Integrity in Science at the DIP

Sven Rottenberg, 21.06.2021
(Text adapted from „Integrity in Science“ by Piet Borst, The Netherlands Cancer Institute)

In the last months, the topic of integrity in science has received a lot of attention at the DIP (e.g. in the context of biobanking, collaborations, talk of Elisabeth Bik). Scientific integrity is often discussed in the context of allegations of fraud. Integrity is more, however, than the lack of fraud. This becomes clear in the "Code of conduct for scientific integrity" of the Swiss Academies of Science and Art from May 2021, PDF), which is in agreement with the SNF (LINK). Also the University of Bern has rules of procedure (PDF) and an integrity officer (LINK).

At the DIP, we obligate ourselves to follow these rules and guidelines. In addition, questions have come up regarding collaborations, and young scientists miss some orientation. The topic was discussed in the DIP board and council and we think that it is helpful to look at a few practical examples and how we interpret our code of scientific integrity.

1. New materials

Investigator A in house isolates a new antibody (or cDNA, or new diagnostic procedure, etc.), that is also useful to other people. As long as results with this monoclonal have not been published (and therefore is not in the public domain) A can restrict the use of this monoclonal to his, or her own group. It is also reasonable to prevent access to the monoclonal until its specificity has been carefully determined. If A decides to hand over the monoclonal to investigator B before publication, A can demand that this will become part of a collaborative project. Co-authorship can be part of this deal. It may turn out in practice that B has done nice experiments with the unpublished monoclonal without any contribution of A, either in the design or in the interpretation of the experiments. It would then be elegant if A removes his name from the final publication. It is also sensible to do so, because if A is not closely involved in the investigation, he runs a risk by associating his name with research that is unsound. Co-authorship is not improper, however. Whether investigator A will provide the monoclonal to investigator B in our department is up to A. We like to see this happen and such an early exchange of useful reagents contributes to the synergy between investigators that we aim for in the department. However, if A chooses not to do so, this is his right. It is not elegant, but also not improper.

The story changes when data on the monoclonal have been published and it has thus entered the public domain. At that moment A should ensure that the monoclonal is available to other investigators. If the monoclonal is for sale, it is obvious that there are no strings attached to the sale. It is improper, however, to attach strings to monoclonals that are not for sale. Obviously A can ask B to pay reasonable costs; obviously A does not need to provide B with unlimited amounts of the monoclonal (allowing B to sell the reagent). A can not demand, however, that the monoclonal will be part of a collaborative project or that A will be co-author on articles that are based on research produced with the help of the monoclonal. This would be improper and a number of scientific journals actually require that materials described in articles will be provided to other investigators without any conditions. Some monoclonals have commercial value and in that case it is reasonable that the recipient is requested to sign a Materials Transfer Agreement. We also do this sometimes ourselves if we send materials to others. Unitectra ( has a standard agreement for this purpose.

2. Ideas

Ideas are free and good investigators are generous with this commodity. Often the best investigators are more frequently found in acknowledgments than in the list of authors. Nevertheless, ideas regularly result in differences of opinion. Investigator B is sure to have made a crucial contribution to the research of A (the suggestion to use the HeLa cell line, the suggestion to use RNAseq, the suggestion to talk to C, etc.), but A considers this the standard type of little help that you get from your friends and sees no reason to include B as co-author. These are difficult matters for which no precise rules exist. Our advice is to be generous towards your colleagues and tough towards yourself. Nearly everybody has the tendency to overestimate her/his own contribution to the research of others and underestimate the contribution of other people to her/his own work. This is why B has contributed more than you think, and this is also why your own contribution might have been more trivial than you thought. Generosity is also important to profit optimally of the know-how of others. By involving people with good ideas in your research and by forcing them in the final phase to look again very carefully at the results (because they are included as co-author) your research can only gain in quality. Toughness towards yourself is useful to avoid being seen as a sharp operator or, even worse, being made responsible for research that you understand insufficiently and that may eventually turn out to be not so good or even incorrect.

3. Facilities

In principle, equipment is run and supervised by the person for whom the equipment has been bought. Usually the faculty/university pays (also via the working credit of an institute), however, and therefore an investigator can never tell a colleague that you cannot use “my” centrifuge. In principle, all equipment at the faculty/university is at the disposal of competent investigators who know how to handle the equipment. Obviously, we have to remain practical: an investigator who suddenly decides to use another piece of equipment has to start at the end of the line. The fact that the pipette tips at institute A are being bought with money from the faculty/university does not mean that all other DIP institutes can send people to institute A to get pipette tips.

