Integrity in research

EMCR Forum

Emma Beckett

EMCRs have a role to play in improving research integrity.

In 2019 I had the opportunity to attend two workshops on research integrity, one run by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the other a Nature Journal Group initiative. It was an honour to be one of the voices representing the EMCR perspective in two rooms mostly filled with DVCs, PVCs, and policy people.

The scope of research integrity discussed was much broader than just fraudulent, unethical or dishonest research. It included sloppy analysis, reproducibility issues, poor record-keeping, and research waste. NHMRC at the funding and oversight end, and Nature Journals Group and the publishing end, both expressed keenness to address these issues in the Australian research environment.

Issues of training, funding and oversight were raised, all validly. I reminded the higher-ups, and they listened, that EMCRs are particularly vulnerable to research integrity issues. Not because we lack integrity, but because of the nature of our roles and positions. Our workforce is highly mobile, often working on short contracts, which means we are often receiving projects from other highly mobile predecessors, or we are leaving projects for others when we transition to new roles or workplaces. This means work is easily lost, records misplaced or miscommunicated. We are often also the bottom of the food chain, and therefore a good scapegoat when issues of integrity are uncovered.

EMCRs are particularly vulnerable to research integrity issues.

We EMCRs are also in the early stages of our careers. This means we need good supervision and good role modelling. Even our scientific minds can be misled by incorrect, lazy, or unethical role-modelling. And the power dynamic means that even when we consciously identify these issues, it is hard to call it out.

Obviously, ensuring high quality, high integrity research is important, but encouraging and enforcing it is difficult in a research world that values fast, novel, exciting findings and does not fund, or readily publish reproducibility studies. Both bodies acknowledged their role in improving this situation. We called for a reassessment of how we assess the track-records of EMCRs, to give more weight to the less sexy, but integrity-reinforcing studies. Research institutions also acknowledged the importance of independent, real (not box-ticking) training to empower EMCRs, and the need for additional checks and systems around project handovers.

The problem is large but on the radar. I encourage all EMCRs to speak up, ask questions and keep working to be the change we want to see in the research world.

© 2021 Australian Academy of Science