Research integrity: good practice for new PIs!

Everyone loves a fresh start. Founding a research group is an exciting time in anyone’s career, and allows a great opportunity at a clean slate, and to embed good practice within our team right from the get go!

For me, this is my first year as a member of faculty, and I’m hoping to recruit the first members of my research team as soon as covid settles down a bit. I’ve also been lucky enough to get involved in co-leading a postgraduate module on research methodologies this year, for which I am developing content on research integrity alongside a Professor of evidence based medicine. He has a wealth of knowledge on these topics, and has highlighted a range of evidence-based resources that we’ve been able to incorporate into our teaching. It’s great timing, so I also plan to incorporate these into the training that I provide for my research team, as we hopefully lay the foundations for a happy, productive and impactful few decades of ‘Heavey lab’.

Here are six examples of good practice that I plan to incorporate, along with some links if you’d like to use them in your own teaching/research.

  1. Research integrity: this is key to ensuring that our work is of the utmost quality, that it can be replicated, validated and that it can ultimately drive change in the world. While this is something researchers often discuss ad hoc over coffee, there are also formal guidelines available, and these remove some of the ambiguity around individual versus institutional responsibilities related to this topic. Below you’ll find a link to the UK concordat to support research integrity. It is a detailed summary of the agreements signed by UK funding bodies, higher education institutes and relevant government departments, setting out the specific responsibilities we all have with regard to the integrity of our research. I intend to go through this with my team so they are clear on their own responsibilities as well as mine, and those of our funding bodies and institutes. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2019/the-concordat-to-support-research-integrity.pdf
  2. Prevention of research waste: research waste should be actively avoided. This figure is a clear summary, and I’ll keep it visible to my team so that we can all work together to prevent wasting our own time and resources, and maximise the impact of our work. Some of these points force us to really raise the game, and I’m excited to get stuck in.

Figure ref: Macleod MR, Michie S, Roberts I, et al. Biomedical research: increasing value, reducing waste. Lancet. 2014;383(9912):101-104. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62329-6

3. Prevention of misconduct: The word ‘misconduct’ may strike fear in the heart – but it describes a whole range of things, not just the extreme cases. Misconduct is not always intentional, and should be actively and consciously avoided rather than assuming ‘we’re good people, I’m sure we’re not doing anything wrong’. Here’s a quick checklist that you can use as a code of practice, to keep track of your research integrity and prevent research waste or misconduct. It’s not as detailed as the last link, and I plan to use it with each member of my team before, during and after our projects, to help us to consciously avoid misconduct. https://ukrio.org/wp-content/uploads/UKRIO-Code-of-Practice-for-Research.pdf

4. Prevention of ‘questionable research practices’: This figure below, from another blog, does a great job of highlighting many of the ‘grey areas’ in research that border on misconduct. Sadly, we’ve all seen some of these – from data secrecy (often due to laziness or lack of understanding rather than malice) to p-hacking (where someone runs as many statistical tests as they need to until they find/force a ‘significant’ result), or maybe it’s manipulating authorships for political gain, or playing games with peer review to win a perceived race. The ethical questions around these practices are often brushed aside as we try to ‘pick our battles’ and avoid conflict, but they can only be stopped if we’re open about them, and discuss the ramifications to the field and the wider world. I plan to display this figure and share anecdotes of bad past experiences with my team, so that they can learn from others’ bad practice in the same way I have. Unfortunately some lessons are best learned as ‘how not to do it’.  

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/07/03/data-secrecy-bad-science-or-scientific-misconduct/

5. Making documentation visible: To adhere to our own personal responsibilities around research integrity, we need to be clear on which rules and regulations we are each beholden to. I will keep ethics procedure documents, protocols, patient information sheets and consent forms visible and easily accessible to those who are authorized. I want my staff and students to know exactly what they can and can’t do in their research practice. I will also ensure they are familiar with the intricacies of each project’s approval, which can vary significantly. This sounds like a no-brainer – but ask yourself, have you ever worked on a project where you couldn’t access the latest full version of the ethics approval? Where maybe you had laid eyes on a draft or an approval letter, but not the full application? This happens far more often than it should, and leaves researchers unable to adequately adhere to their own personal responsibilities under the concordat linked above. It’s required, it’s an easy win, and I will make sure it’s the case for my team.

6. Safe space: I believe it’s crucial to encourage a safe environment where team members can ‘speak up’ about any of the above. This requires extra effort in the world of academia, which often discourages this. The life of an early career researcher is fragile, as you bounce from contract to contract, always worrying about stability and fighting for the next grant, the next authorship. The slightest knock to your reputation can seriously affect your future career, and this conscious fear can lead to team members not feeling safe to call out questionable practice. It’s not going to be easy to foster an environment where the whole team feels comfortable speaking up about questionable practice without it leading to a conflict, but I’m going to try my best to achieve this. I aim to make it abundantly clear to my team that they will not face any retaliation for calling out others’ questionable practice or identifying their own – no matter the consequence, even if it means ultimately we have to scrap a massive project, I will thank them. I would much rather know that something has gone wrong so I can correct it, retract it or edit it, rather than continue on not knowing. Anyone who comes to me with an honest concern will be treated with gratitude.

These six measures are of course not exhaustive, and I aim to continue to appraise the literature on good research practices, so that as well as starting on a solid foundation, we can also build better and better practice as we go.

Onwards and upwards!

Particular thanks to Prof Kurinchi Gurusamy for pointing me towards some of these great resources!