Where does research rigour and integrity stand today, in light of growing global research collaboration and pandemic-related upheavals that have left an indelible mark on the research landscape?
In academic circles and society at large, we’re witnessing changes to the volume and speed of research output (think preprints), the associated review process, and priorities surrounding research impact and application. This is most palpable in the fields of bioscience and medicine given the ongoing health crisis, but extends to multiple disciplines. Such research continues to amplify the potential social harms in fraudulent research, pushing us to refocus efforts on research credibility and by extension, evaluate our commitment to research integrity.
The 2020-2022 pandemic era has presented many disruptions to the practical undertaking of research, and in some cases, resource allocation and funding for institutions of higher learning and their industry affiliates. That being said, it has also presented unique opportunities to pivot research efforts and engage in remote collaboration across borders - feeding into broader movements over the past decade to strengthen research scope. The task at hand for universities in maximising their return on research publication looms large. It means addressing factors such as researcher self-regulation versus independent oversight, authorship in increasingly layered, multi-authored work, international research principles to preserve integrity, and innovation through R&D.
Let’s canvass some developments in expanding transparency and collaboration in the practice of research, with particular reference to the Asia-Pacific context.
The value of research collaboration
Professor Rae Roberston-Anderson writes in Inside Higher Ed that “while the pandemic negatively impacted academic research, many of us got creative with ways to continue our work”, and goes on to detail how an inability to conduct her own lab work led her to enlist the help of an obliging colleague overseas. It set in motion a collaboration that has yielded 2 publications, 2 further research projects, and even a funding grant. In a digital era, and as the pandemic experience has proven, there is room for researchers and institutions to better leverage cross-border and cross-cultural resources and insights as part of their research aims. However, these benefits compete with practical and structural challenges embedded in the research ecosystem.
Boosting collaboration means addressing traditional mechanisms and benchmarks that are not necessarily keeping pace with new expectations. In her assessment of the current state of play and opportunities for research improvements in Times Higher Education, Dorothy Bishop, a professor at the University of Oxford, remarks:
For a research community beholden in some form to the pressures of a ‘publish or perish’ mentality, collaboration offers unity and strength in numbers to execute on research ambitions via alignment of skills, reputation and funding. It may also encourage us to abandon the fixation on research quantity in favour of research quality and relevance, with Roslyn Prinsley from Australian National University suggesting that the narrative is now shifting to the more appropriate concept of ‘collaborate or crumble’.
A discussion on the future of research and integrity would be remiss without reference to another facet of research collaboration: research commercialisation. It’s a movement long in the making, and reinvigorated by institutions reassessing their revenue streams due to pandemic-led disruption. The significance of commercialising research goes beyond fame and funding; cutting to the core of why research discoveries are sought in the first place - to offer solutions for global problems and benefit society.
In a recent episode of Turnitin’s Integrity Matters vidcast we interviewed scientist Dr Esther Gan, who has transitioned from academia to a biopharmaceutical startup and explained how research commercialisation helps ensure science is accessible and that the benefits aren’t obscured. Esther also spoke of the dilemma in which researchers are taught how to do good science, but not how to do business, calling for better education programs for researchers on how to recognise viable research commercialisation opportunities and help them network their research to industry sectors and other players in the ecosystem.
In another, soon-to-be-released Integrity Matters episode with Dr Daniel Barr and Dr David Blades from RMIT University, they point to an ‘asymmetry’ in developed versus less developed economies according to their investment in R&D, making cross border or cross cultural collaborations more difficult. Case in point, in The Philippines, academics cite poor university support and entrepreneurial ability as key factors in the lack of research commercialisation. Fortunately, there is change afoot, as outlined in the ASEAN 2025 blueprint for national innovation, which includes strategies to develop partnerships between academia and the private sector.
And to illustrate the flip side of The Philippines context is the South Korea experience. A country with a highly developed R&D program that accounts for 4.5% of the nation’s GDP (at time of writing), South Korea recorded the greatest share of researchers (among 71 countries) who transitioned from industry into academia in 2017 to 2019. One commentator has described their investment efforts as a “close collaboration between government, industry, and the academic community in the process of nation building”. The Australian government appears to have taken a page from this playbook, with their recent funding announcement of $2 billion as part of a plan to foster stronger linkages between Australian universities and industries; dubbed the ‘economic accelerator’.
Increased scope for research collaboration and innovation with tangible societal benefits raises the stakes, so what else is needed for successful and trustworthy output?
