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Rector comments on Information's coverage of beef report case

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen comments on newspaper Information's latest article and editorial on the beef report case.

2019.12.03 | Brian Bech Nielsen

Photo: Lars Kruse

On 23 November 2019, the newspaper Information published an article (in Danish) entitled “The rector commissioned an investigation after the beef report. Now he’s refusing an interview”, followed by an editorial (in Danish) on 25 November, ‘In cleaning up after the beef report scandal, Aarhus University has bumbled into a new scandal’. In response, Rector Brian Bech Nielsen attempted to submit his comments to Information last Tuesday for publication last week. According to Information, this was unfortunately not possible.

For this reason, we have decided to publish the rector’s comments on the university website, so that at least the university’s employees have an opportunity to read how the rector responded to Information’s coverage.


Comment on Information’s most recent coverage of the beef report case 

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen, Aarhus University

In August and September, the newspaper Information published a series of investigative stories exposing the irregularities surrounding the ‘beef report’, as it has come to be called. I almost choked on my morning coffee on Monday 25 November when I read the editorial in the same newspaper. An editorial that called me a “coward”. Well now, no one’s called me that since I was a small boy in the schoolyard. But dear readers, how my actions and character are assessed isn’t up to me. However, I would like to give you an opportunity to acquaint yourselves with my perspective on the case in an unabridged form that includes the nuances I find to be lacking in Information’s coverage.

To put it briefly: The beef report was published by the Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture (DCA), a centre for agriculture and food science advice and consultancy that is part of the Faculty of Science and Technology, one of the four faculties at Aarhus University. 

The beef report case was a serious matter, and the university’s senior management, acknowledging the irregularities that were uncovered without reservation, drew the necessary consequences without hesitation. We launched a variety of initiatives to ensure that similar problems will not occur in the future. 

We did so as a matter of course, because as Section 2(2) of the University Act states, “The university must defend and uphold both research ethics and the freedom of research of the individual researcher as well as of the university as a whole.” The leadership responsibility this entails is something we take extremely seriously. This is why, together with the dean of ST, I decided to initiate an investigation of DCA reports involving companies and special interest organisations published within the last five years in order to reveal any problematic issues related to failure to respect the arm’s length principle and a lack of transparency in external collaboration – and to draw the necessarily conclusions from this. 

The dean and I took the initiative for this investigation ourselves. No one asked us to carry out the investigation, and we decided that the Dean’s Office (the executive management) at ST would carry out the investigation because DCA is a unit at that faculty. I have noted that Information finds this decision questionable. In other words, Information problematises the fact that we view investigating a serious problem at a unit in our own organisation as management’s responsibility. I find that bizarre. Information also criticises the investigation for a lack of transparency. In response, I’d like to draw attention to the fact that ST has openly stated that the investigation was carried out by representatives from the Dean’s Office (not DCA) in the form of interviews of the researchers involved based on an interview questionnaire. The results are publicly available as electronic inserts in the 34 reports in which irregularities have been identified. Here everyone can see what kinds of errors and irregularities were identified. No attempt to conceal anything has been made.

The investigation could have been carried out in other ways, but we placed a high priority on completing it within a reasonable timeframe. Consideration for the affected researchers was a factor in this decision. We view the investigation as a first step, not a conclusion. We are going to draw on its result to help us target the follow-up efforts we have already initiated.  

And I’ll say it again: The investigation did uncover errors and irregularities. The errors must be rectified, and they must be avoided in future. In this respect, the investigation has shown itself to be useful. As rector, my main concern is solving the problem. And as a result, we are continuing to work with a number of initiatives. For example: 

·      development of workshops on research integrity that will be mandatory for all researchers; 

·      development of online courses that all researchers will be required to take at regular intervals; 

·      development of a guide to collaborating with external partners; 

·      stricter guidelines for transparency in acknowledging collaborators’ contributions to reports; and 

·      stricter guidelines for clearly indicating what kind of report a particular publication is (research, research dissemination, science advice). 

Aarhus University must meet the highest standards of excellence, and this includes our research integrity. 

It is correct that I refused a request for a interview from Information. The questions were related to the investigation, and I referred the request to the ST management team, which carried out the investigation. What’s more, virtually identical questions had already been posed to the dean previously.  Two members of the university’s senior management team were being asked to answer basically the same questions. I don’t see how that is necessary.

Aarhus University will continue to be open and transparent – including when it comes to the integrity of our research.



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