S02, Episode 2: Good Scientific Practice? A chat with the Central Ombudsperson at the FU

This episode is in German, but you can read an English transcript of this interview at the bottom of the page.

In this episode we talk to Professor Joachim Heberle, Central Ombudsperson for Freie Universität Berlin. He explains what an ombudsperson does, what to do if you are facing a case of academic misconduct, and answers some questions about what types of cases can be supported and how an ombuds process can help you in difficult times. The interview is in German, the English translation can be read under the recording.

Join us for a Q&A session in English with Professor Heberle (online) on Tuesday, the 20th of June at 13:00. You can sign up on Lounjee here.


„Das ist, ich finde, grundsätzlich immer gut, sich Hilfe zu holen. Es soll keiner denken, man könnte solche Dinge selbstständig alle erledigen“

„It is, I think, fundamentally, always good to seek help. No one should think that they can handle all of these types of things on their own.“

from our interview with Professor Heberle


Download or listen to the audio version of the podcast here.

English Transcript

Please note: This is a machine-generated translation that has been (minimally) edited for readability.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Hello and welcome to the DRS Podcast, the podcast of the Dahlem Research School at Freie Universität Berlin. I am Dr. Marlies Klamt, and I will be your host for this episode. Our guest today is Professor Joachim Heberle, a physics professor and the central ombudsperson at FU. In this interview, Prof. Heberle explains the role of an ombudsperson and how they can provide support when issues arise with supervisors or violations of good scientific practice. He shares concrete examples of when it may be beneficial to contact an ombudsperson. We also discuss how you can reach out to Prof. Heberle and other ombudspersons, including the option of remaining anonymous. It can sometimes be challenging to seek assistance, especially when conflicts involve individuals in higher positions within the hierarchy.

Additionally, I want to announce that there will be a Q&A session with Prof. Heberle in June. If you are interested in this topic and have specific questions, please register for the session. The event will be conducted in English, so feel free to inform other doctoral students at FU who may not speak German. More information can be found on the Dahlem Research School website. Now, enjoy listening to the interview!

