Cultures of research within a small specialist institution: cultivating cultures of doing​

Professor Maria-Delgado, Vice Principal (Research and Knowledge Exchange) of The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London

[15 min read]

Cultures of research within a small specialist institution: cultivating cultures of doing​

Professor Maria Delgado, Vice Principal (Research and Knowledge Exchange) of The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London and member of the UK Committee on Research Integrity.

In this webinar, our expert speaker Prof. Maria Delgado shared some of the challenges and opportunities involved in nurturing a healthy research culture within a small specialist institution.

Maria believes that much of the guidance produced about research is fashioned with large multi-faculty institutions in mind. Maria discusses how monotechnics – single-subject institutions – can promote research practices with inclusivity, integrity, and accountability at the core. 

Her view draws on input from colleagues at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, known as Central, who are at different career stages and represent various kinds of lived experiences, in terms of their journey into higher education (HE).

This is an edited version of her webinar presentation, which is available on our YouTube channel.

UK research system 

I think one of the strengths of the UK research system is the fact that research takes place across multiple areas and sectors. Too often, it is assumed that research is centred in Russell Group institutions, but the landscape is more inclusive and complex than that, although institutions don’t always recognize their privilege.

The higher education institution (HEI) sector includes post-1992 institutions, research institutes, small specialist, or single-subject institutions (SSIs), like my own, but beyond HE research is conducted by industry bodies, companies, government, and independent research organizations. 

I would argue that much of the guidance that is produced in relation to research is fashioned with large, multi-faculty HEIs in mind, so it’s not easy for bodies who don’t fit that shape and size to always see what fostering excellence might look like, or how they adhere to sector guidance that might relegate their type of institution to a footnote.

A commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) involves recognizing the various kinds of institutions that make up our research ecology in the UK.

Research culture within a small specialist institution 

“Doing is the best way of saying” – José Martí 

My institution has submitted to research assessment exercises since 1996 and remains committed to an understanding of creative arts practice with research at the core.

However, people are often surprised that research is carried out within our conservatoire. 

We strive to conduct that research with due diligence and a consideration of what accountability means to those who undertake the research, to the institution, to the relationship to funders, and to those who publish or disseminate research.

Institutions like mine have a significant proportion of staff who have come from industry and work on professional practice and knowledge exchange, but don’t necessarily undertake research-led practice.

However, their work crucially feeds into and shapes the research environment, because we know that the relationship between knowledge exchange and impact is porous and that not all impact is necessarily research-led. 

At the monotechnic, we’ve attempted to promote research practices with inclusivity, integrity, and accountability at the core, where there has been a commitment to change from across the research base. 

My view draws on input from a number of my colleagues at Central, including the previous and the current chairs of our research ethics and integrity committee, a recent PhD graduate from Central who is now an early-career researcher (ECR) with responsibility for promoting integrity built into their workload allocation.

A former ECR who was with us for a three-year post-doctoral fellowship, who has now gone on to a permanent position at another London HEI, an ECR who had a post-doctoral position and has now joined us as a permanent member of staff, and a member of staff who did their PhD and postdocs at other institutions before joining us, and our head of research and knowledge exchange services.

Research environments are evolving entities; they’re shifting and changing as staff, PhD researchers, and professional services staff come and go and they evolve as new partnerships and collaborations are developed and this all moves research in different directions – evolution is key here.

The open research agenda, the increasing recognition of the importance of integrity to a robust and accountable research culture, and the heightened awareness of EDI are all having positive effects on how researchers and institutions think about the conduct of research.

I think the terminology needs rethinking so that those who work in those areas understand how and why issues of integrity, honesty, rigour, transparency and open communication, care, respect, and accountability are equally important to public engagement or the knowledge exchange work that they undertake.

I would say that accountability is about all of us at an institution: we all have a responsibility to be accountable to ourselves, to others, and to the work that we do.

The key here, I would argue, has been the focus on fostering a productive and transparent research environment working to implement changes that help this happen: for example, an ethics and integrity committee, which did not exist when I arrived at the institution in October 2015.

