Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture (DCA): Study of five years' reports reveals unsatisfactory situation
A review of reports from the DCA over the past five years shows among other things that the role and contribution of external parties in collaboration have been inadequately declared in a number of the reports. Three reports have serious omissions. The researchers stand firm on their research. Full transparency for collaboration with industry is crucial so that the integrity of researchers cannot be questioned. The study also shows a need for clear practice for comments and quality assurance. A new manual will make the guidelines more manageable for researchers.
Collaboration with the business community and the public sector contributes to value creation, innovation and competitiveness in society. Collaboration is becoming an ever more important component in work by the university.
Collaboration provides better utilisation of the university's knowledge base and research infrastructure, and it provides students with better opportunities for contact with the business community through internships and Master's thesis programmes, and thus better job opportunities.
Researchers must always keep a firm hand on their independence, but as we can see in our study, they have to be better at documenting this, stresses Vice-dean for Knowledge Exchange Kurt Nielsen, who coordinated the study of DCA reports for the past five years.
"Collaboration with external parties benefits both parties. Value depends particularly on the independence of researchers and thus their credibility, so it is absolutely vital that, when collaborating with external parties, there is arm's length between the researchers and the external parties. Their role and contribution to the project must be clearly stated. If there is not full transparency, as an outsider it is possible to doubt the research integrity. The researchers stand firm on their methods, results and conclusions. On the other hand, there are problems with transparency," says Kurt Nielsen.
Digital inserts ensure more accurate and complete description of collaboration
Criticism of the DCA report on the climate footprint of beef raised doubts about the independence of the research in the report. There were criticisms that, in a number of respects, the researchers had failed to safeguard their research integrity. To gain an insight into whether this also applied to other DCA reports, Rector Brian Bech Nielsen and Dean Lars Henrik Andersen decided that the faculty should carry out a study of all DCA reports over the past five years. The study had two objectives:
- to find any errors and omissions, and then rectify them,
- to learn from errors and omissions so that the university can take targeted initiatives to improve future collaboration.
Of the 113 DCA reports issued over the period, 55 were based on collaboration with external partners, and these have been studied further. The study was a combination of reviews of the reports and interviews with the researchers. 34 of the DCA reports have been supplemented with a digital insert, which ensures a precise and complete description of the nature of the collaboration. In most cases, there were minor changes and additions. For instance:
- source of funding mentioned, but not sufficiently,
- external co-authors are listed, but their contributions have not been clearly declared,
- external parties are acknowledged without mentioning their contribution or role.
There are serious omissions in three of the reports, explains the vice-dean for knowledge exchange at ST, Kurt Nielsen.
"In one case, the report fails to declare that one of the authors is from SEGES. In two other cases, the reports don’t state that the external steering committee has had an opportunity to comment on the report, and there is no description of the resulting changes. One of them also lacks a foreword, so it isn’t possible to see where funding comes from and the role of the collaboration party in the project. These are serious infractions, and it would be clear from inserts what was missing."
The reports will not be withdrawn, partly because a peer-reviewed article has subsequently been written based on the reports. Note that the controversial meat report will also be submitted for international peer review.
"It’s important to emphasise that any doubts whatsoever about our integrity and arm's length are very serious. Collaboration has not been sufficiently transparent, and researchers have not adequately safeguarded their work. Everything has now been clearly declared, and we have learned a lesson. This must not happen again. However, it’s also important for me to stress that the researchers stand firm on their methods, results and conclusions."
Openness and clear declaration from start to finish
The study indicates that there are several general issues to be addressed, he points out. Among other things, there has not been a sufficiently clear systematic approach in establishing contracts with external parties, and this must be rectified in future.
"An integrated part of the process related to external collaboration must be that a contract be drawn up setting out the framework for the collaboration and clarifying the independence of researchers up to and including publication. This has not been the case so far, and we’re now stressing the importance of this to everyone," says Kurt Nielsen.
Other issues are failure to declare sources of funding and the role and contributions of external parties in DCA reports. This includes co-authorship.
"It’s not clear in all reports who has written what. There are cases in which it’s not clear where the external party is from. This isn’t good enough. Neither the researchers nor the outside world can live with this. We have nothing to hide, so there’s no reason not to declare all aspects of the collaborative projects we take part in," says Kurt Nielsen.
Another issue is comments by external parties on researchers' reports before publication. In future there will be a clear procedure for this explains Niels Halberg, director of the DCA.
"We need to lay our collaboration completely open. Therefore, we’re going to introduce a system that makes comments from external parties open. We’re going to do the same for email correspondence about the entire project."
Publication should be in a uniform framework with systematic quality assurance
The study also points out that quality assurance of DCA's publications should be more uniform. The director of the DCA, Niels Halberg, explains that the DCA publishes many different types of reports, including summaries of thematic days, technical reports, research communication and public sector consultancy.
"This is part of the reason why there have not been uniform standards for the publications. A summary of a thematic day doesn’t have to have the same quality assurance as research reports. Research usually has to be peer-reviewed. There may be projects with business collaboration that need to have results published so that they can benefit industry as soon as possible. If there are any such conditions that mean that the research has to be published before a peer review, the report should be evaluated by an internal peer," says Niels Halberg.
In future, the type of the individual DCA report will be made clearer.
Niels Halberg emphasises that the DCA is not nervous about its future course.
"Our collaboration with the business community brings huge returns for research, the Danish business community and society in general. It generates knowledge, innovation and jobs, and it also makes it possible to apply for new research funding from more foundations. There’s no way that we’ll be cutting back on it. But it’s clear from the results of this study that we need to be much more careful about how we establish collaboration and how we publish our work. We have to tidy up so that our integrity is indisputable."
Manual and courses for everyone at the university
ST now has dedicated guidelines for preparing reports in collaboration with external parties.
There is also more focus at the university to ensure that everyone knows about the university guidelines. The senior management team agrees that it can be difficult to fully understand all of the guidelines from national, university and faculty sources. For this reason, an interdisciplinary working group with representation from the faculty is working on a manual/guideline to make it easier for researchers to safeguard their research integrity.