Labour court overrules Lund University firing of scientist

Sweden’s Labour Court has overruled the firing of a Lund University scientist because of scientific misconduct. But Lund University, which says it and not the court is best able to decide on scientific competence, has said it will not comply with the verdict.

Instead, the university will pay compensation of SEK2 million (US$204,400) to the fired but now cleared scientist, who is not named. To be able to do this, the university evoked Section 39 of the Employment Protection Act, which deems an employment relationship to have been dissolved if an employer refuses to comply with a court order declaring a dismissal invalid.

Professor Torbjörn von Schantz, rector of Lund University, wrote in the Sydsvenska Dagbladet newspaper on 5 May that in order not to lose trust in science, the government and parliament needed to clarify and make more transparent who has the mandate to decide on scientific fraud – universities or the Labour Court.

In his view, the Labour Court does not have the scientific competence to decide on scientific matters.

A summary of the 22 April judgment, which was unanimous, was posted on the Labour Court website. The case was instigated by SULF – the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers – on behalf of the fired scientist, against the state through Lund University.

The summary states: “The Labour Court has found that the university’s decisions are not in themselves legal grounds for dismissal or factual grounds for dismissal, nor does it mean that the researcher has actually committed dishonesty in research.

“Instead, the Labour Court has independently examined whether the researcher is guilty of research misconduct in the manner claimed by the state. In this examination, the Labour Court has concluded that the state has not shown that the researcher is guilty of alleged dishonesty in research.”

The court ordered Lund University to give the scientist her job back and pay back salary withheld since February 2019; to pay compensation of SEK125,000 and to cover the legal costs of SULF, totalling SEK937,791 (US$96,000).

Annika Wahlström, a lawyer at SULF, said in a press release that the scientist had to get her job back because university experts had failed to convince Labour Court members that scientific misconduct had taken place. “It is the university that has the burden of proof,” Wahlström said.

But Von Schantz, the rector, said: “For the university it is ruled out that the scientist in question shall continue her research career at Lund University”.

This meant that Lund University would apply Section 39 of the Employment Protection Act. Under Section 39: “Where an employer refuses to comply with a court order that notice of termination or a summary dismissal is invalid, or that a fixed-term employment shall be valid for an indefinite term, the employment relationship shall be deemed to have been dissolved.”

Von Schantz explained: “The employment will be regarded as dissolved and the employer then has to pay compensation according to a given regulation. I am convinced that a termination from the position and the compensation is a prize that is worthwhile for society to pay in this case.”

The case

The academic at the centre of the case was employed as an associate researcher by the department of clinical sciences in the medical faculty at Lund University. On 4 August 2017 a doctoral student whom she supervised reported her to the university for alleged scientific misconduct.

On 15 November 2018, the university concluded that the researcher was guilty of scientific misconduct because, among other things, significant results she reported in one paper could not be verified by her data, her results “did not lie within the frame of normal variation”, and it was difficult to see how she could have reached the results other than through data manipulation.

An appeal against the decision was rejected by the university and the scientist was fired on 2 February 2019. The Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations, of which SULF is a member, sent the case to the Labour Court.

The court said in a detailed 29-page ruling that it had examined two papers in which scientific fraud was alleged to have taken place. “The Labour Court has found that the university decision in itself is not a legal ground for the firing or sufficient reason for layoff.” The court had examined whether misconduct had been committed in the way government argued, and concluded that the government had not proved its case.

University protest

Nils-Eric Sahlin, professor of medical ethics at Lund University, wrote a commentary that was published by Svenska Dagbladet on 4 May: “What are our lawyers in the Labour Court up to? They go against the university that wants to fire scientists who are committing scientific fraud.

“Extremely competent experts have examined the allegations of scientific misconduct and concluded that this has taken place.” Could it really be that lawyers are regarding themselves as scientifically competent enough to question the conclusions of the experts?

Sahlin concluded: “We have to demand that our lawyers have to be given the knowledge they need to understand how serious these deviations from good research conduct really are. Scientific misconduct will not be accepted.”

Wahlström, the SULF lawyer, was reported on 7 May in the SULF magazine Universitätsläraren as saying it was remarkable that Lund University had chosen to disobey the Labour Court verdict and instead pay some SEK2 million in compensation.

The university rejected the Labour Court judgment despite “very sharp formulations” by the court on the lack of significant proof of scientific misconduct.

Wahlström told University World News that Section 39 should be used in an extremely restricted way by the state as an employer, and only in close consultation with the Swedish Agency for Government Employers. Its chief lawyer told the SULF magazine that Section 39 had not been used for several decades.

“It is not reasonable that Lund University is using taxpayer’s money in this way to justify its own unlawful decision to fire the scientist,” she said.

Intense discussion

There has been intense discussion on social media, where comments have been in two directions. On the one hand are those who believe scientific misconduct did take place, and who are critical of SULF. On the other hand are people who believe that the evaluation committee at Lund University did not present a sufficiently explicit explanation on how scientific methods used by the fired researcher violated scientific standards.

Associate Professor Mattias Collin in the medical faculty at Lund, who for several years was a local SULF representative, found the factual and legal technicalities of the Labour Court case “totally uninteresting”. SULF believed it had won the case but had made a mistake with a case that dealt more with judgment and moral questions than legal questions.

However, a legal expert at another university, who did not want to be named, argued that the Labour Court process tested the strength of Lund’s allegations of scientific misconduct.

“It is strange – and inconvenient [for the university] that the misconduct investigation did not manage to document better its investigation or substantiate the misconduct more clearly from a scientific methodological perspective.”