Written Evidence Submitted by Coventry University Group
1.1. This select committee submission is written evidence from the Coventry University Group. Coventry University Group is one of the country’s leading 'modern universities', with approaching 40,000 students and a robust academic presence in the West Midlands, multiple UK locations in London, Scarborough and internationally. As an ambitious and innovative university, our research makes tangible differences to the way we live. Coventry University Group is already known for delivering research that makes a significant contribution to a number of global challenges.
2. The issues in academia that have led to the reproducibility crisis, i.e. its causes;
2.1. Addressing the reproducibility “crisis” will need the concerted efforts of the entire research community, including our industrial partners and the publishing sector. The suggested mitigations will also need Government action to support and reward mitigations which tackle the crisis.
2.2. The “publish or perish” phenomenon, and particularly “impact factor” measurements have been counterproductive to the reproducibility of research. This phenomenon has led to the sensationalised public profile of research which has in turn complicated the relationship between the need to communicate science for education and the attention needed attract funding. Science in the media often incentivises discovery and novelty, over reproducible results.
2.3. While the crisis troubles all disciplines reliant on quantitative and empirical research methods. The reproducibility of research arguably has greater effects on the medical and social sciences than the physical and mathematical sciences — this is explained by the different nature of “controllable” contextual factors and measurement errors across disciplines.
2.4. The crisis is being exacerbated by a culture of competition within UK HE. There are sectors within the UK Research environment, such as biosciences, where there is an over-production of PhD candidates, who then graduate into an HE market without the roles to support their qualifications. This competitive eco-system leads students and early career researchers to publish in volume in order to improve their chances of employability.
2.5. This competitive employment situation has led to research methodologies being obscured through partial publishing, in order to prevent these results being produced quicker by rival institutions or industry. Incremental publishing to increase the volume of work produced also makes it more difficult to reproduce the results from experimentation.
3. What policies or schemes could have a positive impact on academia’s approach to reproducible research;
3.1. Coventry University Group wishes to draw the attention of the committee of progress being made in our university group towards mitigating the issues of the reproducibility of research that the Committee has raised. Our partnership with industry has driven strategic improvements to the culture of research outputs and impacts at the university. The needs of industry are often radically different from that of the academic community, and the need for commercial confidentiality, alongside patenting and IP rights mean that clear contractual obligations for academic staff and industry govern the publication of research. Coventry University Group has taken strategic action to ensure that our academic community publishes its research on an approach of “quality over quantity”. One example of our commitment to this can be seen in the removal of the use of publication metrics in progression, reward and recruitment.
3.2. Our industrial partnerships and wider research culture are strategically planned with delivery of project objectives with agreed timelines for publication. The interdependent and mutually beneficial research relationships between universities and industrial partners enable both institutions to sustain growth in their respective sectors. Coventry University Group was encouraged to see that the UKRI and the Government have championed and prioritised HE and industry collaboration in their recently published Innovation Strategy, as well as last year’s R&D Roadmap.
3.3. Coventry University Group agrees with selected recommendations from the UKRI’s Research Integrity: a Landscape study, published in 2020. This study highlighted the need to embed incentives at the UK level through collective action across a range of stakeholder groups, including: government commitment to the importance of research integrity; actions by funders to increase core funding and decrease competition for grant funding; aligning metrics to research integrity; emphasising quality and peer review and a diverse range of metrics in REF and other assessments; and improving public trust through public engagement and the media.
3.4. This study also confirmed that the people and culture within a local research environment are perceived to have strong and persistent influences on research integrity. This study rightly highlighted the strong personal commitments to integrity of UK researchers. However, there is not a uniform standard of research training across the UK and internationally, which is hampering institutional and collective efforts to combat the reproducibility crisis. This study highlighted gaps in training provision and knowledge of how to report instances of misconduct. A key positive incentive towards changing researcher behaviour and culture could be increased support including access to accredited continuing professional development and training across a range of topics, including leadership and management, integrity and ethics, research methods and statistics, and data management. Providing training for peer reviewers in particular, could ameliorate the problems caused by incremental and over publication in academic journals. This would be an ideal place for the national committee on research integrity to provide oversight on best practice.
3.5. Coventry University Group believes that there should be consequences that come with serious malpractice in research methods which contravene the shared responsibility to ethical production of reproducible results. This would have to be managed at an institutional level, but with a sector level understanding of the consequences. The national committee on research integrity under the UKRI would be well placed to develop this in co-operation with the sector.
4. How establishing a national committee on research integrity under UKRI could impact the reproducibility crisis?
4.1. The UKRI, acting in its dual role as “funder of research and of research organisations and as a steward of the UK research and innovation system”, is ideally placed to host a committee for research integrity. Work in UKRI is already well underway, with policy and guidelines on good research conduct already in place and strongly linked to the terms and condition of funding which are updated annually. The UKRI also supports the San Francisco declaration on research assessment (DORA), of which Coventry University Group is also a signatory. DORA is internationally recognised as a standard of intention of best practice in both research assessment and research integrity.
4.2. The most important factor in the development of the committee will be ensuring a broad and representative membership from the research community. The Committee should have members from all types of institution who conduct research at in HE and should not be limited to traditional “research intensives”. All OfS registered providers who have doctoral awarding powers should be considered for membership, alongside representatives from industry, Government and scientific publishing, as appropriate.