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What are questionable research practices as reported by ECRs in STEMM in Australia?0

 

Katherine Christian, Carolyn Johnstone, Jo-ann Larkins, Wendy Wright and Michael Doran

Katherine Christian, Federation University Australia
Carolyn Johnstone, Federation University Australia
Jo-ann Larkins, Federation University Australia
Wendy Wright, Federation University Australia
Michael R Doran, Queensland University of Technology

Early-career researchers (ECRs) across the world have long reported significant difficulties caused by lack of funding and consequent job insecurity, gender inequity, work/life imbalance, and poor or insufficient professional development. The overall picture from our research project about ECRs in STEMM fields in Australia is of people who love science employed in unsatisfactory workplaces and overwhelmed by job insecurity and its consequences. We investigated the workplace experiences of ECRs working in the sciences in universities and independent research institutes across Australia, collecting data in a national survey (n=658), and through eight interviews of women who had recently left the academic workplace for alternate careers.

As we previously described (Christian et al., 2020), a concerning 38% ECRs reported questionable research practices from colleagues inside their institution and 32% from colleagues outside their institution. While “questionable research practices” were not defined within the survey, and there was no opportunity provided for respondents to expand in the context of this question, this term has been used to describe behaviours ranging from fraud to data exclusion and rounding of p-values (John et al., 2012). Qualitative data collected from other questions provided insights into practices which give cause for concern. These quotes, which speak for themselves, provide some indication of what our respondents identified as questionable research practices:

I have also encountered some antisocial behaviour among academics, such as senior staff who have attempted to “steal” work I am doing to present as their own. It’s cutthroat. (ECR A)

My supervisor is unethical and a scoundrel who makes this job terrible. She exists to feather her own nest and ECRs are a commodity to use to this end. (ECR B)

I’ve found that highly respected research groups often have less integrity than you’d initially thing (sic). QRPs [questionable research practices] are worryingly common, and engaged in to chase funding to conduct more QRP studies (ECR C)

Lack of funding and the need to ‘sell’ your research often leads to many researchers fabricating and embellishing data. This leads to the inability of genuine researchers to replicate findings, wasting precious time and resources, giving up and then their contracts not being renewed because the boss doesn’t get the 10 publications per year they demand. (ECR D)

I believe that the whole Academia environment is corrupted and has lost its true vision. The lack of funding is making researchers to sometimes make-up data to get grants or to publish meaningless papers just for the sake of raising the numbers. (ECR E)

In our national survey, 60% percent of STEMM ECRs reported they had been impacted by lack of support from supervisors, 33% by bullying and harassment based on power position and 13% said they felt unsafe in the workplace (unexpectedly 16% men felt unsafe compared with 11% women) (Christian et al.,2020). These comments encapsulate many of the issues which point to the poor workplace practices identified by our respondents:

The institutional work culture is a major concern (bullying, academic misconduct, workplace safety etc., which goes un-noticed) (ECR F)

I am currently looking outside academia to get away from the culture of harassment… it takes too much of a toll on my health… but I would stay in academia if I were to find a position that didn’t subject me to harassment by a supervisor. (ECR G)

Being yelled at by my supervisor on a regular basis, being yelled at by his students due to my supervisor lying to the students, being unable to lodge complaints as it’s made clear that I will not have my contract continued and will have difficulty finding another job without references if I lodge a complaint. (ECR H)

The themes which emerged from these data include ECRs feeling the need or wish to leave their jobs because of workplace stress related to job insecurity, poor institutional culture or harassment from supervisors. In parallel, we learnt why ECRs stay and tolerate these conditions: they love their research, their actual work. This puts them in a quandary about whether to stay or go and there is clear uncertainty about what to do next, either because there is nowhere to go or because the options are unpalatable.

