Openness, integrity & supporting researchers

Universities need to open research to ensure academic integrity and adjust to support modern collaboration and scholarship tools, and begin rewarding people who have engaged in certain types of process rather than relying on traditional assessment schemes. This was the focus of Emeritus Professor Tom Cochrane’s* talk on ‘Open scholarship and links to academic integrity, reward & recognition’  given at Cambridge University on 7 October.

The slides from the presentation are available here: PRE_Cochrane_DisruptingDisincentives_V1_20151007

Benefits of an open access mandate

Tom began with a discussion about aspects of access to research and research data and why it should be as open as possible. Queensland University of Technology introduced an open access mandate 12 years or so ago. They have been able to observe a number of effects on bibliometric citation rates, such as the way authors show up in Scopus.

The other is the way consulting opportunities arise because someone’s research is exposed to reading audiences that do not have access to the toll-gated literature. Another benefit is the recruiting of HDR students.

Tom outlined six areas of advantage for institutions with a mandate – researcher identity and exposure, advantage to the institution. He noted that they can’t argue causation but can argue correlation, with the university’s. improvement in research performance. Many institutions have been able to get some advantage of having an institutional repository that reflects the output of the institution.

However in terms of public policy, the funders have moved the game on anyway. This started with private funders like Wellcome Trust, but also the public funding research councils. This is the government taxpayer argument, which is happening in the US.

Tom noted that when he began working on open access policy he had excluded books because there are challenges with open access when there is a return to the author, but there has been a problem long term with publishing in the humanities and the social sciences. He said there was an argument that there has been a vicious downward spiral that oppresses the discipline, by making the quality scholarship susceptible to judgements about sales appeal for titles in the market, assessments which may be unrelated. Now there is a new model called Knowledge Unlatched which is attempting to break this cycle and improve the number of quality long form outputs in Humanities and Social Sciences.

Nightmare scenarios

Tom started by discussing the correlation between academic integrity and research fraud by discussing the disincentives in the system. What are potential ‘nightmare’ scenarios?

For early career researcher nightmares include the PhD failing, being rejected for a job or promotion application, a grant application fails, industry or consultancy protocols fail or a paper doesn’t get accepted.

However a worse nightmare is a published or otherwise proclaimed finding is found to be at fault – either through a mistake or there is something more deliberate at play. This is a nightmare for the individual.

However it is very bad news for an institution to be on the front page news. This is very difficult to rectify.

Tom spoke about Jan Hendrik Schon’s deception. Schon was a physicist who qualified in Germany, went to work in Bell Labs in the US. He discovered ‘organic semiconductors’. The reviewers were unable to replicate the results because they didn’t have any access to the original data with lab books destroyed and samples damaged beyond recovery. The time taken to investigate and the eventual withdrawal of the research was 12.5 years, and the effort involved was extraordinary.

Incentives for institutions and researchers

Academics work towards recognition and renown, respect and acclaim. This is based on a system of dissemination and publication, which in turn is based on peer review and co-authorship using understood processes. Financial reward is mostly indirect.

Tom then discussed what structures universities might have in place. Most will have some kind of code of conduct to advise people about research misconduct. There are questions about how well understood or implemented this advice or knowledge about those kinds of perspectives actually are.

Universities also often provide teaching about authorship and the attribution of work – there are issues around the extent that student work gets acknowledged and published. Early career researchers are, or should be, advised about requirements in attributing work to others that have not contributed, as well as a good understanding of plagiarism and ethical conduct.

How does openness help?

Tom noted that we are familiar with the idea of open data and open access. But another aspect is ‘open process’. Lab work books for example, showing progress in thinking, approaches and experiments can be made open though there may be some variations in the timing of when this occurs.

The other pressing thing about this is that the nature of research itself is changing profoundly. This includes extraordinary dependence on data, and complexity requiring intermediate steps of data visualisation. In Australia this is called eResearch, in the UK it is called eScience. These eResearch techniques have been growing rapidly, and in a way that may not be understood or well led by senior administrators.

Using data

Tom described a couple of talks by early or mid career researchers at different universities. They said that when they started they were given access to the financial system, the IT and Library privileges. But they say ‘what we want to know are what are the data services that I can get from the University?’. This is particularly acute in the Life Sciences. Where is the support for the tools? What is the University doing by way of scaffolding the support services that will make that more effective for me? What sort of help and training will you provide in new ways of disseminating findings and new publishing approaches?