Good afternoon, Professor Herberle. I would like to welcome you to the podcast and would like to start by asking you to briefly explain to the podcast listeners and also to me what an ombudsperson actually is and what you do in this position.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Yes, good afternoon. This cannot be summarized in one sentence – the role of an ombudsperson is always to mediate. That means that in cases of possible scientific misconduct, and this is important for me to emphasize, we try to mediate between the two conflicting parties, which is the classic case. Doctoral student and supervisor relationship is designed as a process, the asymmetrical relationship first. And there, of course, as in all human relationships, there can be challenges, and the ombudsperson system is designed to mediate there before considering steps under labor law, which of course can also happen if there are serious interpersonal problems or which need to be clarified under labor law.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Can you then give a few very specific examples of concerns that people have who come to see you?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Yes, the most common inquiries I receive as an ombudsperson are related to authorship issues in scientific publications. In modern science, teamwork is prevalent, where multiple authors contribute to the success of a research paper. The order of authors often represents a form of ranking, with the first author being responsible for the main work and deserving the most credit. This order is typically indicated by position numbers, such as 1, 2, 3, and 4, and it is important to clarify who should be assigned to each position. It is always advisable to address this matter beforehand rather than waiting until it becomes a major issue. Additionally, there are specific responsibilities for the group, particularly for the group leader or senior author, who takes charge in facilitating such discussions. It is essential that all individuals involved have the opportunity to express their views democratically and ideally reach a consensus on the author order. However, as you can imagine, conflicts and contradictions can arise in certain circumstances. In such cases, it is beneficial to have an external mediator, like an ombudsperson, who can provide assistance in moderating the discussion.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Yes, I can very well imagine that there are difficult situations. Let’s stay with the example and assume that a doctoral student comes to you and says, „I actually assumed that we had agreed with my supervisor that I would be the first author of the article, and now I’ve ended up further down the list.” What would be the next steps that you would take? Or what would you first try to find out together in conversation?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: It is crucial to ensure that both parties are heard during the proceedings, as it is always a triangular process involving the complainant, the counterparty, and the ombudsperson. This triangular dynamic is also characterized by strict confidentiality, meaning that the discussions must remain confidential. This is especially important in delicate relationships, such as those involving student and supervisor. In a specific case, I would first approach the supervisor and inquire about their perspective. I would then relay that information back to the complainant, and if necessary, I would facilitate a meeting between both parties. This face-to-face discussion within the triangular relationship aims to reach a solution and resolve the issue at hand.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: And what experiences have you had there? When you contact the other side, is it received sympathetically in any way? Or maybe the person thinks, oh man or I didn’t mean that, it’s just a misunderstanding, or is there often direct conflict?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Yes, that’s correct. The scope of potential conflicts within the process is vast. It involves human beings, and the outcomes depend on the individuals involved and their characters, which cannot be predicted in advance. The stage and level of escalation also play a role. At the early stages, when conflicts are more informational in nature, people involved tend to be relatively calm. However, if a conflict has been simmering for years and intensifies, especially with the involvement of publications, emotions can run very high on both sides. As the ombudsperson, my role is to help de-escalate these emotions. One strategy we often recommend is to write down the issues at hand. The act of writing allows individuals to express their emotions and provides an opportunity for reflection the following day. This helps individuals consider whether they can leave the issue behind or if further action is necessary. By introducing this writing process, we aim to bring a sense of rationality to the overall process.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Yes. Is there a case that has stayed in your memory the most, perhaps, or that has touched you personally very much?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Yes, there is, but as I emphasized at the beginning, these are confidential cases. Of course, I can talk in principle about why it happened, but of course I can’t name any persons.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: If you can talk about it in principle, please feel free to share some details within the scope of what is possible.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: This particular case involved a typical relationship between an institute director and a postdoc. The director had decided to ban the postdoc from the institute, preventing them from continuing their work. The postdoc viewed this as detrimental to their scientific career. We intervened by seeking the director’s input, who responded with objections and raised concerns about the postdoc’s behavior, particularly regarding missed deadlines that could impact the lab’s certification. The conversation between them escalated, resulting in a situation akin to an expulsion. Various aspects came into play, including labor law considerations. Questions arose regarding the director’s authority to exercise a ban and whether it was permissible since they were also a professor. Additionally, the case touched upon the future career of young scientists. It was a complex and time-consuming case that occupied our attention at the German Research Ombudsman, where I served as a member for over seven years. Despite our efforts, the matter could not be fully resolved, and it extended for several years, involving discussions among the institutions concerned.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: If I heard correctly, unfortunately there was no happy ending in this case either.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: A happy ending is rare in such cases, I must admit. Usually, it comes down to a compromise, which, like any compromise, may be seen as less than ideal by the parties involved. They may feel it’s a flawed resolution because neither side feels completely vindicated. However, the advantage of a compromise is that it brings closure to the matter. Over the past ten years in this field, I have encountered numerous cases where individuals were emotionally affected to the extent that their scientific work suffered. They found themselves unable to continue their research. In such emotionally challenging situations, reaching a compromise, even if it may not fully align with their personal stance, can provide a sense of closure. They can accept it and say, „Okay, at least I can move on and put it behind me.“ This can be a cathartic experience for many individuals.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Is there nevertheless a situation where you would say that you would not advise getting help from outside, from the ombudsperson or beyond?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: I think it’s always good to seek help. No one should believe that they can handle all these things on their own. While there may be a few individuals who can, they are the exception. It is generally beneficial to seek help. The question is, what kind of help? And is the help actually helpful? Is it appropriate for the problem at hand? It is also important to acknowledge that not all issues can be resolved through an ombudsman procedure, especially in certain relationships. Many of these cases involve aspects of labor law, and in such situations, we recommend seeking advice from a lawyer instead. When it comes to labor law matters, it is often better to consult with a lawyer and consider legal actions rather than seeking conciliation through our services.