Cable car in BrazilIn the first week of June, the 4th World Conference on Research Integrity in Rio de Janeiro brought together participants from 55 countries to discuss the implications of recent scandals (e.g. STAP, Schon) and a growing feeling that changes need to be made to prevent ‘waste’ in the research system and improve the research culture.

This covered a broad range of issues, from fraud and sloppy science and which of these had the worst impact, to the need for greater transparency and what incentives were driving people to act this way. A similar range of issues were covered at our recent Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication meetings.

The conferences started in Lisbon in 2007, as research integrity was beginning to be considered an issue. Both the 2010 and 2013 conferences produced statements which provided guidance on the principles and responsibilities of research integrity (Singapore Statement 2010), and the responsibilities across research collaborations which may involve different groups, institutions or countries (Montreal Statement 2013).

The focus of the 4th conference was on improving systems to promote responsible research, and there was some discussion of the system as a whole, but the ‘systems’ part of the discussion mostly focussed on presentations about the guidance, committees and processes that people and institutions had created.

This may be because the focus has shifted to the culture of research, and changing culture is much harder than writing guidelines or establishing a committee.

However, by the 5th conference in Amsterdam in 2017 it would be great if the conversation started to address the cultural change so that the discussion was not only of what people had done but the impact it had had on the system. Have all these measures increased the integrity of the system? Have we stopped the ‘waste’?

For this to happen, careful thought needs to be put in now as to how this would be measured and to start collecting the data.

As a community, those who study research integrity need to be asking the same questions they advocate:

  • Are they asking the right questions?
  • Are the approaches well-designed?
  • Are they letting people know what doesn’t work as well as what does?

The evidence at the conference was that this isn’t about the small number of cases of out and out fraud but about the research culture, and that there are roles and responsibilities for all parts of the system to address this.

These discussions always make me think of a joke:

Two fish are swimming along and another fish swims by and says “hey there, how’s the water?” and swims on. The two fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one asks the other, “what the heck is water?”

If the conversation in Amsterdam in two years’ time is going to move us forward then it’s time to pay more attention to the water.