Introducing our own standalone committee has allowed for a more robust discussion of the relationship between ethics and integrity, embedded training across the research base, and also to those delivering teaching, where students may be undertaking research-led practice and projects.

It has also ensured membership from across the post-graduate research candidates as well as ECRs, mid-career researchers, more senior researchers, as well as practitioners, who are navigating ethical and integrity in their practice.

We also have a lay member of the committee with expertise from the charity sector and the commissioning of research, which has been hugely important.

We’ve tried to ensure that training happens through both formal and informal mentoring in terms of opening up access to leaders in the field who have navigated thorny issues and questions, but also training for the whole committee.

An ownership of the process has been critical. With a scale of 80 to 90 academic members of staff, information can circulate and filter through the institution, perhaps a more easily than in a larger institution.

Once a year, we have a session for all staff on developments in ethics and integrity, so discussions about integrity have become part of the fabric of what we do.

The chair of the ethics and integrity committee sits on our sabbatical and awards committee, research committee, as well as the academic board.

Intersections and interactions

According to the former chair of our ethics and integrity committee, “the ethics work brought up ethics as part of the conversation and that made for better, more ethically engaged, work.

At the root of ethics is care, and that made for a more careful ethics culture, the development of ethics processes that connected to sector practice and where there was an opportunity to shape ethics in a way that better suited the art forms in which we work, i.e., not a system that was predicated on science or sociological foundations”. 

I would argue that the committee’s work has impacted on all areas of the institution and how researchers think about and navigate power, privilege, responsibility, and accountability within Central, but also beyond.

How do you ask a question at a conference? Are you gatekeeping? Are you intervening when you witness unethical or problematic behaviour? Care and respect are fundamental to how we treat each other.

We introduced an expectations document this year, to help researchers understand what’s expected of them, but also to ensure that those in leadership positions lay out transparently how they will endeavour to support and foster a healthy and inclusive research environment.

Integrity is about recognizing our responsibilities, whether we’re institutional leaders, funders, researchers, or professional services staff. 

Embedding integrity into an ECR’s workload 

The decision we made to build an integrity role into an ECR’s workload has had, I would argue, far-reaching implications. It has offered the person concerned what they’ve identified as “key insights into local and national conversations around ethics and integrity.

My role working on ethics also means I’m constantly learning and developing my own ethical practice, gaining a wider understanding of ethics in research more generally and it allows me to highlight the needs of ECRs”. 

Colleagues repeatedly referred to the difference that distributed leadership has made in the institution, with staff holding delegated responsibility for particular areas that avoids a single point of success or failure, and fosters working relationships that have brought ECRs and more senior researchers together on a regular basis.

They now note that they’re part of committees in their new HEI where they’re able to draw on this experience in understanding how the reviewing of projects and ethics materials fits into an institutional context.

The issue of training emerges throughout the discussions with those who have shared their views with me.

Fostering awareness, learning about best practice, sharing thoughts, discussing possible options and training, “involves opening up research meetings, PhD supervisor meetings, as well as committee meetings as training moments as well as business,” the previous chair of our ethics and integrity committee observes. 

One ECR notes it has improved their ability to think about their role and agency within a wider environment. Researchers don’t always know about Concordats or feel that they have the time to read them – let’s face it, there’s a lot of them and they overlap and duplicate information.

I would question if they have been read by neurodivergent researchers before they go into the public domain, but that’s perhaps a different conversation. 

A further issue identified by those I spoke to is that of ensuring there’s time built into the workload allocation for research, the management of research, and the activities that shape research in the institution and the wider discipline.

Mistakes are more likely to be made when research is undertaken in a rushed or hurried manner. 

Having transparent internal funding streams for research and a clear transparent sabbatical process with guidance and criteria written in plain English and checked by neurodivergent researchers have been key within my institution, helping to build a more inclusive research culture with a greater sense of accountability.

It’s also helped to build morale and offer the time needed to apply for external funding. 

Considering neurodivergence 

At Central, about 24 of our researchers are neurodivergent. I’ve worked very closely with our neuro-inclusion and disability service unit to ensure that we have reasonable adjustment with support that takes different shapes and forms depending on the needs and requests of the researcher. 

