Bodies of the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam - GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences

GFZ rules for Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice


Since the beginning of the 17th century, modern science has driven rational global exploration, technology and business, and led to the development of the so-called “principles of good scientific practice”. They are comprised of a wide range of approaches, from epistemological processes to ethical imperatives, which are constituents of scientific practice, its long-term success and its social plausibility.

This scientific practice is based on the maxims of conscientiousness and honesty in the establishment and presentation of scientific issues with respect to oneself and others, absolute integrity in the attribution of ideas and results to their originators in the past and present and ensuring that documentation is as complete as possible to promote open scientific dialogue, which includes results yet to be verified and allows objective criticism of ideas, processes and results, such as the right to errors and mistakes in good faith.

This good scientific practice, in its respective specific technical manifestations, is and has always been, followed by the majority of scientists and passed on to younger scientists, mainly be means of older scientists acting as role models.

Furthermore, since it was founded, the GFZ has established a whole series of regulation and basic rules of duty of care and assurance of reliability in accordance with statutory provisions within the scope of its original company and employer duties, as well as its requirements and duties. Therefore, the scientific work of the GFZ is based on reliable practice, as well as quality standards, which have grown over many years.

Alarmed by several current events in the international science scene, the major research institutions in Germany - as already in other countries - have formulated explicit recommendations for “safeguarding good scientific practice”.

According to these recommendations, which have already been instilled in and are followed by the overwhelming majority of scientists, the rules are to be made as explicit as possible; at the same time, procedures are to be institutionalised, which specify how to proceed with accusations of actual or alleged scientific misconduct by scientists.

The GFZ stipulates the following in fulfilment of the framework regulations of the Helmholtz Society [1]:

Rule 1: Responsibility

The GFZ as a whole, as well as all persons who have been entrusted with personnel management duties within the organisation, have a particular responsibility for compliance with the principles of good scientific practice, as they are presented in detail and in a convincing manor in the Memorandum [2] of the German Research Foundation. It particularly includes not only safeguarding appropriate scientific supervision of young scientists, but also familiarising them with these principles implicitly by acting as a role model, as well as explicitly.

Rule 2: Organisation

Each supervisor is responsible for an appropriate organisation, which ensures that on the basis of the size of the individual scientific work units, the duties of management, supervision, conflict regulation and quality assurance are clearly allocated and it is guaranteed that they are actually administered.

Rule 3: Good scientific practice

Good scientific practice is based on the principles of scientific honesty, conscientiousness, integrity and open discourse. This open scientific discourse and its preconditions must be preserved and practised by the young scientists. This includes encouragement to express objectively substantiated criticism and diverse opinions, regardless of the hierarchical position of the parties involved, the obligation to acknowledge and cite the priority of others in ideas and results in the past and present and to accept the promotion of willingness to take objective criticism in one’s stride and admit to proven or self-identified own errors and mistakes. One of the most important accomplishments of our scientific culture is to perceive these as an objective integral part of scientific discourse and not as a discretisation of the person. Furthermore, the opportunity for comprehensive criticism and verification includes the safeguarding of scientific primary data. If such data form the basis of publications, patents or ongoing R&D activities, they must be stored on secured media –and be accessible for the organisational unit concerned - for a minimum of ten years.

Rule 4: Misconduct

Scientific misconduct is always assumed, if principles of good scientific practice in accordance with Rule 3 are intentionally violated or avoided for non-scientific purposes. The range of possible scientific misconduct can extend from criminal, penalty-relevant acts right up to marginal infringements of principles of scientific ethics. At the same time, it may involve the infringement of employment contract obligations.

The following are specifically regarded as scientific misconduct:

Falsification of scientific facts, for example

  • invention/manipulation of results,
  • falsification of results, such as failure to disclose and hiding of “undesired” results,
  • knowingly ignoring contradictory relevant results of others,
  • intentionally distorted interpretation of results,
  •  intentionally distorted rendition of third-party research results,

Misleading with false scientific information, for example, with

  • job applications,
  • subsidy applications and reports on the use of subsidy funds and
  • publications, such as multiple publications without corresponding citations,

Infringement of intellectual property, for example, through

  • unauthorised use under presumption of authorship (plagiarism),
  • pretence or unfounded acceptance of scientific authorship or co-authorship,
  • refusal of a claim by others to co-authorship acquired through appropriate contributions,
  • exploitation, publication or other disclosure of third-party, non-published, concrete ideas, methods, research results or approaches, without the consent of the authorised party (theft of ideas),
  • scientific non-disclosure of significant, relevant preliminary activities by others,

Sabotage, through the malicious damage, destruction or manipulation of work equipment without the consent of the authorised party, for example, of

  • devices and testing arrangements,
  • data, documentation and electronic software,
  • consumables (e.g. chemicals),

Co-responsibility for scientific misconduct of others may, for example, result from

  • active involvement in the misconduct of others,
  • joint knowledge and tolerance of misconduct by others,
  • co-authorship of publications containing falsifications,
  • gross negligence of supervisory duty.

