Competition tests researchers’ ethics, council finds

Work by Nuffield Council on Bioethics reveals pressure on researchers to compromise on integrity and mistrust of the REF

December 4, 2014

More than a quarter of scientists have felt tempted or under pressure to compromise the integrity of their research, according to a report on the ethics culture at universities.

The report, published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on 3 December, found that some aspects of research culture at institutions can encourage poor practice and affect the quality of scientific output.

It also revealed widespread mistrust among scientists of research assessment policies.

The council held 15 discussion events at universities nationwide to explore the ethical consequences of the research culture in higher education. It also met with research funders, publishers and editors, and social scientists, and analysed the results of an online survey that attracted 970 responses.

Its report, The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK, describes how high levels of competition for funding and preconceptions about promotion criteria at universities can undermine openness and quality in research.

Competition in science is a “double-edged sword” that has both positive and negative consequences, according to the report.

Many scientists believe that intense competition can spur people to give their best and thus speed the rate of scientific advances. But 30 per cent say that it can lead to poor research practices such as rushing to publish research, using less rigorous methods and corner-cutting, while 26 per cent admit to feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise their research integrity.

About 13 per cent say that competition could discourage data and method sharing. Meanwhile, 16 per cent say that “headline-chasing” has become more prominent and that those who shout loudest have the best chances of winning funds or promotions. This can lead to “selfish behaviour” and may disadvantage those who do not act like this, the report says.

Hugh Whittall, director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said that almost everyone questioned felt that the problems were caused by matters outside their control or were someone else’s responsibility.

When it came to the assessment of research, just 25 per cent said that they thought the research excellence framework had a positive effect on science, whereas 40 per cent said that it had a negative effect.

Mr Whittall highlighted “widespread misperceptions or mistrust” about the REF among scientists.

“[The] REF is thought to be a key driver of the pressure on researchers to publish in high-impact journals, with many unaware or untrusting of the instructions given to REF panels not to make any use of journal impact factors in assessing the quality of research outputs,” he said.

“There needs to be better two-way communication between funders and scientists,” he added.

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said: “We can’t be complacent about maintaining the relationship between science and society, which is based on trust in science and scientists.”

He added: “The culture of research must support the production of good science – science that is open, honest and reliable.”

The report calls for universities to create an environment in which ethics are a positive and integral part of research by ensuring that “researchers, particularly early career researchers, have a thorough grounding in research ethics and access to information and training throughout their careers”.

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