The Times Higher Education commented as follows:
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.
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.
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.
Major findings of the report include:
Concerns about the culture of scientific research
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.
Funding of research
There are concerns about a loss of creativity and innovation in science caused by perceived funding shortages, strategically-directed funding calls, short-term funding, and trends towards funding of safer research projects and established research centres. However, support for multidisciplinary and collaborative work was praised.
Assessment of research
The perception that publishing in high impact factor journals is the most important element in assessments for funding, jobs and promotions is creating a strong pressure on scientists to publish in these journals. This 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. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is thought to be a key driver of the pressure to publish in high impact journals, with many unaware or untrusting of the instructions given to REF assessment panels not to make any use of journal impact factors in assessing the quality of research outputs.
Attempts to assess the societal and/or economic impact of research are welcomed by some, but others believe this is creating a culture of short-termism and is pushing aside interest in curiosity-driven research, as well as resulting in researchers exaggerating the potential application of research in grant proposals. It was suggested that research organisations should better recognise the wider activities of researchers, such as mentoring, teaching, peer review and public engagement.
Peer review is thought to be having a positive effect on science but concerns were raised about unconstructive reviewer comments and shortages of peer reviewers. The importance of peer reviewers being given training, time and recognition for their work was emphasised.
Fifty-eight per cent of survey respondents are aware of scientists feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards, although evidence was not collected on any outcomes associated with this. Suggested causes include high levels of competition in science and the pressure to publish. Training in good research practice is thought to be important in creating conditions that support ethical research conduct.
Career progression and workload
Features of researcher careers, including high competition for jobs and funding and heavy workloads, are thought to be resulting in a loss of creativity and innovation in science. Suggestions for improvements include: fair and consistent recruitment processes, better provision of mentoring and career advice, tackling negative attitudes towards those who leave academic science, and good employment practices for women.
The timing of the publication is noteworthy. In two weeks the results of the REF will be published which could have existential consequences for academic units perceived as 'under-performing'.
The publication also coincides with news about the bullying and apparent suicide of a researcher at Imperial College, London (see reports here and here). Maybe these are signs that the research community in the UK is increasing its efforts at publicly discussing their problematic institutional environment.