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Survey on academic integrity launched

Image: xtock, via Shutterstock 

Questionnaire for university staff in the Netherlands aims to discover factors influencing good practice

A survey that aims to question nearly 40,000 academics in the Netherlands on their daily practices has started this week.

The National Survey on Research Integrity 2020, which kicked off on 15 October, is targeted at everyone involved in teaching or research at a higher education institution, including PhD candidates. They will receive a request to answer a number of questions on research integrity.

The survey was originally due to start in May but was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is part of the Fostering Responsible Research Practices programme, which has a five-year budget of almost €4 million and is run by the health research funder ZonMW.

Lex Bouter, leader of the survey project, said the study’s two objectives were to gain insights into the extent to which researchers in the Netherlands “behave well or less well” with regard to research integrity and to find out which factors influence their behaviour.

“A randomised response approach for the most sensitive questions guarantees that researchers can safely provide honest answers,” he told Research Netherlands. “On the basis of the results, we expect to be able to determine which factors will be the best to intervene.”

The research team has divided the questions into five clusters. The first is about work pressure, including publication pressure, and the second about the quality of supervision and the role of mentors, who have a strong influence on how researchers deal with integrity in their careers.

The third cluster covers the experience of competition. “Some competition is good, but hyper-competition may jeopardise integrity,” said Bouter, a professor of methodology and integrity at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

The fourth cluster of questions is about what standards the researchers themselves have and whether they differ from those in their environment. According to Bouter, this covers situations where, for example, researchers are strongly in favour of transparency and the publication of data but are working with colleagues who are much more reluctant.

Cluster five covers researchers’ thoughts about how their work is being evaluated for quality and funding selection. Bouter said that if these criteria were not perceived as fair, researchers were more inclined to falsify information in proposals and funding applications.

Probability of being caught is likely to play a role too, according to Bouter. “The questions are about factors that can be addressed, so this study will probably deliver better and more substantiated interventions,” he said.

The results of the survey will be made available in the second quarter of 2021. The research team will then propose an action plan to improve the quality of research in conjunction with universities, researchers, funding agencies and journals.

“Universities can make it easier for researchers to improve the quality of research and encourage them to do so,” Bouter said. “But above all, financiers and scientific journals will be able to enforce research integrity by imposing certain requirements, for example with regard to the publication of research data.”