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Researchfish accused of ‘intimidating’ academics

Research-tracking system’s online threats to report UK researchers to funders cause uproar

The Researchfish impact-tracking service has been accused of intimidation and bullying after saying it would report academics to their funders for criticising the system on Twitter.

The social media spat was sparked after Christopher Jackson, a geoscience professor at the University of Manchester, confessed on the platform that he had never heard of the database—which uses technology to track research and evidence impact—writing “What’s Researchfish?”

His message prompted dozens of replies from amused academics, many of whom are required to report their research outcomes to the service as part of their funders’ terms and conditions.

One user wrote, jokingly: “The Researchfish is a small, bright yellow fish, which can be placed in someone’s ear in order for them to be able to instantly forget any impact their work has achieved.”

Another chimed in with: “An alternative story to the Little Mermaid, where instead of Ariel wanting to be human, she chooses to suffer and head down the path of academia instead.”

However, what started out as a humorous discussion took a darker turn, after Researchfish took issue with some of the comments.

Responding to a handful of individual comments, Researchfish’s Twitter account posted messages saying: “We understand that you’re not keen on reporting on your funding through Researchfish but this seems quite harsh and inappropriate. We have shared our concerns with your funder.”

Since then, other Twitter users have pointed out that Researchfish has a history of reporting people to funders for their tweets, with some academics deleting critical tweets as a result.

‘Intimidating researchers’

Speaking to Research Professional News, Jackson said: “When I tweeted about it, I genuinely didn’t know anything about it because all of my research has been funded by industry.

“It’s just one of those mystical things in academia where you manage to spend a long time not hearing about it. It turns out this is the time of year when a lot of people in UK higher education have to do these returns and there was a bit of traffic about it [on Twitter]. So I asked ‘What is Researchfish?’ and a lot of people responded. But when Researchfish themselves replied it got quite nasty.

“When someone in a position of power is intimidating researchers to the point that they delete things I have no sympathy.”

He said “A number of people have said it [amounts to] bullying,” and added that researchers had concerns over GDPR compliance because “they are obviously intimating that they know who funds individual researchers sufficiently well that they could target those funders and get that individual in trouble.”

Writing on Twitter, Brian Patton, a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, described Researchfish’s response as “completely unacceptable corporate bullying that’s doubly obnoxious when they are working in a sector that still loudly claims the right to openly criticise employers”.

While others called for the intervention of national research funder UK Research and Innovation, which requires the researchers it funds to report their outputs to the service.

A UKRI spokesperson told Research Professional News: "We are aware of the concern that has been raised regarding tweets posted by Researchfish. We understand and acknowledge the serious issues raised by researchers and we will be discussing these with Researchfish as a matter of urgency.”

Researchfish tweeted: “We apologise for our poor word choice & we take seriously your comments.

“Please know we support your success & advancing investments in your research. However we adopt a zero tolerance policy towards abuse aimed at our company and staff, we will revisit policies & procedures.”

Research Professional News has approached Researchfish and its parent company, Interfolio, for comment.