UKRI promises action over ‘threatening’ Researchfish tweets

Platform responds to online criticism by telling researchers they would be reported to their funders

March 18, 2022
Bangkok, Thailand - July 14, 2019  iPhone user touching Twitter logo on iPhone screen to open the app.
Source: iStock

A research platform has been heavily criticised by academics after it threatened to report them to their funders for being critical online.

Researchfish, an impact tracking service used by several major grant-making organisations, has been accused of “bullying” because it has been using its Twitter account to respond to negative tweets in a “threatening” manner.

A stock reply posted multiple times recently by the company’s official account said: “We understand that you’re not keen on reporting on your funding through Researchfish but this seems quite harsh and inappropriate. We have shared our concerns with your funder.”

The tweets were sent in response to academics criticising the service, particularly its name. The stock reply prompted several users to delete their original tweets and apologise for what they had said.

UK Research and Innovation said it would be discussing the tweets with Researchfish “as a matter of urgency”. But many researchers have called the platform’s behaviour “completely unacceptable” and demanded an apology.

“This is a very silly response. If you don’t like being criticised, perhaps think about improving your platform, rather than trying to silence researchers with threats,” said Alex Walker, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford’s DataLab.

“This is not an OK way to interact with academics, many of whom you ask to do hours of additional labour compiling data for you,” added Amy Mason, a research associate in the University of Cambridge’s School of Clinical Medicine.

Founded in 2008, Researchfish is used by funders including the Wellcome Trust and UKRI’s councils, as well as dozens of universities.

Researchers use it to input data and track the impact of their research, but it has been criticised for demanding too much of academics’ time, and some users have reported difficulties with its interface.

Critics have also asked how the organisation was able to contact people’s funders as the tweet implies, with some claiming that it would be a breach of data protection rules to look up a person’s details on the company’s database based on information on their Twitter profile.

A UKRI spokesperson said: “We are aware of the concern that has been raised regarding tweets posted by Researchfish. We understand and acknowledge the serious issues raised by researchers, and we will be discussing these with Researchfish as a matter of urgency.”

The Wellcome Trust has also contacted the company to “discuss the matter”.

In a tweet posted late on 18 March, Researchfish “apologise[d]” for its “poor word choice” and said that it took the comments “seriously”.

“Please know we support your success [and] advancing investments in your research. However we adopt a zero tolerance policy towards abuse aimed at our company and staff, we will revisit policies [and] procedures.”

However, this response was criticised as being inadequate by many social media users, several of whom shared their own experience of having been reported to their funders over posts.

In a subsequent statement issued on 20 March, Researchfish said it was “truly sorry for how we responded to the negative posts last week and understand that we caused concerns among researchers”.

“We take full responsibility for how we responded and we are actively taking steps to revise procedures and improve communication with those across the research community,” the company said.

“Researchfish is dedicated to researcher success and the advancements they make to further society. Providing information through Researchfish – while sometimes time consuming – greatly helps the funding community’s ability to further invest in important, essential research.

“On behalf of the entire team, we remain committed to supporting the productive and impactful work of researchers. We will learn from our mistakes and be better. Again, we sincerely apologise.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Tallies with my experience- time consuming and pointless, and they do send agressive emails about 'compliance'.