How researchers can promote research integrity: Perspective from a Voice of Young Science member

I remember the reaction that meeting someone with ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’ before their name provoked in my grandparents. It was a kind of reverence – the word of the doctor or professor was implicitly trusted. The title alone was enough to elevate this person beyond scrutiny. They had already proven themselves as a paragon of integrity.

The truth is that researchers are, and have always been, humans: humans operating under great pressure in an increasingly competitive world; humans who make mistakes.

In this age of information proliferation, where it is increasingly difficult to get to grips with the reliability of claims, it is more important than ever that we researchers know that information we publish or promote is trustworthy. The theme of “Research Integrity: Creating and supporting trust in research” for Peer Review Week 2022 is well-chosen, for integrity is the most important asset researchers can cultivate to overcome the spread of poor quality or misleading information.

While peer review is essential in helping us to maintain high standards, the process of establishing integrity begins long before any article is drafted. The process begins right at the beginning of our project planning stage, through ethics approval, data collection, and finally into analysing and reporting results.

Lack of integrity damages trust in science

I am undertaking a PhD in collaboration with the Centre for Educational Neuroscience in London, but my background is in psychology. I am therefore all too aware of the damage that lack of integrity can cause, both to an individual scientist’s reputation, and to the field. One notorious example is the Eysenck affair, in which dozens of papers by the late psychologist Hans Eysenck have been retracted following misconduct allegations, but there are many more examples of retractions due to issues of integrity, such as lack of ethics approval or results falsification. Apparent widespread corruption prompts articles with headlines like “Never trust a scientist.

We must put the lens to our own practices

One unexpected thing I have learned during my doctorate is how emotional the process of conducting research can be. So much depends on our findings, especially as a researcher without an established presence. In addition, the research publishing landscape is changing under our feet. The growing use of pre-prints, for example, has great potential for promoting dissemination of findings, but the role played by pre-prints in fueling Covid-19 misinformation highlights the careful balance that must be struck between speed of publication and rigorous evaluation of claims.

To combat the spread of misleading information, we must take responsibility for the quality of our work from start to finish. Researchers primarily using quantitative methods may benefit from adopting the methods of reflexivity that are so integral to qualitative research, cultivating an awareness of the researcher’s role in driving the research and the assumptions underpinning our methods. We must put the lens to our own practices, holding ourselves accountable as well as holding others accountable through the peer review process.

Research integrity and peer review

Early career researchers (ECRs), especially those like me in the very early stages who may not have published yet, can find it intimidating to engage with peer review. After all, we are at the bottom of a long ladder of people with more extensive expertise than us. Peer review may be a new researcher’s first foray into interacting with the wider research community.

While we may feel unprepared, the task of peer review often falls to the ECR. Therefore, ECRs need to feel confident, to ensure that standards of scholarly communication remain high. Good-quality peer review begins with cultivating a solid understanding of what good-quality research looks like. This understanding can also be applied to your own research.

What can I do as an ECR?

Earlier this summer, as a member of Sense about Science’s Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network, I attended a practical workshop on Quality and Peer Review at the University of Cambridge which equipped ECRs to get involved in peer review. Here are some tips and resources for promoting research integrity which I took from that afternoon, and from my further involvement with VoYS:

  • Not just a box-ticking exercise: Ethics approval is built to benefit and protect you and your participants, not to stand in your way. Engage with the ethics process meaningfully by giving careful thought to the ethical implications of your studies and outlining them frankly in your applications.
  • Transparent from start to finish: Pre-registration, making data publicly available, and clearly communicating your analyses and results are all ways to improve the trustworthiness of your findings. Initiatives such as Sense about Science’s AllTrials campaign are increasing transparency in clinical trials in the interests of patients, but smaller-scale research projects can also reap the benefits of increased confidence by following the same practices.
  • Put your methods under the microscope: Reflexivity is important even when working with quantitative data. Our findings are the products of many small decisions made along the way, and keeping track of what decisions were made and why is important. Sense about Science produced the world’s first public guide to data science, promoting scrutiny of models and the data underpinning them. Consider where data has come from, the assumptions driving your method, and whether claims can bear the weight we put on them. These three questions can easily be generalised to most studies, and you can apply them when peer reviewing, too.
  • Responsible communication: While we all want our work to attract attention, over-hyping or presenting findings in a misleading way helps no one and damages trust. The release of pre-prints provides opportunity for scrutiny, not publicity.

News about fraud in our respective fields must not be rendered mundane. To build and maintain public trust in research, we must hold ourselves accountable, as we hold our colleagues accountable during the peer review process.

Attribution: This post was written by Astrid Bowen, PhD student at Birkbeck University of London

About the author: Astrid Bowen is a second-year PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, and a Voice of Young Science member. Her doctoral research project is an evaluation of Project HE:RO, a holistic child-centred educational intervention for primary school children, in collaboration with the Centre for Educational Neuroscience and Evolve, a social impact company. You can find her on Twitter @aejbowen

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