German academics have been warned that a climate of mistrust over academic fraud and plagiarism is threatening to nip good research projects in the bud and to destroy the necessary climate of professional trust.
Wolfgang Fruhwald, president of the German Research Association (DFG) hit back at the controversy over academic cheats which has raged in the press over the past year and which even prompted a member of the Bundestag to call for legal sanctions earlier this year.
Actual cases of fraud, falsification and plagiarism are so "sensational because they are so rare", he wrote in the DFG's journal Forschung. Fraud is rarer in the academic world than in other professions, he believes. "In my four years as president of the DFG I have come across a few accusations but have only seen two cases which were contrary to academic integrity which could be taken seriously," wrote Professor Fruhwald.
Newspaper reports quoted the same few examples, he said, such as the case of a Bonn chemistry research student who manipulated data on the reaction of molecules under the influence of a strong magnetic field to achieve the desired results. Others cited a United States researcher's "patchwork mouse", which pretended that black ink spots on the fur of a white mouse indicated successful skin transplants.
Professor Fruhwald added: "I have seen with uneasiness and helplessness how creepingly this climate of mistrust has spread, how there is a growing fear of surrendering new ideas to the vote of experts.
"In the face of this discussion on fraud, nothing could be worse for us than that funding for good project ideas is not applied for simply because applicants fear that assessors might forestall their ideas."
Professor Fruhwald believes Germany has "imported" the discussion about fraud and plagiarism from the US where the issue has been propelled by pressure on researchers to "publish or perish" as well as by political attacks to justify heavy funding cutbacks. In this way strong research organisations are being kept busy with enforced evaluations and the working out of new performance indicators as well as "the reputation-damaging search for fraud and misconduct" rather than opposing cutbacks.
The German system is strongly controlled by academic self-regulation and legitimated by expert assessors who are elected for short time periods, he said. Therefore "no serious fabrication remains undiscovered in the academic community for long because their colleagues are too hot on their heels".
The DFG has just published guidelines for research fund applicants and for expert assessors and also guidelines for handling of suspicious cases and sanctions for wrongdoers. Professor Fruhwald said these have been tested twice and found to be sufficient.