23 Jul 2021
Aspects of the culture of research in UK higher education institutions (HEIs) can encourage poor research practices and hinder the production of high quality science, according to scientists who took part in a project exploring the ethical consequences of the culture of research led by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The findings of the project, which included a survey of almost 1000 scientists and others, suggest that scientists are motivated in their work to find out more about the world and benefit society, and that they believe collaboration, multidisciplinarity, openness and creativity are important for the production of high quality science. However, in some cases, the findings suggest, the culture of research in HEIs does not support or encourage these goals or activities. For example, high levels of competition and perceptions about how scientists are assessed for jobs and funding are reportedly contributing to a loss of creativity in science, less collaboration and poor research practices, such as rushing to finish and publish research or employing less rigorous research methods. “We were struck that while almost all participants in this project shared similar concerns about the culture of research, they all felt that the problems were caused by matters out of their control or that they were someone else’s responsibility,” says Professor Ottoline Leyser, Chair of the Steering Group for the project, Deputy Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and Professor of Plant Development at the University of Cambridge. “We strongly believe that all those who play a role in the research system – including funders, research institutions, publishers and editors, researchers and professional bodies – have a collective obligation to ensure the culture of research supports good practice and the production of high quality science.” “There seem to be widespread misperceptions or mistrust among researchers about the policies and practices of those responsible for research quality assessment,” said Professor Leyser. “For example, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) was felt to be a key driver of the pressure to publish in specific journals with high impact factors, despite the fact that REF panels were instructed not to use journal impact factors to assess research quality.” The Steering Group for the project included members of staff from the Royal Society, Academy of Medical Sciences, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Biology. The findings of the project include:
- High levels of competition for jobs and funding in scientific research are believed both to bring out the best in people and to create incentives for poor quality research practices, less collaboration and headline chasing.
- The pressure felt by scientists to publish in high impact factor journals is believed to be resulting in important research not being published, disincentives for multidisciplinary research, authorship issues, and a lack of recognition for non-article research outputs.
- 58% of the survey respondents are aware of scientists feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards. 26% of respondents have themselves felt tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards. Evidence was not collected on any behaviour associated with these findings.
- 61% of the survey respondents think that the move towards open access publishing is having a positive or very positive effect overall on scientists in terms of encouraging the production of high quality research.
- Funders: ensure funding opportunities, strategies and policies, and information about past funding decisions, are communicated clearly to institutions and researchers.
- Research institutions: cultivate an environment in which ethics is seen as a positive and integral part of research; and provide mentoring and career advice to researchers throughout their careers.
- Publishers and editors: consider further the role of publishers in tackling ethical issues in publishing and in promoting openness and data sharing among scientists.
- Researchers: when assessing the track record of fellow researchers, for example as a grant reviewer or appointments panel member, use a broad range of criteria without undue reliance on journal impact factors.
- Learned societies and professional bodies: promote widely the importance of ensuring the culture of research supports good research practice and the production of high quality science.