UKRI Chief Executive introduces Research integrity: a landscape study

UKRI Chief Executive introduces Research integrity: a landscape study

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive, UK Research and Innovation, introduces 'Research integrity: a landscape study' and emphasises the opportunity for all stakeholders in ensuring positive incentives for maintaining integrity. 

Research integrity means undertaking and conducting research in a way that ensures it is trustworthy and ethical. It also encompasses a set of professional standards that researchers should adopt and that research organisations should promote and support to ensure this. Research integrity is central to our vision at UK Research and Innovation and cuts across all we do as a research organisation, funder and partner. As a signatory of the UUK Concordat to Support Research Integrity, we are committed to upholding the core values of honesty, rigour, transparency, care and respect, and accountability.

In January 2017, the Science and Technology Select Committee (Commons) launched an inquiry into research integrity. Following collection of both written and oral evidence, the Committee published its final report in July 2018. The Committee’s report highlighted that there is a need to better understand what incentives and effects there are in the UK research and funding system that influence researcher and institutional behaviour in the context of research integrity. The report asked that UKRI commission research to understand the effects of these incentives.

Vitae, working with UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) and the UK Reproducibility Network (UKRN), were commissioned by UKRI to conduct a study into the effects of incentives in the research system on researcher behaviour. The study, overseen by an expert advisory group, was conducted through an extensive literature review, a survey, researcher workshops and interviews, collectively reaching over 1500 researchers and representatives of stakeholder organisations. This report synthesises the findings of these activities.

The study has found that the relationship between research incentives and research integrity is a complex one. The interconnectedness of the research ecosystem – from an individual and local cultural level through to national and international policies – creates incentives and effects (both positive and negative) that have the potential to influence behaviour in the context of research integrity.

It is assuring to hear that, of those surveyed, all researchers reported that they are motivated towards high levels of research integrity. The importance of local culture to drive forward positive incentives for research integrity is crucial. Good leadership and management, professional development, sharing research, and the opportunity to collaborate and work with colleagues from other disciplines are all considered to have strong positive impact on research integrity. At UKRI, we have already adopted practices that lead to high standards of research integrity. For example, one of our aims is to make sure that the findings of research we support can be freely accessed and widely reused in ways that can provide opportunities for economic, social, and cultural impact. Certainly, open research and open data sharing have proven to be crucial in accelerating scientific progress and sharing knowledge. Our commitment to open research will be strengthened as we continue to work and listen to our stakeholders in the development of the new UKRI Open Access policy.

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The importance of interdisciplinary working, and intersectoral and international collaborations and the positive impact on research integrity should not be overlooked. Almost 8 in 10 researchers agree that undertaking interdisciplinary research drives them to achieve high levels of research integrity: opportunities to collaborate across different research contexts, and the exposure to other disciplinary norms is believed to have a positive influence. UKRI’s unique position – that is, one that encourages and facilitates its nine constituent bodies to work together – means that we can build upon the strength, breadth, and diversity of UK research and encourage this approach to interdisciplinary working.

Vitae’s study has found that there is a tension between researchers’ strong sense of personal values to uphold research integrity and systemic pressures that risk undermining these values. Poorly designed and inappropriate research metrics and the use of university league tables have the potential to create a strong negative impact on research integrity. High workloads and precarious working conditions all contribute to perverse incentives that risk compromising research integrity.

An important and concerning finding is that incidents of bullying and harassment are cited as the top factor negatively impacting research integrity. UKRI is working with other funders and partners through a new funders’ forum to join up our approaches to tackling these issues. Last year we published our bullying and harassment position statement which set out our intention to focus on strategies for prevention and improving reporting and resolution of incidents. We will continue to support research organisations to meet our expectations by improving evidence and resources on what works, recognising the role of local environments as well as national policies. More needs to be done to build trustworthiness into the research system at every step in the research lifecycle, with the aim of fostering a culture of continuous improvement, rather than blame. Over 80% of researchers agree that their immediate research environment drives them to achieve high levels of research integrity, highlighting the importance of local culture, management, and support from peers.

We know there is more than can be done to support research integrity and we are committed to catalysing the changes that are needed. The Research integrity Committee, a new arms-length body with a remit to adopt a leadership role in this area, will commence work later in the year. This report will no doubt provide a starting point for their work.

This research integrity study was conducted before the Covid-19 crisis. Yet, the importance of research to the management of this crisis emphasises that the need to uphold strong standards of research integrity is of overwhelming importance. There is a significant opportunity for all involved in the UK research system, from funders to publishers, and research organisations to learned societies, to ensure that positive incentives for maintaining this integrity are upheld, and that systemic pressures and perverse incentives are addressed.

Download Research integrity: a landscape study 

See UKRI website for additional research integrity initiatives and information 

Register for a webinar with the report authors and UKRI on Wednesday 8 July