Susan O’Brien has more than 15 years’ experience in senior research management, including as Senior Manager of the Office of Research Integrity and Program Manager for Research Management Business Transformation at The University of Queensland. Susan was Deputy Chair of the NHMRC Better Practice Guides Working Group in association with the review of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2018). She has worked as a researcher in plant biology and in research management in the not-for-profit and university sectors. Susan is currently employed as Research Advisor for the national peak body Exercise and Sports Science Australia and was the adapting author for the Australian version of our Research Integrity 2.0 course.
Viewed from the outside, the research idyll can appear inspirational—a research team working in perfect harmony each contributing parts to the whole to achieve exciting advances in knowledge contributing to the public good. PhD candidates or new post-doctoral fellows will be excited to be accepted to join an established team, looking forward to commencing or establishing their research careers, and anticipating a stimulating and challenging mentoring environment.
Such a positive and constructive environment will exist in many research groups where each member of the team, whether group leader or research assistant, has clarity around their role and their responsibilities.
Sometimes research teams can fall short of this reasonable expectation and the tensions that may arise can damage or even destroy the productivity of individuals or the whole research collaboration. Why do these breakdowns occur? Often, at the core, it is due to a failure by all the team members to communicate clearly, honestly and respectfully about the goals of the team and each individual, as well as expectations and understanding of responsible research conduct.
Here are five research responsibilities about which individuals and teams should maintain open channels of communication to avoid common causes of dispute or even research misconduct:
Never underestimate the importance of a well-structured research plan. Each member of a team should know and understand the component for which they have responsibility. This applies whether you are the research leader with overall responsibility for the team and the larger project and funding, a post-doctoral fellow, a PhD candidate, or a research assistant. Knowing where your research questions and responsibilities begin and end avoids unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding, allowing effective focus and collaboration and good results. Remember, effective planning includes considering compliance requirements, such as the need for human or animal ethics approvals and ensuring everyone who should be is named on and understands the approved protocols.
2. Data management
Does your team have a good data management plan? Do you? Everyone should know where the project data is to be stored, should be following an agreed data management plan, and should understand their responsibility to upload and curate their data in accordance with that data management plan. Everyone in the team should understand the degree of confidentiality expected to be maintained around the data and must respect that and not share the data or any results unless appropriate to do so and only with appropriate agreements in place. The team should regularly discuss any challenges or difficulties that arise relating to the data collected. When a team member leaves a project to take up a new role in a new institution, for example, it is essential they seek permission from their current institution and team before taking any data with them, should only do so if permission is granted, and should only use the data in a way allowed by the data transfer agreement.
3. Declare and manage conflicts of interest (COI)
It is very normal for COI to arise in the context of research. Having a COI is not wrong but failing to declare and manage a COI is and can be the cause of serious breaches of responsible research conduct and can cause considerable resentment between individuals or within teams. Research teams should develop an honest and open culture enabling and supporting possible COI to be raised and should support institutional processes to declare and manage those COI. Team members must be supported to be truthful in declaring any conflicts of interest and then in managing these in relation to their role in the research and in accordance with their institutional processes. Normalising honest communication and discussion removes the perception, potential, or actual risk that someone may benefit inappropriately from a COI.
One of the most common and sadly damaging disputes which can arise within a research team can be over authorship. Who should be an author on a paper? Who should be acknowledged? What happens when a team member moves on to a new institution? Do they lose their right to be an author on work they have contributed to? What about when a new member joins a team? Discussing the development of research papers openly and regularly, recording what was agreed, and updating the agreement when an aspect changes significantly increases the likelihood of harmonious, timely, and appropriate authorship practices within a group and reduces the likelihood of destructive disputes.
5. Raise questions and concerns respectfully
Every member of a research team has a responsibility to actively support and practice the good conduct of research and to ensure open and respectful communication can occur within their team. It is so much better to make sure team members are informed of changes, are welcome to raise any concerns or clarify uncertainties as soon as possible and in a way that is appropriate and considerate. Open communication reduces misunderstanding, engenders trust and respect, and creates a confident and harmonious team.
Clear communication about team goals, processes to support those goals, and ensuring all members of a team understand how their role and project fit within the wider research team helps significantly to create an effective and positive research environment, preventing the misunderstanding that can cause disharmony, or even worse, within a team. Communication should be led from the top. However, everyone who is part of a research team has individual responsibility to make sure they understand their own role and how they should contribute to a harmonious, supportive, and productive research group. Ensuring you or your team members are educated about these, and other, key areas of research responsibility will build a team culture that is open, supportive, functional, and actively demonstrates research integrity in day-to-day conduct.
Find out how our Research Integrity 2.0 course can provide comprehensive, institution-wide research integrity, which is aligned to the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, 2018. Research Integrity 2.0 identifies the principles and responsibilities required of every researcher throughout the research process, from planning through to publication, providing practical guidance on dealing with complex issues.