If our government is to achieve its stated aim of making Australia one of the best places in the world in which to undertake innovation, science and research, and to maximise the spread of benefits to all Australians (Department of Industry Innovation and Science, 2018), then we must take better care of ECRs in STEMM fields who will form this future workforce. We must address a research culture where questionable research practices, whatever form they take, are so prevalent and, instead, work harder to change the culture and foster the high standards of research integrity called for in our Australian Code of Responsible Research Practice. These practices do not have to be tolerated; instead our research institutions must provide all staff, particularly ECRs, with safe avenues to report inappropriate behaviours – and follow up, every time, with appropriate action.

Limitations

As participants in the survey self-selected, it is possible we may have attracted more dissatisfied people to the study than is representative, or only people who had the time available to respond. Also, as this survey is long and conducted only in English, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may be under-represented.

It is not possible to know the response rate to invitations received by potential participants. As a consequence of the approval process required by the HREC, distribution of those invitations was usually not within our direct control and instead was either managed by a third party or was recruitment via directed social media. This process was reported briefly in Research Ethics Monthly (Christian et al., 2019).

Acknowledgements

Katherine Christian is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Fee-Offset Scholarship through Federation University Australia. Michael Doran is supported by an NHMRC Fellowship (APP1130013)

References

Christian, K., Johnstone, C., Larkins, J. and Wright, W. (17 September 2019) The need to seek institutional approval to survey staff –was this a misunderstanding of the purpose of Guideline 2.2.13 in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research? Research Ethics Monthly. https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/the-need-to-seek-institutional-approval-to-survey-staff-was-this-a-misunderstanding-of-the-purpose-of-guideline-2-2-13-in-the-national-statement-on-ethical-conduct-in-human-research

Christian, K., Johnstone, C., Larkins, J., Wright, W. and Doran, M. R. (2020). Survey of Australian STEMM Early Career Researchers: Job insecurity and questionable research practices are major structural concerns. BioRxiv, 2020.02.19.955328. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.19.955328

Department of Industry Innovation and Science. (2018). Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation. Australian Government. https://www.industry.gov.au/data-and-publications/australia-2030-prosperity-through-innovation

John, L. K., Loewenstein, G. and Prelec, D. (2012). Measuring the Prevalence of Questionable Research Practices With Incentives for Truth Telling: Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611430953

Contributors

Katherine Christian, Federation University Australia School of Arts, Mt Helen Campus, Ballarat, Victoria

Carolyn Johnstone, Federation University Australia School of Arts, Mt Helen Campus, Ballarat, Victoria

Jo-ann Larkins, Federation University Australia School of Science, Engineering and Information Technology, Gippsland Campus, Churchill, Victoria

Wendy Wright, Federation University Australia School of Health and Life Sciences, Gippsland Campus, Churchill, Victoria

Michael R Doran, Queensland University of Technology.

This post may be cited as:

Christian, K., Johnstone, C., Larkins, J., Wright W. and Doran, M. (29 July 2020) What are questionable research practices as reported by ECRs in STEMM in Australia? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/uncategorized/what-are-questionable-research-practices-as-reported-by-ecrs-in-stemm-in-australia/

Why autism research needs more input from autistic people0

 

Elle Loughran
Student, Trinity College Dublin
Elle Loughran is a Laidlaw scholar studying genetics at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland

This post first appeared in Spectrum, the leading site for autism research news.

I am a student and researcher studying evolutionary genetics, and I am autistic. I often come across papers on autism research, but unfortunately, reading them is rarely a positive experience.

Too much autism research fails to acknowledge autistics as people who can read and make valuable contributions to the field. Instead, it casts them as little more than passive study participants or recipients of treatment. This shortsightedness damages research and scientists’ ability to help autistic people.

Reading autism research as an autistic person can feel like being treated as an alien. For example, consider a 2019 paper that stated: “This finding reinforces other work which shows that autistic people can have, maintain, and value close romantic relationships and friendships.” Imagine how bizarre it would be to read that about yourself.

I do not mean to pick on that paper in particular, but on a research culture in which anyone would think that sort of statement needs to be made.