Global benchmarks to guide research integrity
Back in 2009, David B Resnik published a paper titled ‘International Standards for Research Integrity: An Idea Whose Time has Come?’ advocating for a universal benchmark to guide cross-country research collaborations. A major benefit, according to him, was greater trust amongst researchers via a set of governing principles in areas such as authorship, publication, and data sharing so that “If an ethical dispute arises during the collaboration, the investigators can appeal to a common benchmark”.
Research groups evidently agreed, and against a backdrop of the British and European research integrity offices that preceded it, the Asia Pacific Research Integrity Network (APRI) was born. It was established in 2015 after recognised shortcomings in the exchange of research ideas and information across the geographic region. Although the management of research misconduct is inferred, the group’s purpose is most aligned with a positive integrity framework, or in their words, “a proactive approach – an approach that focuses on mechanisms to create environments in which it would be difficult, if not impossible, for research misconduct to occur.”
APRI’s three core objectives are as follows:
(1) Articulate differences as well as areas of common ground
(2) Identify best or recommended practices
(3) Identify opportunities for research or collaboration
Building on this momentum, Japan’s association for the Promotion of Research Integrity (APRIN) was founded in 2016 with the purpose of raising awareness of global research ethics in the course of scientific advancement and promoting resources and consultation services to support Japanese researchers and research stakeholders, including provision of an eLearning platform.
Attributing the lack of universal integrity standards as a perceived barrier to research collaboration in APEC economies, Daniel Barr and Paul Taylor picked up the baton in 2017 with their work on the Guiding Principles project, as a starting point to mobilise shared principles for the responsible conduct of research. Of course, as with all guidelines and learning resources, how well they are promoted and how often they are accessed is key to their success.
Addressing the inherent risks in collaborative research-writing
Researcher due diligence in the research-writing process is still the cornerstone of publishing responsible research. And it’s no surprise that multiple authors add complexity and layers of accountability to research projects. In fact, a recent study suggests approximately 94% of the retracted papers from the Web of Science core collection in the last three decades were multi-authored. Issues of authorship are often exposed late - in the submission and publishing phase - and one could argue are the product of hierarchies and convention as it relates to research impact factor.
In the recent Perspectives on Research Integrity in Science and Medicine (PRISM) project by Priya Satalkar and David Shaw, they charted the experience of researchers in the fields of life sciences and medicine. The top occurring lapse of research integrity according to participants was related to ‘unjustified authorship’ in manuscripts, which is described as follows:
So, how can researchers navigate the integrity risks inherent within research collaboration projects and publication of multi-authored work? We posed this question to Daniel Barr and David Blades as part of our aforementioned Integrity Matters conversation. Acknowledging that the nature of research authorship has changed dramatically with the rise in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research projects, they advocate for transparent research practices that are established up front, relating to agreed methodology, where data is kept, assigned authorship and where work is to be published.
But is self-scrutiny enough to motivate researchers to do the right thing amidst the pressures of research?
Mediating self-regulation and independent oversight
Investigation of suspected research integrity breaches has traditionally been the domain of institutions, coming to the attention of publishers when university-level scrutiny fails, and ascending to statutory or regulatory bodies if ethical breaches are severe enough to qualify as research misconduct. Since the mid 2010s, steps have been taken to bridge the gaps and offer better, independent oversight and consultation throughout the research publication process and between stakeholders.
A dedicated, national research integrity office exists in countries such as the UK, Japan, China, Canada, the United States, ranging in their regulatory and/or advisory capacity to reflect national priorities and research framework. Representing South East Asia, Singapore has also formed the Singapore Institutional Research Integrity Offices Network (SIRION) in 2019, with the Education and Health Ministries serving as active observers.
Actively involved in bringing about a shift from rules-based doctrines to principle-based documents to foster research responsibility, Daniel Barr and David Blades suggest there is potentially more to be gained from a positive, educative approach to research integrity as opposed to one of policing and punishment. It begs the question: what might a balance of these approaches look like? One such possibility is detailed in a study from the University of South Australia, which found value in research integrity software to facilitate the ways scholars work collaboratively with each other and harness other people's texts to “recreate meanings and develop original contributions”.
Finally, there’s the matter of addressing conflicting research interests in the research ecosystem that send mixed messages to researchers. Dorothy Bishop comments on this tension and the need to address structural impediments to research integrity: “Clearly, something is wrong in a system where so many young researchers feel there’s a mismatch between doing good science and having a successful career”. It’s proving to be a pivotal phase in research as we rethink how researchers are assessed and rewarded throughout the research lifecycle to uphold research integrity.
Looking to preserve research integrity in the research-writing process?