When Scientists go astray

The executive boards of the AMC and the VUmc aim to prevent and, if necessary, correct scientific misconduct. For the independent judgement of possible allegations, they have appointed an ombudsman for scientific integrity who is independent of the board.

This chapter describes the procedures taken when scientific misconduct is suspected.
It is important to note that anyone suspecting scientific misconduct by persons involved in scientific research at one of the medical centres can report this to the Ombudsman for Scientific Integrity. The ombudsman will look into the matter in consultation with the plaintiff (whistle-blower) to see whether the suspicion is justified. The procedures to be followed will depend on the seriousness of the case and its consequences, legal and otherwise. Please note that next to this procedure taken when scientific misconduct is suspected, for AMC the Klokkenluidersregeling (Procedures for whistle blowers) is applicable.

The ombudsman’s position

The ombudsman for scientific integrity holds an independent position. His/her tasks and the modus operandi are elaborated below.

  • It is the ombudsman’s task to investigate allegations of suspected scientific misconduct lodged against persons involved in scientific research at one of the medical centres, namely employees and external employees working under the responsibility of the medical centre (AMC or VUmc). In principle, anyone within or outside the medical centre who suspects scientific misconduct can inform the institute’s ombudsman.

Reports

  • A report may relate to an AMC or VUmc employee who is involved in scientific research or to an external employee who is involved in scientific research under the responsibility of an AMC or VUmc employee.
  • Reports may only relate to incidents or acts that took place no more than 5 years previously.

Accountability and evaluation

The ombudsman makes an annual report to be presented to the dean, describing in an anonymous form the numbers and nature of the reports of all cases presented and the action(s) taken. The dean sends this report to the Works Council (‘Ondernemingsraad’) to be discussed confidentially. The dean discusses the annual report with the UMC’s supervisory board.

Procedure in the event of alleged scientific misconduct

General principles are the following:

  • The ombudsman judges scientific conduct in line with this Research Code. The ombudsman can ask advice from the integrity committee. As a next step, experts from within or outside the medical centre can be asked to give advice or become members of an ad hoc research integrity committee. If deemed necessary, a legal advisor may also be approached. The ombudsman reports his/her judgment to the dean, that is, his/her opinion on whether scientific misconduct has occurred and, if so, to what extent it is to be considered serious. The dean then arrives at a verdict based on the ombudsman’s report and his own judgment concerning the alleged misconduct. The verdict may affect the legal position of employees. The dean reports his verdict within a reasonable time period.
  • The ombudsman observes maximum care and confidentiality with respect to both the whistle-blower and the person(s) to whom the report relates.
  • The whistle-blower, the person(s) to whom the report relates and any person assisting in any way the work of the ombudsman treat the matter and the findings as strictly confidential unless exempted therefrom by the board.
  • All AMC/VUmc employees must assist with any investigation by the ombudsman immediately upon being asked to do so.

If a suspicion is reported to the ombudsman, the following steps are generally undertaken:

  1. If the ombudsman decides not to investigate the allegation, he/she informs, in writing, the whistle-blower and the person against whom the allegation has been made. This decision is recorded in the ombudsman’s annual report. If the whistle-blower does not accept this decision, he/she can inform the ombudsman of this in writing. The ombudsman may, after consultation, decide that further investigation is indeed desirable.
  2. If the indications are sufficient to warrant a prima facie suspicion of misconduct, the ombudsman takes action.
  3. In general, as a first step the ombudsman then hears both parties. He/she decides whether misconduct is likely to have occurred.
  4. If so, the ombudsman decides whether an agreement between both parties might be reached. If possible, the ombudsman supports efforts to reach such an agreement. If agreement is reached, the case will be described as minor in the annual report.
  5. If agreement is not reached, the whistle-blower presents his/her allegations to the ombudsman in writing, or the allegations are set down in writing by the whistle-blower and the ombudsman jointly. The allegations should be clear and succinct.
  6. In cases of suspected serious misconduct, the ombudsman may decide that the allegation requires further investigation. Actions will then be taken depending on the nature of the allegation and on the circumstances. The ombudsman decides on a procedure that fits within the framework of the Research Code. This procedure is communicated to all parties involved.
  7. If deemed necessary, the ombudsman may discuss the allegation with the members of the integrity committee. This committee may again hear both parties. On the basis of the collected written evidence, and possibly a hearing, it is decided whether there is sufficient reason to suspect scientific misconduct, which would require further investigation.
  8. The ombudsman informs the dean and may suggest seeking advice from external experts or forming an ad hoc research integrity committee consisting of experts from within or outside the medical centre and, if deemed useful, a legal advisor. The dean nominates the committee, including a secretary. Depending on the seriousness of the case and the nature of the committee, the ombudsman can be advisor to or chair of the committee.
  9. The ad hoc research integrity committee can meet separately with the whistle-blower(s) and the person(s) to whom the report relates. If required, other experts may be invited to attend a meeting. The minutes of the hearing pertaining to each party may be read by the relevant party, who may request the correction of any factual errors.
  10. The investigation instituted by the ad hoc research integrity committee results in a written report, which includes the committee’s conclusion whether scientific misconduct has occurred and, if so, to what extent such misconduct is considered serious. The ombudsman sends this report to the dean. Depending on the local situation (i.e. the AMC or the VUmc regulations), the ombudsman sends the final report either to the dean or to the dean and the parties involved.
  11. The dean then arrives at a verdict and informs the ombudsman, the whistle-blower and the accused party. The final report is recorded in an anonymous form in the ombudsman’s annual report.

Procedure for appeal

  • If either the whistle-blower or the person accused of scientific misconduct disagrees with the dean’s verdict, he/she can inform the dean of such, in writing, and express his/her motivated complaint about the verdict.
  • If the dean agrees with the complaint, he can conduct a new, independent investigation into the alleged scientific misconduct.
  • If the complaint is not honoured by the dean, either the whistle-blower or the person accused of scientific misconduct can request an investigation by the National Body for Scientific Integrity (Landelijke Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijke Integriteit; LOWI), a committee installed by the KNAW, VSNU and NWO (Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, Association of Universities in the Netherlands, and Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research).
  • The LOWI judges whether the procedure followed by the medical centre was justified and correctly executed. The LOWI procedure can be found on the LOWI website.