Maria Toft.

The case has led to the Ministry for Higher Education and Science taking a closer look at the issue. A completely new study with the title ‘The person in power told me to’ shows that almost one in three Danish PhD students have added a more powerful colleague to their list of co-authors, even though the colleague was not entitled.

We have to go beyond ourselves, also in the world of research

Think something crazy

»Maybe I am just too idealistic for UCPH,« says Maria Toft.

She has, on several occasions, described research at the University of Copenhagen as akin to ‘dull Wednesday sex’. Scheduled, low key, and constantly disturbed by external circumstances. It was this indignation that had her taking the ‘set research free’ campaign, and it is now also part of the reason why she is leaving UCPH.

In her PhD project, Maria Toft is now doing research on how communities influence our environment behaviour. Do you, for example, become more environmentally conscious by going to a dance than by going to a course in vegetarian cooking? This is what Maria Toft’s PhD is all about. And she is too passionate about climate research to let herself be deflected by narrow research frameworks and staff nonsense.

»I actually read these climate reports. I know that we are facing a really serious situation . We have to go beyond ourselves, also in the world of research. We have to create an environment where ideas can really flourish,« says Maria Toft.

She wants a research environment where there is space to think something crazy. Like 100 years ago, when Niels Bohr invited quantum physicists to Copenhagen. An environment where there is room for thinking something crazy, where you dare to pursue the questions you do not really know the answer to. This is an environment that is a long way from the University of Copenhagen of today.

»I do not feel that we have a free framework for research here. Quantity is more important than quality. It’s more about having the right answers than asking the right questions. It’s more about your career path, money and status than it’s about contributing to society,« says Maria Toft.

This criticism from Maria Toft is certainly not new. The question is whether her idealistic conception of a research environment is unrealistic? Or whether it is, actually, out there somewhere?

»I am hoping that I can escape across the Øresund,« says Maria Toft and laughs. »They are better at interdisciplinarity in Sweden. And with the climate challenges we are facing, we need to break through the boundaries of scientific disciplines if the questions we ask require it.«

Her PhD project is still not complete. She doesn’t know whether it will ever end. But in any case, she believes it contains central insights about the importance of communities in the green transition, and these insights deserve to see the light of day. These days, the phone is often ringing for Maria Toft, and she might soon be on her way to Sweden.