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Science — When scientist Anna Xavier went on maternity leave, her research ended up being credited to other scientists. The case is not unique. And a key organiser of the #pleasedontstealmywork movement now calls for political action in Denmark.
A debate over the theft of research credit in Denmark has been reawakened. A Brazilian researcher Anna Xavier has told the weekly newspaper Weekendavisen that a discovery of a new cerebral membrane was also, actually, her discovery.
This was after the 80-year-old star professor in neuroanatomy and former Rector of the University of Copenhagen, Kjeld Møllgård, had toured the media with headlines about how textbooks had to be rewritten. This also goes for the University Post, that has covered his discovery of a new cerebral membrane. According to Kjeld Møllgård, no one had seen it before he himself spotted it in his microscope. The results have just been published in the leading journal Science.
READ ALSO: His biggest discovery came as an 80-year-old: A new part of the brain
But now the breakthrough has become controversial. He, and the other scientists, should have shared the honour with Anna Xavier. This is according to the assessment of Emeritus Professor Albert Gjedde in the Weekendavisen. Albert Gjedde has been a long-standing member of the Danish Committee on Research Misconduct, formerly known as the Committee on Scientific Dishonesty, which has assessed and convicted in several research scandals.
Anna Xavier worked closely together with Kjeld Møllgård for several years before the discovery. This led to Anna Xavier submitting an article in 2020 about the discovery of a new structure between some of the already known cerebral membranes to the scientific journal Nature.
»A mesothelium divides the subarachnoid space into functional compartments«, was the title.
Anna’s article was rejected by Nature, however, which did not find the evidence sufficiently substantiated. Anna Xavier shortly afterwards reported herself sick with stress and later went on maternity/paternity leave.
I feel really bad about this outcome.
When Kjeld Møllgård, at the beginning of 2023, brought his discovery of a new cerebral membrane to Science the headline was identical to the one that Anna Xavier had sent to Nature a few years before. In the Science article, Kjeld Møllgård, research colleague Maiken Nedergaard, and three other young scientists are stated as main authors. Anna Xavier was offered a co-authorship, but was not satisfied with this offer.
»To share authorship with five others, where it looks as if we have contributed equally, does not reflect reality,» Anna Xavier says to the University Post.
According to her, the research article she sent to Nature was proof that her many years of work had been a large part of the cerebral membrane finding. The three new names that had been written in as authors had only been working on the project for a few months, she says. She therefore rejected being credited on an equal footing with them.
»I feel really bad about the outcome, as this is not what I had imagined would happen after having been so committed to the research for several years.«
Anna Xavier contacted her trade union DM – the Danish Association of Master’s and PhDs, and the University of Copenhagen. But she got the impression that nothing could be done before the articles were published.
»It is a problem that you cannot complain about the process that precedes publication,« says Anna Xavier.
She thinks it testifies to a system that is damaging to scientific progress.
»They should, in particular, safeguard the rights of those who are lower down the hierarchy,« she says.
According to Associate Dean for Research at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Mogens Holst Nissen, the current rules and institutions are a good way of safeguarding the legal rights of academic staff in relation to co-authorship. He refers to the option of going to the so-called practice committee, which deals with cases of good scientific practice, and the faculty’s ‘Named Person’, a person designated to be approached on ethical issues.
»This does not mean that there will always be a solution to everyone’s satisfaction,« Mogens Holst Nissen writes to the University Post.
He writes that Anna Xavier has been in contact with her ‘named person’ and has been informed about the option of going to the practice committee.
»It is therefore not correct that the individual researcher is in no man’s land and cannot do something before the article has been published,« says Mogens Holst Nissen.
The faculty has attempted to facilitate dialogue between the researchers in the case of the cerebral membrane. In this case, however, it was not possible to mediate and find a solution, and it was therefore left to the senior author and the head of the centre to find a solution in accordance with the University of Copenhagen regulations.
Anna Xavier’s case is reminiscent of the rebellion of younger scientists in Danish universities over the past year. Under the hashtag #pleasedontstealmywork, more than 100 Danish researchers, especially younger ones, accused older colleagues of taking their ideas and the credit for their work.
