UKRI sorry for pursuing Researchfish Twitter complaints

Funder admits it contacted universities over critical tweets relating to impact platform but did not factor this into grant-awarding decisions

April 19, 2022
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The UK’s main research funder has apologised to academics after admitting that it contacted the employers of individuals who had made critical comments online about the impact tracking platform Researchfish.

In a message posted on 19 April, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which distributes about £8 billion annually, confirmed that it had either contacted individuals directly or their employers on three occasions in the past four years over comments directed at Researchfish, a service used by several major grant-making organisations.

In two cases, the individuals deleted their tweets, and in the third, no response was received and no further action was taken, UKRI said.

A total of six incidents of tweets have been flagged to UKRI since 2018, but UKRI took no action in three of the cases, and none was used in connection with any other processes in UKRI.

In a blog – subtitled “We were wrong” – UKRI says it wanted to “apologise for our approach and actions on this issue, and the concern this has caused”.

“We believe that all staff have the right to work free from abuse, bullying or threat,” it says, adding: “We recognise the right of people to criticise an organisation or system without fear of reprisal.”

The contrite statement follows severe criticism last month after researchers accused Researchfish – which began as a Medical Research Council project in 2008 and joined the higher education-focused software company Interfolio in 2019 – 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 to apologise for what they had said.

Several researchers publicly requested details of how their complaints had been handled, with some fearing that they might have been blacklisted by funders in light of their critical tweets.

“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,” said Amy Mason, a research associate in the University of Cambridge’s School of Clinical Medicine.

Researchers use Researchfish 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.

In a statement issued last month, Researchfish said it was “truly sorry” and understood “that we caused concerns among researchers”.

In its latest statement, UKRI adds: “We have stopped this approach with immediate effect and recognise that it was the wrong thing to do. We understand that this has raised questions around personal data. We take data protection very seriously. Our assessment of the data protection considerations is ongoing and is expected to be concluded shortly.”

The funding body explains that it had reacted “following some abusive tweets in 2018”, after which “UKRI and Researchfish staff discussed sharing abusive, threatening or offensive tweets so that UKRI could suggest the senders reconsider their language.

“This was intended to protect colleagues who were impacted by abuse. At no point was this ever intended, or used, to affect current or future grants from UKRI.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Oh dear. First ResearchFish then UKRI. Will be interesting to understand more about how Universities' HR teams have interacted with those responsible. I understand that UKRI are refusing to provide details of their communications with RF under an FOI request. I thought they claimed to be a transparent organisation? Why don't all funders cut ties with RF? (I don't actually understand what useful service they provide other than acting as a pointless and incredibly unpopular middle-man for reporting info that is largely already captured on eg ORCID)