A variation on this theme concerns equipment bought by investigators with their own grant money. This equipment is also property of the faculty/university, since the grant application could never have been submitted without the structure provided by the faculty/university. When the applicant leaves the institute the equipment stays, unless another deal is made between the faculty and investigator. The situation becomes more complicated when investigator A gets a monoclonal from investigator Z in the United States and B wants to use this monoclonal as well. If A has received the monoclonal for his own experiments and under the conditions that he will not hand out the monoclonal to other investigators, then A cannot do so. However, if Z has sent B to A, because A already received the monoclonal from Z, then it is obvious that A shares with B. Not sharing is then improper. This holds a fortiori for materials not in limited supply, such as cell lines or cDNAs.

4. Territoria

Primates have a strong territorial instinct and investigators are no exception. If investigator A has done elegant experiments on the domestic chicken for years, and investigator B, in another institute of the department or faculty, decides to start working on the chicken as well, two types of negative reactions may ensue:

a. nice that you want to collaborate with me (but B does not want to collaborate at all);

b. stay away from my chicken.

Emotionally these reactions are understandable, but rationally they cannot be defended and they have to be considered improper. The chicken is in the public domain, and if B wants to work on the chicken this is her/his decision. It is obviously desirable that DIP investigators working on the same topic or with the same object try to profit from each others know-how, experience and scientific contacts. Hence, collaboration is to be preferred and the DIP leadership will strongly stimulate such collaboration. It also looks strange to outsiders if investigators from the same department or faculty work on the same topic without collaboration or cross references and if they submit independent grants without consulting each other. In the final analysis, however, this is B’s decision. Rather than remonstrate, A should ask herself/himself why B avoids collaboration. Is A too dominant, ungenerous?

There should be no difference of opinion, however, about the ethical aspect of this conflict: It is not elegant to refuse collaboration, but not improper. It would be improper, however, if A would make it difficult for B to start up her/his research.

5. Confidential Information

It is self-evident that confidential information should remain confidential, but in practice this does not always happen. It is nice to be able to tell other people that a colleague at the DIP has made an important discovery, but this breach of confidentiality may not be so nice for your colleague. Even if this colleague has the habit to talk freely about her/his unpublished results, she/he usually prefers to do this herself/himself.

A mistake often made is that investigators evaluate articles or grant applications of their direct competitors. Even if the investigator does this in good faith (and this will usually be the case), this does not exclude an unfavourable outcome for the competitor. The problem is not only that you could apply sharper criteria or absorb confidential data without realizing, you can also evaluate the articles of your competitors better than other referees. Hence, you will evaluate the articles unintentionally in a more critical fashion than the average referee. It is therefore wise to avoid such conflicts of interests and return articles or projects from your direct competitors directly without reading them.

6. Patients

Good clinical (epidemiological) studies are usually based on large numbers of patients. Usually these patients are contributed by different clinics/institutes and this can lead to problems about co-authorship, especially in retrospective clinical (epidemiological) research or in prospective epidemiological studies. Such studies require either the medical records of patients seen years ago (retrospective studies) or the help of the responsible veterinarian to interview the patients' owners. Veterinarians who contribute patients or patients' records for such a study usually expect to be included as co-author if the study leads to publishable results. Often this co-authorship is already agreed on before the grant application for the research is even submitted (selling the hide before shooting the bear).

Clinical and epidemiological studies are as good as the quality of the data contributed and many veterinarians find it reasonable that the expertise and effort required to carefully collect these data should be honored by co-authorship, even if the co-authors make no important contribution to the design of the study, the interpretation of the data or to the writing of the article. Given the prevalent practice we would not like to call this unethical. We would like to emphasize, however, that this type of co-authorship entails risks. It does not comply with the requirements spelt out by some of the leading medical journals. Moreover, this practice can make a respectable clinician/researcher co-responsible for serious mistakes that have been made behind her/his back by the co-authors. We therefore recommend modesty in studies coordinated by others and in which our contribution is modest.

7. Co-autorships

The main points have been discussed in previous sections. However, conflicts still arise from insufficient consultation of co-authors. Unfortunately, it still happens that articles are sent to a journal without the O.K. of all co-authors. It happens even more frequently that articles are drastically revised without the co-authors knowing this. Sometimes it is necessary to include new experiments in a revised version. In that case it is unacceptable and improper to return the article to the journal without all co-authors having studied the supplemental information and its interpretation and without all co-authors having agreed to the revisions.

If differences of opinion arise about matters described in this text, it is wise to consult at a very early stage the head of the faculty research committee, or another experienced investigator who is not part of the conflict. Such differences of opinion are most easily solved if they do not escalate and if both parties are still talking to each other.