Researchers are notoriously preoccupied with their own time – they consider they should be supported better with these emerging examples. We need more systematic leadership in understanding these tools with a deliberate attention by institutional leadership to overcoming inertia.

The more sustained argument about things being made open relates to questions about integrity and trust – where arguments are disputes about evidence. What’s true for the academy in terms of more robust approaches to prevent or reduce inaccuracy or fraud, is also true in terms of broader public policy needs for evidence based policy.

Suggestions for improvement

We need concerted action by people at certain levels – Vice Chancellors, heads of funding councils, senior government bureaucrats. Some suggested actions for institutions and research systems at national and international levels include concerted action to:

  • develop and support open frameworks
  • harmonise supporting IP regimes
  • reframe researcher induction
  • improve data and tools support services
  • reward data science methods and re-use techniques
  • rationalise research quality markers
  • foster impact tracking in diverse tools


Friction around University tools

One comment noted that disincentives at Cambridge University manifest as frictions around the ways they use the University tools – given they don’t want to waste time.

Tom responded that creating a policy is half the trick. Implementing it in a way that makes sense to someone is the other half. What does a mandate actually mean in a University given they are places where one does not often successfully tell someone else what to do?

However research and support tools are getting more efficient. It is a matter of marshalling the right expertise in the right place. One of the things that is happening is we are getting diverse uptakes of new ideas. This is reliant on the talent of the leadership that might be in place or the team that is in place. It could get held back by a couple of reactionary or unresponsive senior leaders. Conversely the right leadership can make striking progress.

Openness and competition

Another comment was how does openness square with researchers being worried about others finding about what they are doing in a competitive environment?

Tom noted that depending on the field, there may indeed need to be decision points or “gating” that governs when the information is available. The important point is that it is available for review for the reasons of integrity explored earlier. Exceptions will always apply as in the case of contract research being done for a company by an institution that is essentially “black box”. There would always have to be decisions about openness which would be part of working out the agreement in the first place.

Salami slicing publication

A question arose about the habit of salami slicing research into small publications for the benefits of the Research Excellence Framework and how this matches with openness.

Tom agreed that research assessment schemes need to be structured to encourage or discourage certain types of scholarly output in practice. The precursor to this practice was the branching of journal titles in the 1970s – the opportunity for advantage at the time was research groups and publishers. There has to be a leadership view from institutional management on what kind of practical limits there can be on that behaviour.

This sparked a question about the complexity of changing the reward system because researchers are judged by the impact factor, regardless of what we say to them about tweets etc. How could the reward system be changed?

Tom said the change would need to be that the view that reward is only based on research outputs is insufficient. Other research productivity needs reward. This has to be led. It can’t be a half-baked policy – put out by a committee. Needs to be trusted by the research community.

Open access drivers

A question was asked about the extent to which the compliance agenda that has been taken by the funders has led its course? Is this agenda going to be taken by the institutions.

Tom said that he has thought about this for a long time. He thought originally OA would be led by the disciplines because of the example of the High Energy Physics community which built a repository more than 20 years ago. Then there was considerable discussion, eg in the UK in early 2000s about aligning OA with institutional profile. But institutional take up was sporadic. In Australia in 2012 we only had six or seven universities with policies (which doesn’t necessarily mean there had been completely satisfactory take up in each of those).

Through that time the argument for a return on tax payer investment has become the prevalent government one. Tom doesn’t think they will move away from that, even though there has been a level of complexity relating to the position that might not have been anticipated, with large publishers keen to be embedded in process.

This moved to a question of whether this offers an opportunity for the institution beyond the mandate?

Tom replied that he always thought there was an advantage at an institutional and individual level that you would be better off if you made work open. The main commercial reaction has been for the large publishers to seek to convert the value that exists in the subscription market into the same level of value in input fees i.e, Article Processing Charges.

It should be understood finally that academic publishing and the quality certification for research does have a cost, with the question being what that level of cost should really be.

About the speaker

*Emeritus Professor Tom Cochrane was briefly visiting Cambridge from Queensland University of Technology in Australia. During his tenure as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Technology, Information and Learning Support), Professor Cochrane introduced the world’s first University-wide open access mandate, in January 2004. Amongst his many commitments Professor Cochrane serves on the Board of Knowledge Unlatched (UK) is a member of the Board of Enabling Open Scholarship (Europe) and was co-leader of the project to port Creative Commons into Australia.

Published 12 October 2015
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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