Ensuring research integrity in uncertain times

Published On: 3 November 2021|

During the recent 2nd Higher Education Conference, three speakers talking to different aspects of ethical research allowed for a comprehensive perspective on engagement and research integrity. Professor Munck dealt with the ethical questions that arise conducting engaged research. Professor Barsdorf tackled the long tail of retracted research and the way that misinformation proliferates and Professor Burton dealt with the communication of research in a digital age.

Hailing from Dublin City University in Ireland, Professor Ronaldo Munck, Director of the Centre for Engaged Research has long standing connections with South Africa. As head of the Sociology Department at the University of Westville he was involved in social activism during that time. Presenting during the Research Integrity and the Engaged University session within USAf’s 2nd Higher Education Conference that concluded on 8 October, he contextualised his comments firmly within events beginning in 2008 with the recession, through the ongoing crisis of climate change and culminating in Covid-19. These events have plunged the world into “political chaos, marked by anxiety and fear,” he said.

This session was hosted by Universities South Africa’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG).

Quoting Hegel, Professor Munck (above) talks of the “global recoil” where all of the unquestioned aspects of daily life, like democracy, freedom of movement, economic growth, which were previously geopolitical rivals and allies, have been thrown into disarray. What does this mean for engaged research? For Professor Munck, these prevailing conditions have made engaged research more important than ever; especially when considering his idea of who constitutes the community – the local population, stakeholders, policy makers and civil society organisations.

Research with and not for community stakeholders

”Engaged research is advanced with these community stakeholders, not for them”. This community collaboration is key and it ensures that the researcher becomes reflexive: who am I doing this research for, who is included and excluded and what are the responsibilities of the researcher. This also gives rise to “phronetic” research which is research that focusses on values and power to inform practical knowledge rather than abstract knowledge.

This brings ethics into sharp focus and raises a range of considerations:

  • If you are researching a societal problem, are you consulting those stakeholders most affected?
  • Does your research tap into the expertise and knowledge of researchers and stakeholders?
  • Is everyone clear on their roles and responsibilities?
  • How will community members be recognised and acknowledged in the research outputs?
  • How will it positively impact on the specific societal challenge?

Converging paradigms

We are finding that different disciplines are coming together based on these ideas of engaged, ethical research. This has given rise to the popularity of responsible research innovation (RRI) which acknowledges that stakeholders — government, universities, donors, public, industry and researchers — often have competing interests. In Ireland, Campus Engage has been formed as a broad network of all the universities and technikons and they have put together an engaged research framework. This framework follows the research process from the generation of ideas through the project kick-off, data gathering and analysis through to project review and impact assessment.

The research framework also acknowledges that the creation of knowledge is a much more complex and messy process that involves many parties of interest.

The impact of CoViD-19 has driven universities to revaluate concepts that are now deeply problematised. Notions such as what is democracy now, how do we understand participation? What are the complex ideas that need to be unpacked when one talks about development and engagement? Perhaps the trickiest concept behind engagement is that it only becomes engaged research if you go out and do it. And learn while doing.

Ethical and zombie research

Professor Nicola Barsdorf (left) is the Research Integrity Officer at Stellenbosch University. Beginning with a working definition of research integrity as “active adherence to the ethical principles and professional standards essential for the responsible conduct of research (RCR)”, she said integrity matters because it highlights trust — trust in each other, in the research record and society’s trust in research evidence and expertise. In turn, trust is earned by being transparent and performing research that is relevant, ethically sound and of high quality. “Sloppy” and questionable research practices can undermine trust and distort the evidence base.

She referred to a recent article in Nature that dealt with a grossly irresponsible study claiming CoViD-19 vaccines kill. The study misused data by making the (incorrect) assumption that all deaths occurring post vaccination are caused by vaccination. 

It also concluded that “for three deaths prevented by [CoViD-19] vaccination, we have to accept two inflicted by vaccination”. “Garbage in, garbage out” — “has been used by anti-vaxxers and CoViD-19-deniers as evidence that CoViD-19 vaccines are not safe.”

Professor Barsdorf said historically, we’ve seen how questionable research practices can distort the evidence base and affect public opinion and buy-in for important public health interventions. Quoting the research of Andrew Wakefield’s Lancet article in 1998 which linked the MMR vaccine and autism, she said although discredited and stripped of his right to work as a medical researcher, Wakefield had again risen to prominence as a champion of the anti-vax movement. She then made reference to The Economist, which had recently noted the way that sloppy or zombie research stays for a disproportionate time in the system. “The problem with dubious research is that even in the cases that publications are retracted, they continue to be cited in the academic literature long after the retraction”. She stated that research findings are disseminated to accumulate evidence to:

  • inform decision-making and practice;
  • influence policy and government spending; and
  • determine future lines of research.

She said if dubious research distorts the integrity of the evidence base it can also misinform policy, government spending and the direction of future research, which can have huge consequences over time. Sadly, shady research is not uncommon. Based on two recent studies, 2-14% of researchers are guilty of research misconduct (false assumptions, findings and plagiarism), while 33-50% are guilty of questionable research practices — 1 in 3 scientists admits to using questionable research practices.

Explaining questionable research

There is a range of pressures that lead to questionable research. Culling information from four studies, Professor Barsdorf points to the following reasons:

  • Career and funding pressures.
  • Perverse incentives (pay per publication can encourage people to game the system to increase financial income).
  • Institutional failures of oversight.
  • Commercial conflicts of interest.
  • Salami slicing publications.
  • Poor mentoring and supervision (which is perhaps the most commonly found breech of ethical standards).
  • Individual psychology.
  • Part of a larger pattern of social deviance.
  • Perceived low probability of detecting misbehaviour.

The latter four refer to the “virtuousness of the individual” while the earlier ones depict the “research climate of the institution”. She fleshed out the concept of perverse incentives and remarked that while incentives matter, the unforeseen consequences of a focus on quantity not quality can lead to more plagiarism and duplicate publication; more salami slicing, gift authorship and the use of predatory journals; and less time-consuming responsible research practices. The limiting of these kinds of practices are down to the integrity of the researcher as well as the institution and the journal editors.

Good practice comes down to five determinants of research integrity within an engaged university:

  1. Invest adequately in research integrity capacity within the institution.
  2. Provide training in research ethics and research integrity.
  3. Ensure familiarity with research ethics and research integrity guidelines.
  4. Improve supervision of postgraduates towards the responsible conduct of research.
  5. Create a healthy publication climate which incentivises researchers to optimise quality and integrity rather than quantity.

In conclusion, Professor Barsdorf said failure to reclaim research integrity at all our institutions may contribute to the erosion of public trust in the academic project.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.