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: I was thinking in particular of cases that are not quite so serious, and that perhaps a relationship with the caregiver, which was perhaps not so bad from the start, can be shaken up if you bring in someone from the outside, as it were, who then also first makes public in some form, even if on a small scale, that you had a problem with a certain procedure or decision.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Yes, that’s exactly it. It is important to clearly communicate to the other person that it is not about being unfaithful, but rather addressing the frequent uncertainties and challenges faced by students in the scientific process. It is also a task of the ombudsperson to help supervisors understand that their role is a calling to assist and support, and it should be taken seriously. When a doctoral candidate approaches me as an ombudsperson, I strive to provide assistance. My goal is to foster a more balanced relationship between supervisors and supervisees, bridging the perceived asymmetry and striving for equal footing. In the scientific process, we are all equal, and it is important to create horizontal relationships, if possible. This requires the insight and cooperation of the professor involved in the case.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: With the power imbalance it remains nevertheless necessarily straight if one also still has an employer-employee relationship.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Precisely, precisely, it is crucial to establish some level of separation. In my experience, I consistently emphasize in scientific processes that both parties share a common goal – the advancement of science and the pursuit of knowledge, albeit through different approaches. Ultimately, both sides are driven by the same interest, which is to uncover insights in the realm of science. Labor law matters, which pertain to the employee-employer relationship, should ideally take a secondary role in this process that is primarily focused on pure science.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Repeatedly reflecting on the common interests and shared intersection allows individuals to align on a common denominator.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Exactly.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: You have emphasized multiple times that doctoral students are often approached by individuals experiencing scientific misconduct or personal conflicts. Can you identify any differences within the group of doctoral students in terms of who is more likely to be affected by these issues? For instance, are there variations between different departments or in relation to gender?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Gender does not play a role when it comes to the occurrence of scientific misconduct. Similarly, within the faculties, we have found no significant differences. The Ombudsman for Science, an independent transnational body established by the DFG (German Research Foundation), provides clear statistics on cases, which are presented in their annual report. These cases are categorized by subject area, such as life sciences, natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences. However, it’s important to note that these numbers are not normalized to the number of researchers in each field. From my personal experience, I can say that no specific area is more prone to scientific misconduct. However, there is a difference in the dynamics within the humanities and social sciences compared to natural sciences, including life sciences. In my work with PhD students, I interact with them daily in the lab, holding regular seminars and engaging in discussions. This level of interaction may not be as frequent in the humanities and social sciences, which can influence the relationship dynamics. Therefore, I strongly encourage colleagues in those fields to maintain good contact with their doctoral students, as establishing a positive relationship lowers the threshold for open conversations and helps address potential problems in advance.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Yes, your observations are quite intriguing. One might assume that when individuals have extensive interactions, close collaboration, and even co-author publications, the potential for conflicts could be even greater. The increased interdependencies and higher stakes involved could lead to more opportunities for things to go awry.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: That is correct. That’s exactly what can happen. But I think that by having the contact, you can try to clarify such things in advance. The supervisors or the structure of the supervision can also be designed in a way that includes courses on the rules of good scientific practice. This way, both doctoral students and professors/lecturers can become better acquainted with the rules and regulations. As I mentioned before, it is important to emphasize the importance of both sides, ensuring that both doctoral students and professors/lecturers understand their roles and responsibilities.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: If I were to find myself in a situation where I needed help from you, how can I specifically approach you and make contact?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: At the Freie Universität in Berlin, we have a comprehensive system in place. Each department has at least one decentralized ombudsperson, often with a representative, to handle cases. This ensures that if there are any concerns about biases or sensitivities, another ombudsperson can handle the case. However, if you feel that both the local ombudsperson and the decentralized ombudsperson may be biased, you can directly approach the central ombudsperson, whom I currently represent. We can step in and take over the role of mediation in such rare cases.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: That means that the more likely case would actually be that I first look at my department to see who the ombudsperson is and then turn to that person.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: The reason for having subject-specific decentralized ombudspersons is to address subject-specific differences and ensure that someone with expertise in the particular field handles the cases. However, we maintain regular communication and discussions with these decentralized ombudspersons. It’s important to note that this exchange does not violate confidentiality, as we all operate within the ombud system. We also aim to share our experiences from the central office with the decentralized ombudsman offices, which typically have fewer cases throughout their ombudsman career, especially if they are not based in a central office.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Is it possible to approach you or the decentralized ombudsperson anonymously? I imagine it’s a bit more difficult in the department, depending on how big it is. But this possibility probably exists in principle.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: In principle, the option to approach the ombudsman’s office anonymously is available, and we consider it very important. This addresses the fear that caregivers may have regarding potential personal disadvantages if they raise concerns. Anonymity allows individuals to seek guidance and support without revealing their identities. It can also be useful in situations where someone has questions or uncertainties, such as determining if certain actions constitute scientific misconduct. By reaching out to the ombudsman’s office anonymously, individuals can inquire and seek clarification on such matters, ensuring they make informed decisions.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: And if I were a doctoral candidate with fears and uncertainties, then I would call you with a suppressed number or send an e-mail from a specially created e-mail address. Or what would be the procedure then?