Even though Anna Xavier cannot say directly that her work was stolen, she can see similarities to the #pleasedontstealmywork.
»Someone got an unjustified opportunity to get their name on a major research article,« she says.
PhD student Maria Toft, who was at the forefront of the #pleasedontstealmywork campaign, experienced being subjected to research theft during her maternity leave. As a result of this, she has just resigned from her position at the University of Copenhagen.
READ ALSO: #Pleasedontstealmywork: New campaign to stop the theft of research
Maria Toft is shocked, but not surprised, by Anna Xaviers’ experience.
»The most sensational thing for me is that management has advised the researchers behind the project on how to respond to journalists’ enquiries,« Maria Toft says with reference to the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen’s report. The other researchers on the project got an email from their manager that they should only answer in writing, and that three people from university management would help with the responses,« writes Weekendavisen.
»This is really scary. But it also indicates that management not only indirectly supports a culture where you steal each other’s ideas: They also use their power to cover it up,« says Maria Toft.
Associate dean Mogens Holst Nissen emphasises that academic staff have full freedom of speech, and that management cannot interfere on whether they want to comment or how. He does not know the content of the specific email referred to.
Anna Xavier’s and Maria Toft’s experiences are not unique. A completely new study titled ‘The person in power told me to’ shows that almost one in three Danish PhD students has added a more powerful colleague to the list of authors, even though the colleague was not entitled to be there.
Mogens Holst Nissen believes that the problem is a different one in Anna Xavier’s case. But the study is important, and dialogue about co-authorship is needed.
»The study demonstrates the necessity of continuing to work on this. The culture we have needs to contribute to an open research environment that ensures that the people who actually contribute are included as co-authors. At the same time, the study focuses on a complex and competitive research world,« he writes.
Together with the association for Danish PhD students PAND (the Phd Association Network of Denmark), Maria Toft has now reached out to Danish politicians with a proposal that the processing of complaints about research theft and discrimination be moved away from universities.
»It has to be an institution with some weight, and that actually has some employment-legal consequences,« says Maria Toft.
Research spokesperson from the leftist Red-Green Alliance Victoria Velasquez has heard her. She calls it »grotesque,« that this takes place in one of Denmark’s largest workplaces and says that it »reveals a huge problem at our universities.«
She intends to put forward a proposal to establish an independent complaints system.
As a researcher, you can appeal to the Danish Committee on Research Misconduct (DCRM). But Maria Toft believes that there is a need for a body with a shorter processing time, and which not only takes on academic issues, but also discrimination. And which is not »bogged down in personal relationships« like the ‘named person’ scheme.
Professor Lise Lotte Gluud has acted as ‘named person’ and attempted to mediate between Xavier and the other neuroscientists. She thinks it’s an important point that a ‘named person’, of course, has to be impartial. This is not a problem however, she says. At the Faculty of Health and Medical sciences there are two ‘Named Persons’. If Lise Lotte Gluud is personally involved, her colleague will take care of the case.
She does not want to comment on the specific case with Anna Xavier, but says that researchers come to her with disagreements about rights at least once a month. The cases are of different importance however. If there is suspicion of scientific dishonesty, she refers the employee to the practice committee.
It irritates her that researchers, in general, are not better at putting down the premises of their collaboration in writing in advance. What happens if someone changes field, takes a leave of absence, becomes ill and so on?
»It does not need to be much more than a few lines in a Word document,« says Lise Lotte Gluud.
»It’s like buying a holiday home with your partner. When you’re in love, things go well. But when you fall out, you have the problem.«
The University Post has contacted Kjeld Møllgård, but he has not had the time to comment. He refers to Associate Dean at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Mogens Holst Nissen.
Minister for Higher Education and Science Christina Egelund was not able to reply to the University Post before deadline. To the news site Videnskab.dk she writes that it is worrying that a new study has revealed that so many PhD students feel pressured to write in senior colleagues as authors of their work. She is learning more about the issue and expects that the universities will take it seriously.