Research integrity thrives in positive research cultures

A new report assessing the landscape for research integrity finds that research culture supports research integrity. Katie Wheat and Sarah Nalden explain.

The government’s research and development roadmap puts a welcome spotlight on the importance of a research culture that values people researchers, inventors, innovators, technicians, entrepreneurs and practitioners and attracts, retains and develops talent and diversity.

In their words “the Covid-19 pandemic has shown all of us the vital importance of science and innovation”, and we have shown in the recently published Research integrity: a landscape study that issues of research culture and research integrity are fundamentally intertwined.

Commissioned by UK Research and Innovation in response to a recommendation from the House of Commons Science and Technology committee in 2019, Research integrity: a landscape study highlights the pressing need to revamp research culture to help enhance the environment in which research integrity is maintained.

Positive culture feeds research integrity

Given the high standard that researchers work to it is reassuring to find that 94 per cent of researchers recognise the levels of integrity expected of them. Another positive note is that 73 per cent of researchers feel that their research is conducted with high levels of integrity most or all of the time.

Where researchers do not feel research integrity is at its highest, disincentives are influenced by many complex factors, including those stemming from institutional and local research cultures.

Close bonds formed, positive leadership styles and influential role models within research groups can often be powerful drivers for researchers to uphold high levels of research integrity, with group standards supporting high expectations. On the other hand, a local environment that includes bullying and harassment can result in short cuts and poor practices.

The pressure to publish also emerged as a significant disincentive in the study, with a key emphasis being expectations of volume and speed of producing such outputs and the associated quantitative measures of success. Other disincentives included insecure employment, experiencing and juggling high workloads and inappropriate use of league tables.

It’s encouraging to find that respondents considered collaborative working between and across environments and disciplines as a definite positive incentive for research integrity. Breaking down the walls of research project silos and becoming receptive to new ideas externally, as in, outside the local culture, can provide a useful opportunity to compare and benchmark against others and share and adopt best practices.

This style of working underpins the new research culture that we should be encouraging and further still, would be instrumental in fostering more openness of data sharing and open access publication within research. Clearly, improving research integrity and improving research culture go hand-in hand with each other, and one shouldn’t be considered without the other.

Never break the chain

While the majority of individual researchers agree that their own personal integrity drives their research integrity and feel accountable for maintaining integrity within their research, it is clearly not just researchers who should be responsible for upholding such standards on behalf of the research environment.

It’s easy to forget that integrity doesn’t just come into play at the point of a researcher conducting their research, but the principles of the Concordat to Support Research Integrity  – honesty, rigour, transparency and open communication, care and respect and accountability – remind us of the chain of stakeholders who can play a more definitive part in the shift to a more supportive research culture which maintains high levels of research integrity. Managers of researchers, researcher developers, institutions, funders, publishers, professional bodies and governmental policymakers, can all influence research culture.

The study suggests types of professional development that stakeholders could provide and engage with to help in their accountability of research integrity, and this includes leadership, research ethics, and statistical management. For researchers themselves, gaining more knowledge on managing open data was top of the wish list in terms of training. These suggestions are, of course, by no means exhaustive.

A culture of continuous improvement could help “cure” the cause of many of the symptoms highlighted in the report, and suggestions for a better research culture are gathering momentum in the sector, including the government’s own roadmap. But of course, such shifts won’t happen overnight and it will take time to adjust years of behaviour and beliefs to which many are accustomed and start to think and act from such a new cultural perspective.

A good place to start this cultural progression is for institutions, funders and managers of researchers to adopt the Principles of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. One of the strongest messages running through this document, revised last year, is on the need to build a healthy and supportive research culture.

In the current pandemic, what better time than now to strive for changes and fresh perspectives? Which is why the government’s consultation on their roadmap marks a significant opportunity for all perspectives to be heard and to shape the research culture we aspire to.

By seizing the opportunity to shift the research culture, globally and locally, to a more open, inclusive and collaborative nature, we can all contribute to a research environment in which the supportive culture is conducive to the highest levels of integrity being maintained and where budding research talent can develop and flourish.

On Wednesday 8 July the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) will host a free webinar on Research integrity: a landscape study and its implications, including presentations from Helen Munn, Interim Chair of the recently formed UKRI Research Integrity Committee and authors from Vitae and UK Reproducibility Network (UKRN).

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