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Incentives in research: self-awareness and sobering reading

Jun
11
2020

Ian L Boyd, Chair, UKRIO

There is a telling quotation at the beginning of the recently published report Research Integrity: A Landscape study. It is “I think the main thing to tackle would be the incentive structure, in terms of publishing, funding, promotion, etc. But ultimately the responsibility lies with the people conducting the research.”  The report makes sobering reading.

For example, in a sample of over 1,500 researchers almost 60% of researchers believe that others are tempted to game the system in ways which could be seen as ethically questionable, while only 6% believe this issue does not exist. This is against a background where researchers know there is an almost one-to-one relationship between personal integrity and research integrity, and that the vast majority of researchers are aware of what they have to do to sustain a high level of research integrity.

By and large researchers attract high levels of trust in the minds of the public. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the importance of not squandering such trust, given the role that researchers and research have in responding to this crisis. The research community must regularly reflect on how best to ensure that research is honest, rigorous, transparent and accountable.

It is a very positive sign that the research community is sufficiently self-aware that it has started the process of investigating how it can improve trust through the very detailed self-examination represented by this study, which was undertaken before the pandemic. It is not a report from government or regulators. Rather, it is a report stimulated by concern that public trust in research is very special and needs to be cherished without compromise or favour.

There is risk in this, however. For many people, the idea that some research cannot be trusted will be very worrying. It could be used by zealots who generate belief-based narratives to undermine the huge contribution which research has made to the health and welfare of people, and is in the process of trying to emulate for the planet. The scholarship associated with research has been central to both cultural and technological transformations throughout history. Winning the argument against regressive minorities will only happen if research places itself on the plinth of integrity.

The report presents a competition of ideas especially on the more than 80 different types of incentive which can affect research integrity, and in the true spirit of research there will be a never-ending search for the meaning of integrity in research. It contains many messages about what might be done to improve research integrity and, with this, the trust in research outputs. For example, constructing incentives appropriately comes out very strongly and much can be done to improve these by employers and funders. The fact that this process has begun is good news. It is becoming hard-wired into institutional structures which have signed up to The Concordat to Support Research Integrity, explicitly promoting honesty, rigour, transparency, accountability and care and respect.

This could be a powerful process, addressing not only research integrity but also worrying trends in research culture as highlighted recently in a report from The Wellcome Trust. It is for researchers themselves to dig deep and to ensure their own house is in order. As Jean-Paul Sartre said “Man is condemned to be free … he is responsible for everything he does”. Researchers know very well where the boundaries of integrity lie and they need to apply them.

 

Professor Sir Ian Boyd FRSB FRSE, Chair, UK Research Integrity Office; former Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

 

UKRIO will be hosting a webinar in July discussing Research Integrity: a landscape study, with speakers from UKRI, Vitae and other organisations. To register for a place at this free event, go to https://www.tickettailor.com/events/ukresearchintegrityofficeukrio/378683

Research Integrity: A Landscape study was published 11 June 2020. Carried out by Vitae in partnership with UKRIO and the UKRN and commissioned by Research England, on behalf of UKRI, the ensemble project shines a spotlight on the effects of the drivers and motivators in the research system on researcher behaviour in the context of research integrity. Such a report works towards supporting the research community in achieving high standards of research ethics in the UK. To read the report click on the link: https://www.ukri.org/about-us/policies-and-standards/research-integrity/.

 

 

 

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