Rule 5: Punishment

It is part of scientific ethics, not to tacitly tolerate the scientific misconduct of others. The conventional approach in the case of suspected misconduct should be to address the possible transgression with its authors and seek clarification and correction, if applicable.

However, this approach may encounter difficulties for various reasons. Therefore, the GFZ institutionalises a procedure in Rule 6, which must be followed, if a suspicion or allegation of scientific misconduct arises against an employee of the GFZ, which cannot be clarified in a direct discussion or with the usual instruments of personnel management.

Rule 6: Procedure for internal company handling of allegations of scientific misconduct

(This procedural regulation is in an inherent legal state of tension: Internal company procedural regulations may not invalidate, e.g. the employment law duties/instruments. But over and above this, the constitutionally protected freedom of knowledge must also be complied with.)

6.1 Ombudsperson - prior clarification

6.1.1. At the recommendation of the Internal Scientific Council, the Executive Board appoints an experienced scientist as the Ombudsperson and contact in matters of scientific misconduct for three years at a time.

In the case of concrete suspicions of scientific misconduct, the responsible Ombudsperson should first be notified in written form - including evidence or supporting documentation, if applicable.

The person suspected of misconduct may also contact the responsible Ombudsperson to request clarification and support.

6.1.2. The Ombudsperson shall immediately take measures/steps, which he or she deems appropriate, in order to clarify the specific facts as comprehensively and discretely as possible.

6.1.3. The suspect must be given the opportunity to comment at the earliest possible time.

6.1.4. As soon as the suspicion is substantiated, the Ombudsperson shall report on the status of the fact-finding, with the involvement of the Scientific Executive Director and the Administrative Executive Director, so that disciplinary steps can be initiated in observance of deadlines. Ceteris paribus, the Ombudsperson is obligated to maintain non-disclosure.

6.1.5. In such cases, where the suspicion is not substantiated, the process will not go beyond clarification and this will be at the Ombudsperson’s discretion.

6.2 Result of the pre-clarification - Ombudsperson’s final report

The Ombudsperson writes a concluding report on the result of the preliminary clarification and sends it to the Scientific Executive Director with a proposal for a further course of action.

After consultation with the Chairperson of the Internal Scientific Council, the Executive Board decides on the basis of the Ombudsperson’s report,

  • about the conclusion of the matter, provided that the suspicion of scientific misconduct has not been substantiated,
  • and the use of an Investigation Committee (6.3), if the Executive Board regards further fact-finding as being necessary
  • the imposition of necessary sanctions/implementation of necessary procedures, if the suspicion of scientific misconduct has been confirmed

No internal appeal procedure against the Ombudsperson’s report will take place.

6.3 In serious cases or with complicated situations of fundamental importance, an Investigation Committee is used for further fact-finding on the basis of the final report prepared by the Ombudsperson within the scope of the preliminary clarification.

6.3.1. It is comprised as follows:

  • Scientific Executive Director,
  • Administrative Executive Director,
  • a specific scientist appointed by the Internal Scientific Council

If necessary, external experts/appraisers can be called in to advice on the consultations. In suspected cases, which are presented from outside the centre to the GFZ, the Investigation Committee must be supplemented with an external member.

The Scientific Executive Director is the Chairperson, with the Administrative Executive Director taking on this role in his or her absence.

6.3.2. The Investigation Committee must clarify the matter by hearing all parties involved, as well as freely considering evidence from all other conceivable sources of knowledge.

6.3.3. Procedural principles

The consultations of the Investigation Committee are not public. In respect of all information relevant to the case, the parties involved are obligated to maintain non-disclosure.

6.3.4. The result of the investigations is summarised by the Chairperson of the Investigation Committee and provided in written form to the party concerned, as well as the person, who expressed a suspicion, upon request.

On the basis of the result of the Investigation Committee, the Executive Board must take the necessary measures.

No internal appeal procedure takes place against the decisions of the Investigation Committee respectively the Executive Board.

Possible consequences of scientific misconduct

Depending on the circumstances, scientific misconduct may have the following consequences:

  • criminal consequences,
  • academic consequences in the form of the withdrawal of academic degrees,
  • revocation of scientific publications,
  • disciplinary actions, such as a written warning or dismissal,
  • civil-law consequences, such as issuing a ban on entering the building, surrender or damages claims,
  • Informing the public/cooperation partners.

Violations of the principles of good scientific practice will be included in the future employment contracts of GFZ as a possible reason for extraordinary dismissal.

Potsdam, 30 November 2017

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Reinhard F. J. Hüttl

Dr. Stefan Schwartze

[1] Hermann von Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft Deutscher Forschungszentren: Sicherung guter wissenschaftlicher Praxis und Verfahren bei wissenschaftlichen Fehlverhalten, Bonn, Sept. 1998

[2] Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft- Vorschläge zur Sicherung guter wissenschaftlicher Praxis, Willy-VCH Verlag GmbH, Weinheim, 2013 zur Sicherung guter wissenschaftlicher Praxis [DFG Memordandum on Good Scientific Practice] (view DFG-Denkschrift as e-paper)


Richard Wirth
Dr.Richard Wirth
Chemistry and Physics of Earth Materials
+49 331 288-1371