According to the current chair of our research, ethics, and integrity committee, it has helped with “levelling the playing field between researchers, support in the form of proofreading and copy editing was useful, but the weekly support sessions from a trained specialist have proved to be invaluable.

Since receiving this support five years ago, I have published a monograph, a co-edited book, two journal articles and seven book chapters, have become the co-editor of a leading journal, and submitted one HRC grant application. Without this support, in the previous three years I wrote one journal article.”

She identifies this “as a nuanced response to individual researchers and their needs and circumstances, that understands that a diverse research team has different requirements and adjustments, the genuine understanding that research incorporates a variety of styles and approaches.”

Supporting researchers in ways that recognize their needs is a matter of integrity and institutional accountability. 

Challenges of creating an accountable research environment

We live in a world where the performance of punishment can be brutal and also where the drive to achieve success (whatever that might constitute), can lead to problematic practices. 

Research is slow. It’s slow for me, it takes time, and it might be because I came to English as a second language, it’s an acquired language for me. I’ve had to learn to navigate that language.

The effects of COVID on our research culture are still being felt and they’ve affected certain researchers disproportionately: those with caring responsibilities, those navigating health conditions, for example. 

Research shouldn’t be about quantity, and it isn’t a competition. It’s important to shift the discourse to an understanding that sometimes research experiments fail, arguments don’t come together the way we may wish, and we get things wrong.

However, we learn from this, and we share the lessons learned with others.

Acknowledging those failures and dealing with those failures has to be part of a healthy research culture. Research can’t be side-lined and put into a box in the corner: its key services, process, and systems and those responsible for them, have a duty to recognize the needs of researchers.

What do we do when things go wrong?

Firstly, we need to be willing to have difficult conversations and intervene. Sometimes, it’s not easy to address poor practices when we see them or when they’re brought to our attention and not easy to have difficult conversations and follow up those actions, which are very often necessary.

Sometimes we need to bring in external assistance to help us with the management of perceived conflicts of interest or possible infringements. It is especially important in small institutions to handle honest errors and minor infractions through mentoring, training, and guidance. Acting in a timely manner to investigate allegations of misconduct is key. 

It’s worth acknowledging that putting together a screening panel and an investigation panel isn’t always easy in a single-subject institution with a pool of 35 rather than 3,000 researchers and conflicts of interest that need managing across all levels.

The named contact for allegations of misconduct may have four other responsibilities within a small specialist institution and a panel may need to be put together entirely from externals – where do you go for help with this?

It’s often informal networks of pro-vice chancellors or directors of research in small specialist institutions that can assist with this.

Could investigations be outsourced to HEIs of a particular size and scale? Could there be a database of citizens to help with investigations held by each HEI’s named person?

What support exists for those managing the investigations if privacy and confidentiality are compromised and material circulates in the public domain? They’re issues that need to be considered.

Promoting good research practice

Opting for a one-size-fits-all approach feels limiting and problematic, but we need to recognize that a commitment to the principles outlined in the Concordat to Support Research Integrity need to be part of our research culture, whatever our shape or size and recognize how we implement them may depend on a series of factors.

If we do not recognize and acknowledge the needs of all our researchers and work to address these, can we be surprised if they falter?

According to those I spoke to:

  • There should be persistence and a clarity of direction from those in leadership positions; 
  • It is crucial to ensure that positive behaviour is acknowledged and recognised – so often we focus on the negative, we don’t celebrate and highlight the positive; 
  • Space and time should be provided for listening and for offering support; 
  • We need distributed leadership that acknowledges and rewards responsibility; 
  • Researchers’ needs must be addressed; 
  • Research services staff should provide support and challenge when needed; 
  • Guidance should be inclusive.

One ECR notes “the work to create a research culture at Central involves understanding the diverse needs of researchers from a range of backgrounds and disciplines and responding to those needs while holding researchers accountable to wider processes.

This is reflected in the wider national conversation, where a national research culture is only effective when it is sensitive to the needs of the diverse research topics, methods, and structures across the research sector in the UK and particularly those of small specialist institutions.

We can’t build research cultures on the highest common denominator, and I hope a national picture can learn from some of the in-depth work being done here and at other SSIs.”