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.
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).
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)
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
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/