This sort of culture results in seeing top researchers throw around blatantly wrong and offensive ideas about my community. For an old but powerful example, British researcher Simon Baron-Cohen endorsed a quote that suggested autistic individuals experience people at dinner parties as “noisy skin bags” that are “draped over chairs.” In my view, the appropriate response to that is, “No, that is absolutely not how we experience anything. What the hell?” Of course, that would not be an appropriate academic reply.

I understand that even seemingly obvious things need to be examined and tested in science, but if someone were to suggest that the moon is made of cheese, I doubt researchers would insist on disproving it with a study. Yet somehow autistic people must be so strange and unknowable to researchers that they cannot dismiss equally implausible characterizations of us.

In fact, many autistic people are available to answer questions about how we see things. Many of us speak up and share our stories proactively. It can seem to us as if scientists are not listening.

Then there are papers that suggest society would rather fewer people like me existed — and not because they care about my suffering. Or those that survey the prospects of preventing autism, pointing out that these are “high priorities for researchers, parents, advocates, clinicians, and educators.” Why is there is no mention of autistic people on that list?

Integration barriers:

The opportunities for someone like me to correct the culture in autism research are limited.

Often when I see these things in the course of my work, I just sigh and ignore them. If I’m discussing a paper with my scientific peers, I do not want to bring up issues with the paper’s treatment of autism and be seen as an ideologue, research subject or object of pity rather than as a respected colleague.

Other people’s responses can also thwart meaningful exchange. Last summer, I ‘came out’ as autistic while in conversation with an autism researcher and several of her colleagues. The people in the group responded with something along the lines of,  “Oh, well, you’re not like other autistic people, so those points do not apply to them.”

If a person’s ability to converse with you makes you assume she is not like ‘real autistics,’ then your idea of autism is automatically going to be ‘people who can’t talk to me.’  You will have a flawed understanding of autism and may not be able to see autistic people as potential colleagues. This risks researchers perceiving autistic people purely as research subjects who do not talk back, have opinions or contribute to the process.

Autistic people are treasure troves of information on their own lives. By including more autistic voices in research, we as scientists could improve our ability to gather knowledge about the condition.

Given the flaws in prevailing theories of autistic psychology, I believe we should encourage more qualitative, open-ended research that seeks input from autistic people and establishes a firmer basis for future studies. We could also seek their help in prioritizing treatment targets. Likewise, if biomedical researchers are going to get funding for studying autism, they must make more of an effort to engage with the autistic community and their wishes.

Things are getting better, and many researchers are doing good work. But listening to autistic people could help them make faster progress. Autistic people are not aliens with whom scientists cannot communicate. We are right here. We are reading what you have to say, and that communication can go both ways.

This post may be cited as:

Loughran, E.  (27 April 2020) Why autism research needs more input from autistic people. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/why-autism-research-needs-more-input-from-autistic-people

COVID 19, human research and human research ethics review1

 

Prof. Colin Thomson AM
AHRECS Senior Consultant

We at AHRECS, like all our friends, colleagues and clients, are becoming more and more aware of the immediate and probably long-lasting impact of this pandemic on almost every part of our lives. It has compelled researchers to vary methodologies adopted for both ongoing and planned human research. It has also been forcing institutions to adapt human research ethics review processes to enable responsible social distancing.

In this brief item, we are opening a conversation to offer assistance, ideas, successes and strategies to achieve these changes while maintaining the ethics and quality of human research and ethics review.
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Human research ethics review

A number of our clients have long been conducting ethics review meetings online because of geographical necessity. Australia’s regional universities have led these innovations and acquired considerable experience in managing to achieve effective, efficient and quality ethics review. They use different online platforms and have experience of the strengths and weaknesses of several of these in running both synchronous meetings and asynchronous review processes.

They also have experience of assisting those committee members who have been reluctant to review digital applications. The current crisis may compel further limitations on such assistance; for instance, institutions may be unable to print and dispatch agenda papers and members may be less willing to receive them. Experience in enabling less IT-savvy members to adopt online processes with comfort could be a value now to other institutions making these changes.