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Exactly, and while it is important to provide the option of anonymity initially, when it comes to an ombudsman procedure, we encourage the complainant to eventually reveal their identity. This is done to ensure fairness and protect all parties involved. By disclosing their identity, it allows for a more open and transparent process where both sides can engage on an equal level. Granting anonymity to only one side would create an imbalance. However, we understand that during the initial contact, it may be crucial for individuals to feel protected and have the freedom to explain their situation without fear. This allows us to assess the case and determine if further action is warranted.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Or whether that’s just a bitter pill to swallow scientifically? That’s why I’d like to ask you again, do you have a duty of confidentiality?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: In the legal sense, I don’t believe I have a duty of confidentiality as a doctor would. However, we adhere to the principle of confidentiality, and I strongly believe that this principle must be fully respected. Maintaining confidentiality is essential for the effective functioning of the ombudsman system. If individuals involved have concerns that their information will be used against them, it hinders the system’s ability to fulfill its role. Confidentiality ensures that individuals can trust the process and share their concerns without fear of negative consequences.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Exactly, that means that I could rely on the fact that I can talk to you first and that nothing will leak out, at least until I have given my consent.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Exactly, that’s correct. In certain cases, such as potentially serious instances of scientific misconduct, there may be a need to seek an external expert opinion. However, it is crucial that we respect the confidentiality and consent of all parties involved. Before obtaining an external opinion, we always seek the consent of those affected by the issue. If consent is not given, we will not proceed with involving external experts. This ensures that the process remains fair and respects the rights and privacy of all individuals involved.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: And do you continue to provide support yourself in the event of legal action, or do you refer people to other agencies, or are they left to their own devices for the time being?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Exactly, you’ve highlighted an important distinction. As ombudspersons, our role is primarily focused on mediation and resolving conflicts through dialogue and negotiation. We aim to create a space for equal and fair communication between the parties involved. However, if the situation escalates and legal action is pursued, it is beyond the scope of our role. In such cases, individuals are free to seek legal advice and the matter will be determined by a judge. Our resources are primarily dedicated to the mediation process, and once legal action is initiated, we step back as our role shifts from mediation to legal confrontation.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Is there anything you would say should be changed structurally to reduce the occurrence of scientific misconduct or conflicts? Or is there something we could learn from other countries in this regard?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: In my experience as a member of the Ombudsman for Science, where we also dealt with other countries through organizations like ENRIO (European Network of Research Integrity Offices) and participated in global meetings on scientific integrity, I find that Germany is well positioned in terms of scientific integrity. However, there are certain structural aspects that can be improved, and we are actively addressing them. One important area is raising awareness of scientific integrity within university education. It is crucial to teach students about the principles of good scientific practice at different levels of their education. For example, in their first semester, students should understand that they cannot simply copy from Wikipedia for their assignments. These are essential points that need to be taught early on, both from a practical and ethical standpoint. At Freie Universität, we are already implementing pilot initiatives to introduce these concepts into various courses of study.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: And have you already been able to see the first results?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: It takes time for changes to take effect. We have been implementing this for a year now, focusing on the department of physics, and we are about to start implementing it for the department of PolSoz. However, it is still too early to see significant results.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Yes, one year is indeed short, I agree with you. You are also a professor in physics, right?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Yes.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Why do you personally take on the additional time burden of serving as the central ombudsperson for the FU, considering that [being a professor] is already a time-consuming position in itself?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Certainly, it has to do with how one perceives their responsibilities as a university teacher. Personally, I view this task as an integral part of the scientific landscape at our university and in Germany as a whole. As university professors, we have various obligations beyond teaching and research, including reviewing applications and potentially serving as legal representatives in court proceedings, or as with our colleagues in political science who give interviews in talk shows. This perspective aligns with my identity as a university teacher, and I believe it is crucial to safeguard the integrity of science, considering its immense value.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Were there any experiences in your own scientific career where you would have wished for or perhaps received support from outsiders?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Yes, you raise a valid point, and I believe it resonates with almost everyone, not just scientists, but particularly those involved in the ombudsman system. We all have experiences related to scientific integrity. Personally, I encountered a significant challenge during my postdoctoral years in the context of a collaboration with a highly esteemed institution. The director of that institution, who was from Max Planck, expressed dissatisfaction with my conduct and proceeded to write an open, official letter of complaint to the director of my institute. Fortunately, I was fortunate to have the support of my director at that time, who stood by me and expressed a different perspective. I found this support to be immensely important.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Thank you very much for sharing this experience. Is there anything else you would like to add? Is there another important aspect that we haven’t touched on yet?

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Yes, there were numerous aspects to consider, but delving into all of them would consume a significant amount of time. However, it is crucial to highlight the availability of various opportunities. In addition, this podcast is currently being produced in collaboration with the Dahlem Research School (DRS), and I personally enjoy participating in DRS events. We should appreciate the support we receive from our university’s presidency for institutions like the DRS, which facilitates the dissemination of such opportunities to students and doctoral candidates. I strongly encourage doctoral students to make the most of these offerings as they can be beneficial and enjoyable experiences.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: Professor Heberle, thank you very much for this very exciting interview.

Prof. Joachim Heberle: Thank you.

Dr. Marlies Klamt: I hope you now have a better understanding of the role and importance of an ombudsperson, as well as when it can be beneficial to seek their guidance. While I sincerely hope that you won’t encounter any challenges during your academic journey, it is reassuring to know that at Freie Universität, there are individuals available to support you and ensure you’re not alone in case of conflicts or concerns. Please remember that if you have any specific questions for Prof. Heberle, you are welcome to join the Q&A session in June. Have a great day and until the next episode!