How can we improve our Research Integrity provision?

By Rebecca Robinson, Research Policy & Engagement Project Officer

The arrow of a compass is pointing the word integrity over a dark blue metallic background.

Research, n a careful search; investigation; systematic investigation towards increasing the sum of knowledge.

Integrity n entireness, wholeness; the unimpaired state of anything; uprightness; honesty;purity.

In August 2021 I began a part-time secondment, carrying out a review of Research Integrity at UofG with the central question: ‘how can we improve our Research Integrity provision?’ When I was last research active – around 10 years ago – the concept of ‘research integrity’ was more implicit. It was sometimes more identifiable, for example through the ethical review process, but at that time it wasn’t a ‘thing’ in the way it is now.

Since then, in the wider world beyond academia, there’ve been some pretty seismic shifts in the ways that knowledge has been used and sometimes abused to promote or demote opinions and influence ideas and agendas. Perhaps partly through the internet’s welcome democratisation of knowledge, there has been an increasing proliferation of public forums in which to share views as well as ‘fake news’ made ever easier by bots and the easy digital manipulation of images.

In amongst this clamour of noise about the value of research, and researchers there has been a growing suspicion of ‘professional experts’ – a suspicion which has perhaps at the least bruised academia and certainly necessitated the need for all researchers to communicate openly about the way we conduct research. Like all sites of research, the University of Glasgow must demonstrate that it upholds a commitment to the “highest standards of rigour and integrity in all aspects of research” (UKRIO, Concordat to Support Research Integrity), which makes perfect sense in the face of the erosion of public confidence in research, or knowledge more broadly, in our ‘post-truth’ world.

Appreciating that difficult context, it’s felt like such a challenging gift to have been offered the chance to lead the Research Integrity Review and it’s been a fascinating journey! Along the way I’ve been accompanied and supported by some fantastic colleagues, not least Dr Sam Oakley, the University’s Research Integrity Specialist, who armed me with all I needed, starting with UKRIO’s Research Integrity Concordat linked above. Encouraged by the Research Services senior management team and Prof. Chris Pearce, the Vice Principal (Research) we began to map out our four-pronged methodological approach.

  1. After identifying key stakeholders, over twenty people were formally interviewed and generously shared their thoughts and views about Research Integrity at the University.  As you would expect, we modelled good Research Integrity, and before each interview interviewees were sent a Participant Information Sheet, with brief info about the project, and a Privacy Notice outlining how their data would be used and stored and for how long.  After the meetings I sent summary notes and shared these with the interviewee for approval, and their additional thoughts. This ‘member checking’ approach was really effective – summarising the meeting helped draw out the main points and recommendations we had discussed and having the chance to read it back allowed the interviewee to clarify any ambiguities and make additions or changes to the record.
  2. We were also invited to attend and present at two senior committee meetings where research integrity was on the agenda, and these provided useful insights including into the governance infrastructure around Research Integrity.
  3. As well as hearing the views of those whose were professionally involved in the research Integrity process, mainly at a senior level, in providing or supporting Research Integrity, we also wanted to hear from researchers across the University about how Research Integrity provision had worked for them in practice. To encourage as many Research Staff and PGRs as possible to input into the review, we hosted two online engagement events and captured participants thoughts and ideas through a padlet board at the first, and a live Google doc at the second, and embedded these findings in the final report. We also distributed qualitative online surveys to researchers, which were a rich source of data, and quotes from these were included in the final report providing invaluable user experiences which gave added weight to the recommendations.
  4. We also encouraged anyone who wanted to share their thoughts to get in touch directly and a few people kindly gave their time and thoughts and took up this offer. To reach all staff and PGRs, the various ways of engaging with the review were publicised through the staff newsletter, ad through researcher mailing lists, as well as through social media outlets and on the main University website.

Through these various avenues around 200 people participated in the review. The final Research Integrity Review Report was a distillation of all these conversations, ideas and suggestions and offers a range of recommendations to be integrated into our future work through Research Services and across the University. One of the report’s interesting points for future discussion was how we define what ‘Research Integrity’, and how that relates to other terms such as ‘Responsible Research’, ‘Research Ethics’ and ‘Good Research Practice’. Across different research institutions these can all be used interchangeably, and different terms bring a different focus to the work. This is an area for future discussion at UofG and indeed the report and its recommendations will now feed in to various ongoing discussions of Research Integrity and offer us potential new routes to explore.

For me, as my secondment comes to an end, it’s been an amazing adventure and privilege dropping into this new research landscape and getting a sneak peek behind the scenes at some of the mechanisms at work in the great academic machine.  While political events suggest that integrity is no longer in fashion, I have been heartened to meet many people across the University of Glasgow who were not only committed but are proactively working to ensure that academic research is underpinned with integrity at every stage. UofG is already known in the sector in the area of Research Integrity – for our network of Champions and Advisers, our bespoke training, and our Research Integrity Council – so I have no doubt that UofG will continue to rise to the recommendations set out by the report. I, for one, will be watching this space.

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