Questionable research practices: should we be worried?
- Recent survey data reveal that questionable research practices remain relatively common.
- Unearned authorship is of particular concern and thought to be caused by misunderstandings surrounding what counts as a substantial contribution to a publication.
Transgressions of research integrity can undermine the reputation of academic institutions and threaten public trust in scientific findings. In a recent Nature Index article, Dalmeet Singh Chawla reported on a large-scale survey that suggests questionable research practices (QRPs) are still commonplace, with differing attitudes towards research integrity in Europe and the US.
The International Research Integrity Survey (IRIS), which forms part of the 4-year ‘Standard Operating Procedures for Research Integrity’ (SOPs4RI) project, asked 45,000 Europe-based and 2,300 US-based academics about their experience of 8 QRPs and how they perceived their own and their organisation’s efforts to maintain high research integrity standards. The results, published on the preprint server MetaArXiv in October 2022, revealed that:
- The most commonly encountered QRP in both Europe and the US was unearned authorship (69% vs 55%), followed by poor supervision of junior colleagues (56% vs 49%) and inadequate peer review (54% vs 50%).
- 74% of US-based respondents were ‘very confident’ in maintaining high research integrity standards, compared with only 52% in Europe.
- Less than half of US-based and less than a third of Europe-based researchers expressed confidence in their organisation’s effectiveness in supporting research integrity.
The higher confidence in meeting integrity standards among American researchers was attributed by some academics to the more competitive working culture in the US, which could result in under-reporting of QRPs.
The most commonly encountered QRP in both Europe and the US was unearned authorship (69% vs 55%), followed by poor supervision of junior colleagues (56% vs 49%) and inadequate peer review (54% vs 50%).
Singh also called attention to data from an Australian survey, which show that the frequency of QRPs has increased in recent years, with 47% of respondents reporting that they were affected by QRPs in 2022, compared with 38% in a similar 2019 survey.
Nick Allum, the lead author of the IRIS study, points out in Singh’s report that there is no standard definition for what constitutes an adequate contribution to a publication, which likely contributes to the high prevalence of unearned authorship. Tools such as the ISMPP Authorship Algorithm can be helpful in guiding ethical author selection. However, as noted by Allum et al, creating and maintaining a culture of research integrity will require a collective commitment from researchers, their institutions, and funders.
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