Dr Simon Kolstoe has a PhD in Biochemistry and was involved in lab-based medical research for 15 years. He now chairs a number of research ethics committees and conducts research into ethics, governance and integrity. Based at the University of Portsmouth, Simon is the Adapting Author of the new edition of our Research Integrity programme, UK version – publishing in February 2020.
Research is based on trust – both in the results of research and in the honesty of the people conducting the research. Research consistently produces revolutionary technology and knowledge, but it is an unpredictable process where the greatest time and effort does not always lead to the greatest discoveries. As a consequence, researchers can find themselves under a great deal of pressure to succeed, especially in the face of stiff competition and limited funding. This pressure has been increasingly acknowledged as an issue of “research culture”. A poor research culture can lead to integrity issues as even well intentioned researchers find themselves under pressure to cut corners so as to meet unrealistic targets or perceptions of what they should be achieving. This pressure is also felt by students and newer researchers who are often the people collecting the results or conducting the experiments, and may have to balance the expectations of their supervisors or senior colleagues alongside pressure to complete their studies or projects within certain timeframes. The increasing number of research paper retractions and related research scandals are one obvious outcome, as is the loss of promising researchers who become disillusioned with the research process. However, perhaps even more serious, is a wider loss of confidence in the reliability of research findings or trustworthiness of (often academic) experts if the wider public start to think that researchers or research communities are mostly pursuing their own interests.
Here are five key things that institutions (specifically universities) can do to promote a healthy research culture:
- Acknowledge the pressure. Researchers will always be under pressure to publish, gain research funding or complete projects within certain timeframes. This can sometimes feel like a very lonely process, especially when University research offices seem to always be trumpeting the success of others. Opportunities for individual mentorship and frank discussion are essential for researchers to feel supported and remain motivated despite numerous setbacks. It also enables researchers to gain more of a perspective on their efforts, and critically remain accountable to others, especially if tempted to engage in behaviours that in the longer term might be harmful. Sometimes just acknowledging pressure can prevent it leading to integrity issues.
- Support small scale projects. In lieu of always having consistent large scale funding, researchers need to feel that they are making progress during less plentiful times. This can be through small scale, internally funded projects, or alternatively being allowed the time and opportunity to produce scholarly outputs and attend conferences. Focussing internal funding only on new “pump priming” projects can be to the detriment of longer running, and ultimately more fruitful, research themes. Likewise there are plenty of opportunities for scholarly publication beyond the traditional primary research paper. Being given the space to contribute editorials, book reviews, commentaries or engage in peer review enables researchers to remain connected to their academic peers and wider community while developing their next higher profile publication. Likewise PhD students and newer researchers should be encouraged to develop their interests which sometimes may deviate from their main projects. While too many distractions are of course a problem, sometimes allowing a small time investment into side-projects can lead to happier and more productive researchers.
- Be creative in organising research community events. The busyness of academic life makes traditional research seminar programmes ever harder to organise and manage. Greater creativity is needed if sessions are to be made more attractive than competing activities (such as organising the following day’s teaching) so as to give academics and researchers the opportunity to get together and talk about research. Meetings focussed on specified new funding streams, publishing opportunities or collaborative research themes provide additional impetus for researchers to prioritise research events and feel part of a strong and accountable internal research community. Likewise students need the opportunity to discuss research in slightly less formal settings than department seminars. Here library clubs or special interest groups can be helpful to foster supportive and accountable communities.
- Encourage external engagement. The increasing emphasis on impact and knowledge exchange is positive if it enables expertise developed through research to influence broader business, policy or cultural activities. Supporting and enabling researchers to join editorial boards or committees, contribute to consultations, or attend policy events creates professional networks and provides researchers with an identity that transcends their institutional roles. By feeling part of a bigger picture researchers find it easier to consider and address issues that impact their subject area as a whole, rather than just remain focussed on internal pressures and narrow local goals.
- Provide flexible training opportunities. Although researchers and academics are, by definition, experts in their own fields, there are plenty of broader skills that are indispensable for longer term research success and sustainability. Similarly, in an increasingly inter-disciplinary environment, it is essential for researchers to understand the broader context of their work and how other research fields, or perhaps new technologies, can provide new and novel opportunities. The increasing availability and flexibility of online training means that time can be found in even the most busy diaries. Likewise students and newer researchers need appropriate training to be available as they progress through their careers rather than only be available right at the start of their research journey.
A high level of research integrity comes out of strong research culture, which itself is ultimately about identity. If researchers feel isolated, unsupported or disconnected, like any human under pressure, they will start to focus on their own immediate needs and what they need to get ahead. Time and again such behaviours have been shown to lead to research integrity issues (see https://retractionwatch.com for multiple examples). Trying to promote research integrity by focussing on lists of do’s and do not’s handed down by senior administrators is counterproductive because they do not address the root cause of research integrity problems. Instead research integrity comes out of positive communities who are enthused about their research, supportive of others, and have a broader vision for the possibilities of their work.
Looking for online training in research integrity?
Suitable for postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and early-career researchers across all major disciplines, Research Integrity identifies the principles and responsibilities required throughout the research process, from planning through to publication – offering practical advice on dealing with complex issues, and providing evidence of comprehensive training in the responsible conduct of research.