By Dr Laura Bellingan FSB, Director of Science Policy at the Society of Biology
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics have published the report of a project that explored the wide range of influences that act upon science researchers and affect their practice.
For researchers, the expectations that they place upon themselves and feel are applied by others; the working practices that they develop or learn; the opportunities or limitations defined by their available funding and career structure, are among a wide range of influences that make up the environment in which they work. Influences and experiences also help to mould the overall culture for research and in turn the research that is carried out and how it is recorded and used.
Given the importance of science to so many spheres it is vital that the culture for research is carefully observed and that all efforts are made to ensure that it develops to support the production of high quality science and an equitable researcher community.
The project focused particularly on gathering data, including comments and information from active researchers through a widely advertised online survey and a series of UK-wide meetings in research-active institutions. The participants were self-selecting and the majority of participants and discussion event hosts were university researchers and departments with a high proportion drawn from the biosciences. The largest group of participants could be well-described as bioscience post-doctoral researchers, making the findings of particular interest for the Society of Biology. Indeed the largest participant group by some margin described their focus as within the biosciences.
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 (including myself). Researchers emerged as having a clear view of the characteristics of high quality research as rigorous, accurate, original, honest, and transparent and that their main motivations are to improve their knowledge and understanding and to make scientific discoveries for the benefit of society.
Taking into account the limitations of the data, some important themes and ideas to be considered are believed to have emerged during the project, including:
- 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.
The report of the project concludes with suggestions for action for funding bodies, research institutions, publishers and editors, professional bodies and individual researchers. Key examples are:
- 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.
There was a significant section of concern about the influence of the Research Assessment Exercise, the tyranny of impact factors and of broad research metrics in general. There is as much danger in misapprehension about the use of metrics as in their misapplication and so high quality and well-targeted communication is vital from leaders who assert that these metrics are interesting but not the determining factor in their assessment of quality.
The Society will be responding to the challenges and themes raised by the project and we would be pleased to hear your views and suggestions.