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Freedom of research and publishing rights must be protected with respect to special interest organisations

An article in the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information, criticises Aarhus University for being unwilling to disclose unpublished research data to a special interest organisation. However, the university believes that researchers must be guaranteed freedom to publish their results before their research is made available to the general public.

An article in the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information, criticises Aarhus University for being unwilling to disclose unpublished research results. The case concerns the nitrate-leaching model NLES, which researchers from the Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture and the Danish Centre for Environment and Energy have developed in connection with research-based public sector consultancy.

There are three versions of the model. The first models, NLES3 and NLES4, were replaced in 2020 by NLES5, which is based on current data. Invoking the right of access to documents, the Danish Society for Nature Conservation (DN) has requested both raw data and information about the calculation methods used by the researchers in developing the models.

In the media coverage, AU has been accused of delaying the case. Dean Eskild Holm Nielsen strongly disagrees with this criticism. As far as the university is concerned, the case is about protecting the freedom of research and, not least, the researchers' possibilities to publish their research results, stresses the dean.

"We’ve given DN insight into all the information available concerning NLES3 and NLES4 and all the raw data concerning NLES5. However, we’ve not included the research results for NLES5 that are pending scientific publication," says Eskild Holm Nielsen.

Basis for public sector consultancy

The NLES models have been developed as part of AU's consultancy for public authorities, but according to Jørgen E. Olesen, head of the Department of Agroecology, this makes no difference.

“Research forming the basis for public sector consultancy must be assessed in the same way as all other research. And the researchers who developed the NLES models must be given the opportunity to publish their findings in line with other researchers. This is a fundamental part of the research process, and it is important that public sector consultancy is based on research practice," says Jørgen E. Olesen.

According to Jørgen E. Olesen, handing over the entire basis of the NLES5 model to a special interest organisation would make it difficult – possibly even impossible – to get the results published.

“Scientific publication is society's assurance that the consultancy we provide to the authorities is scientifically correct. Moreover, it is fundamental for the researchers' careers and their freedom of research," says Jørgen E. Olesen.

“Once the manuscripts have been accepted for publication internationally, we’ll be more than willing to disclose the information," says Jørgen E. Olesen. He also states that a manuscript has been submitted to a scientific journal, and that the researchers are now awaiting a response from the journal.

The university has consulted the Legal Adviser to the Danish Government (Kammeradvokaten) in connection with processing the requests for access to the data and the subsequent appeals regarding NLES 3-5. It has been assessed that this is a case of principle, and the Legal Adviser to the Danish Government has written about the university's decision:

"that the university's decision regarding the right of access to documents in the NLES5 matter is objective, and that the decision is supported by Ombudsman practice (...)."

Aarhus University has granted access to much of the information requested, and in its decision it states that the Danish Society for Nature Conservation can re-apply for access to documents after the peer review process and the university researchers have published their research results in international journals .

Need for better collaboration with interest groups

Eskild Holm Nielsen and Jørgen E. Olesen fully agree that it is important for society to have insight into the basis for the consultancy provided by the university for ministries.

"We need a better dialogue with special interest organisations, and we want to present our data and discuss our research methods with them," says Eskild Holm Nielsen.

See the coverage in Dagbladet Information via this link. The article is for subscribers. (link)

Further information:

Dean Eskild Holm Nielsen
Faculty of Technical Sciences
Email: dean.scitech@au.dk
Tel.: +45 21229511

Head of Department Jørgen E Olesen,
Department of Agroecology
Email: jeo@agro.au.dk
Tel.: +45 40821659