There may also be substantive issues in addition to these ones of process.  For example, how does COVID-19 change our perceptions of merit; what if it shifts the balance in an unfavourable direction after a project has been approved?

We have asked some of our clients who have these experiences to respond to this item and encourage others to either offer or seek assistance, not necessarily through AHRECS, but directly. This may be the time in which the development of broader community of human research ethics review practice will be more needed than ever.
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Human research

For researchers, particularly those with approved projects that involve interaction with participants, the new restrictions on physical distancing and self-isolation are likely to present significant difficulties in continuing and completing their projects. They will need to change the manner of that interaction and the ways they collect the data they need so as to limit risks to participants and to themselves.

In normal circumstances, such changes would require prior ethics approval to conform to the conditions of approval that the National Statement requires (National Statement 5.5.6 (c)). However, the consequences for researchers of seeking prior approval may have a greater impact on the continuity and completion of their work and, in busy research institutions, lead to a significant workload increase in approval requests for urgent project variations.  In addition, those alterations to data collection will involve, in due course, changes in the manner in which data are stored, used and either retained or destroyed, all of which would, in normal circumstances, require consent from participants.

Other issues that researchers may face include:

  1. Identifying and fulfilling the responsibilities that arise when they have to close down their research, e.g. can they use data already collected? Do they inform participants and, if so, how?
  2. What obligations they may have to participants who are distressed by the current situation, especially when relevant to the research, as it is entirely foreseeable?
  3. How do they continue to engage in consultations to which they are committed, whether with communities or with all stakeholders?

In the situation that now presents itself, new strategies will need to be devised and it is likely these will depend more than ever on the ethics reviewers’ trust of researchers. For example, an institution could permit researchers to make urgent changes themselves to data collection methods in order to protect participants and meet COVID-19 limitations on condition that they notify the ethics reviewers as soon as practicable following the implementation of the change. That later application could also include a request for approval of changes to data use, management and retention or destruction.
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Guidance for researchers

Australian governments at Commonwealth, State and Territory level have provided combined guidance for researchers, especially those conducting clinical trials and other institutions have combined to offer practical advice for researchers on how to negotiate needed changes and ethics review.
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Research about COVID-19

The COVID-19 situation will generate research initiatives, not only in relation to the immediate medical needs such as vaccines, but also about the impact on health professionals, researchers, and families of those victims of infection, serious illness or death, as well as about the social impact of information, social distancing and self-isolation.

In vaccine projects, issues of justice in inclusion of participants are likely to be difficult to resolve: should all be included or only those capable of a voluntary consent.  And achieving an ethically sound consent will be complicated by the need to provide sufficient information, counter the possibility of social pressure to participate or the heightened influence of health professionals.  As Haaser says, “It is not easy to say no to a hero.”
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An invitation

In this brief note, these are but early suggestions. We invite our readers to respond to these thoughts with ideas and experience of strategies that they, as researchers or ethics reviewers, have adopted to address the new needs.

Further, and more importantly, this invitation is to encourage institutions, ethics review administrators, ethics review committees and researchers to exchange their ideas and their experiences.  It may be ironic that one of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis is to promote a wider community of good ethical human research practice – but it would nonetheless be a very good outcome.

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This post may be cited as:
Thomson, C. (18 April 2020) COVID 19, human research and human research ethics review Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/covid-19-human-research-and-human-research-ethics-review

Towards a code of conduct for ethical post-disaster research0

 

JC Gaillard
School of Environment, The University of Auckland, New Zealand
Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management, North-West University, South Africa
Profile | jc.gaillard@auckland.ac.nz

Lori Peek
Department of Sociology and Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder, USA
Profile | Lori.Peek@colorado.edu

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We recently called for a code of conduct in disaster research. This call is rooted in our respect for the research process itself and our care for affected people and the researchers who do this work. To be clear, we are calling for a cross-disciplinary conversation to advance a shared set of moral and ethical principles to help guide what we study, who we study, how we conduct studies, and who is involved in the research process itself. We are not arguing for another layer of bureaucratic or regulatory oversight such as those required in some countries by internal review boards and ethics committees. Our hope is that such a discussion will launch first within focused academic and policy meetings, before it can be scaled up to the regional and eventually international levels.

