By Dr Sam Oakley, Researcher Development and Integrity Specialist
We had a positive pivot to online Research Integrity training as a response to the pandemic, facilitated by members of our own research community. This post includes some of their reflections, shared with their permission.
In 2020 we swiftly moved our Research Integrity training online, launching a redesigned postgraduate researcher (PGR) course for the autumn term. This had two parts: an asychronous online module (on Moodle) and a follow-on synchronous Zoom webinar where our PGRs got the opportunity to discuss the material and its practical application.
To build capacity to deliver, we sent out a call to our research community, welcoming anyone who could draw on current or previous personal experience of research, whether ECR, Technician, senior academic or Professional Services Staff. The one proviso was that they would need to be able to undertake this within their current employment (therefore needing line manager approval).
Why would anyone want to help us run Research Integrity webinars?
We suggested that this might suit someone seeking teaching experience. In the role description we explicitly mapped to areas of the UK Professional Standards Framework, used for both our internal Developing as a Teacher in HE course and RET Associate Fellowship (similar to Higher Education Academy recognition). We also suggested our facilitators complete a short reflection after each session, useful evidence for a portfolio of reflective practice. Our ‘train-the-trainer’ session covered topics such as inclusive teaching and online facilitation, with a focus on skills needed to create an inclusive and supportive environment for the discussion of potentially sensitive topics.
Of course, we also hoped that the role would appeal to anyone with an interest in research integrity and we offered the opportunity to develop knowledge and understanding of research integrity issues. Listening to the PGR perspective on this, would be highly useful for supervisory practice (either now or in the future) and for academic leadership.
How would the course work in practice?
The webinars were designed to be simple to run: a Zoom meeting with up to 30 PGRs in attendance and two facilitators per session. We ran two different versions (‘Science’ and ‘Humanities and Social Sciences’) but the format was identical: a standard slide deck and two breakout room discussions. The first involved simple case studies; the second was reflective as the PGRs related the course content to their own area of research. We encouraged our facilitators to share their own views and experiences, if they wished, to illustrate the challenges faced by working researchers. One comments “I really enjoyed meeting staff members from other departments and hearing their stories and research experience, so it was a good way to make social connections across the university.”
We made it clear that we did not expect volunteers to be experts in Research Integrity: an active interest in research culture, good research practices and ethical publication would be ideal. We offer a staff-focused Research Integrity course available to volunteers for further development, plus an opportunity to get their questions answered at a ‘Train the Trainer’ session.
Respecting their time, we kept workload to a minimum: we send the facilitators a register and Zoom link so they simply need to turn up for the session itself and return an attendance list.
Did the plan work?
We got a healthy level of interest in this role and were able to recruit around 15 facilitators each year, including postdocs, technicians and professional services staff. Some have stayed with us for a second year but inevitably some postdocs departed at the end of their contracts, so we recruited afresh for 2021-2022.
We promote our evaluation link after each session so it was easy to check how the PGRs were finding the course as a whole (overwhelmingly positive!) and make tweaks to the format (e.g. we shortened time for the first breakout activity). We also checked in with our facilitators regularly to support their developing practice in online teaching.
The course was supported by a dedicated member of staff with expertise in research integrity (myself) and I could step in if required (e.g. if Covid struck at short notice). Illness has been a challenge of course, plus the return to working on campus meant some found it harder to participate at certain points.
Did the facilitators get something out of it?
I believe so! A group of us also presented on this work at the UKCGE International Conference in 2021. It’s interesting to hear the effect it has had on their own practice: “I’ve learned some really interesting strategies/ processes from both students and staff in other fields which has helped me to think about new ways of doing things. It has also given me more confidence in challenging issues and has made me more aware of supports outwith peers (which I have also been able to pass on to other colleagues).”
It’s also clear that an engaged interest in research integrity was a real appeal to participate for some: “I mainly signed up due to my own frustrations related to RI and slightly disappointing behaviours I have observed from senior staff [in the sector]. I wanted some reassurance that some practices I observed were not really 100% right and to maybe contribute just a little bit towards things being different in the future.” And similarly: “I think Research Integrity is a really important part of our work and role in guiding the future of academia. I think too often courses focus on making ‘perfect’ researchers and I worry that we focus on blame too much so I liked the ethos of this course.”
We are just beginning to evaluate our programme for the next academic year. At the time of writing, it is looking likely that we will adapt again to the new reality with more PGRs and staff on campus. This may involve changing the format, but we will retain our facilitators and the wealth of enthusiasm and experience they have brought to our programme.
I’d like to finish with more words from our facilitators, which I think exemplify the value that they bring to our Research Integrity course:
“I think academia can be focused on being an expert and being perfect, which makes admitting mistakes a vulnerable thing to do for fear of being labelled incompetent or that it was with malicious intent to mislead people. I think this course is important in helping to dispel those myths”.