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Aspects of the culture of research in UK higher education institutions (HEIs) can encourage poor research practices and hinder the production of high quality science, according to scientists who took part in a project exploring the ethical consequences of the culture of research led by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

The project, with a steering group including members of staff from the Society of Biology, aimed to explore the effects of the wide range of influences on science researchers. These include the expectations that they place upon themselves and feel are applied by others, the working practices that they develop or learn, and their available funding and career structure.

The project included surveys and meetings with almost 1000 scientists and others. Researchers emerged as having a clear view of the characteristics of high quality research; namely rigour, accuracy, originality, honesty, and transparency. Findings also suggest that their main motivations are to improve their knowledge and understanding and to make scientific discoveries for the benefit of society.

However, in some cases, the findings suggest, the culture of research in HEIs does not support or encourage these goals or activities. For example, high levels of competition and perceptions about how scientists are assessed for jobs and funding are reportedly contributing to a loss of creativity in science, less collaboration and poor research practices, such as rushing to finish and publish research or employing less rigorous research methods.

The largest group of participants were bioscience post-doctoral researchers, making the findings of particular interest for the Society of Biology. Indeed the majority of participants described their focus as within the biosciences.

Professor Dame Jean Thomas, president of the Society of Biology, said:
“In this highly competitive academic system we need careful governance to nurture ambition and excellence. The survey shows that among researchers there is a clear ambition for the rigour, openness and collaboration that lead to high quality science. Leaders in science should capitalise on this by educating and empowering researchers to achieve these aspirations, and clearly communicating that they intend to evaluate research outcomes on the basis of valuable knowledge and real impact.”

Given the importance of science, it is vital that the culture for research is carefully observed and that all efforts are made to ensure that it develops to support the production of high quality science and an equitable research community. The Society will work to respond to the challenges and themes raised by the project.

Download a summary of the project findings


The findings of the project include:

  • High levels of competition for jobs and funding in scientific research are believed both to bring out the best in people and to create incentives for poor quality research practices, less collaboration and headline chasing.
  • The pressure felt by scientists to publish in high impact factor journals is believed to be resulting in important research not being published, disincentives for multidisciplinary research, authorship issues, and a lack of recognition for non-article research outputs.
  • 58% of the survey respondents are aware of scientists feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards. 26% of respondents have themselves felt tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards. Evidence was not collected on any behaviour associated with these findings.
  • 61% of the survey respondents think that the move towards open access publishing is having a positive or very positive effect overall on scientists in terms of encouraging the production of high quality research.

Key suggestions for action include:

  • Funders: ensure funding opportunities, strategies and policies, and information about past funding decisions, are communicated clearly to institutions and researchers.
  • Research institutions: cultivate an environment in which ethics is seen as a positive and integral part of research; and provide mentoring and career advice to researchers throughout their careers.
  • Publishers and editors: consider further the role of publishers in tackling ethical issues in publishing and in promoting openness and data sharing among scientists.
  • Researchers: when assessing the track record of fellow researchers, for example as a grant reviewer or appointments panel member, use a broad range of criteria without undue reliance on journal impact factors.
  • Learned societies and professional bodies: promote widely the importance of ensuring the culture of research supports good research practice and the production of high quality science.