Our intent is to prompt further reflection and conversation around the following three possibilities for ensuring that disaster scholarship is relevant, fair, and ethically sound.

First, it is essential that research has a clear purpose that is rooted in present knowledge gaps and emergent context-specific research priorities in the disaster aftermath. The collaborative work that happens before disaster and in the immediate aftermath can help clarify the focus of research studies and ensure that the knowledge generated is locally-relevant and hence more likely to effectively inform response, recovery and future disaster risk reduction efforts.

Second, ensuring that research is filling relevant knowledge gaps requires that local voices be put at the forefront of the research effort. Local voices may include a range of perspectives, including those of local researchers and those who hail from elsewhere but hold deep knowledge of the places and people affected by disasters. They also comprise those voices of the survivors whose ability to deal with the event and contribute to the recovery effort is central to rebuilding damaged physical infrastructure as well as people’s lives and livelihoods. Ensuring that local researchers and survivors are in the driving seat does not exclude outside researchers when prompted by local colleagues. In many instances, outside scholars have access to a wide range of resources (e.g., equipment, funding, time) that may be unavailable locally in times of collective hardship. Crucial, though, is that local researchers have the opportunity to lead efforts associated with research design, data collection and analysis, and ultimately the sharing of findings.

Third, it is crucial that research agendas and projects launched in the disaster aftermath be ethically coordinated and involve locals and outsiders. This means that local researchers need to be identified quickly after disaster—the National Science Foundation-supported Extreme Events Research and Reconnaissance networks have already jump-started these efforts. There are many other organizations and networks globally that have advanced new methods for identifying researchers and communicating creatively in the disaster aftermath through virtual forums and virtual reconnaissance efforts that allow for a wider range of researchers to connect, communicate, and ultimately collaborate.

Engaging with the three aforementioned areas of possibility is crucial given the rising number of disasters and disaster studies. It is clear that disasters stir the interest of researchers, as evidenced by the growing number of academic publications on the topic. Most of these researchers are driven by a genuine desire to contribute to reducing suffering, but researching disasters can be difficult and there is not a clear ethical playbook for how to proceed.

This becomes especially pressing because researching disasters entails navigating a complex and sensitive environment where survivors may struggle with both the consequences of the event and the task of recovering. Meanwhile, local and outside responders try to support the relief and recovery effort. To fully grasp the complexity of the situation, researchers need to be equipped with an appropriate ethical toolkit that goes beyond the requirements of the research ethics committees of universities and other research institutions. It entails a nuanced understanding of the cultural, social, economic and political context wherein disasters unfold. For scholars who choose to work in new contexts following disasters, this sort of competence is difficult to acquire ad-hoc and in a short span of time.

With these challenges in mind, it remains a dominant pattern after major disasters that outside researchers converge and lead studies conducted in locations beyond their familiar cultural environment. In fact, disaster studies are often driven by scholars located in Northern America, Europe, East Asia, and Australasia. A review of publications on disasters over the past four decades shows that there are fewer researchers publishing studies from Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America although these regions of the world are those where disasters claim more lives and occur more frequently.

Such unequal power relationships in terms of who leads, conducts, and communicates research on disasters influences how disaster scholarship is framed and approached on the ground. Disaster studies are largely informed by Western ontologies and epistemologies that do not necessarily reflect local worldviews and ways of generating knowledge, which means that implications for policy and practice may be misleading.

Identifying these gaps opens up the possibility for reconsidering some of the fundamental assumptions about how research is conducted and ultimately how knowledge is generated and shared. Our call for a code of conduct is about ensuring that ethical concerns have the same primacy as our research questions. We look forward to continuing the conversation.

This post may be cited as:
Gaillard, JC. & Peek, L.  (21 March 2020) Towards a code of conduct for ethical post-disaster research. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/towards-a-code-of-conduct-for-ethical-post-disaster-research

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