But critics claim not enough has changed following Twitter row and want service abandoned
Academic impact tracker Researchfish says it has “worked hard” to change its approach to social media after reporting academics over tweets that criticised the service—but researchers caught up in the controversy are not won over.
Multiple academics last year accused Researchfish of intimidation, bullying and a possible breach of data-protection laws after it reported six incidents involving posts on Twitter to the national funder UK Research and Innovation.
Like many other funders, UKRI requires its grantees to report the impact of their research using the service, and it had agreed that the service’s staff should flag “abusive, threatening or offensive” messages about Researchfish on social media.
Following the controversy—which became known as ResearchfishGate—Researchfish said it was “truly sorry” and took “full responsibility”. UKRI also apologised for its part in the incident.
The service’s Twitter account remained inactive after the story broke in March 2022 for a period of seven months. However, the Researchfish account resumed tweeting in November. So far, the new tweets have focused on service updates, resources and events.
Asked how its approach to social media had changed almost one year on, a spokesperson for Researchfish, which is owned by Interfolio, told Research Professional News it had “listened to the research community and worked hard to make changes to our social media processes and procedures to ensure this doesn’t happen again”.
In addition, they said the platform had made “significant updates” to improve user experience of the service, including clearer navigation to make “submissions and retrieval of data as intuitive as possible”.
Meanwhile, in reference to its role in ResearchfishGate, a UKRI spokesperson repeated that they have “apologised unreservedly for the actions we took and the concern that was caused in our communities”.
They told Research Professional News that the funder was continuing to “strengthen our processes to prevent such situations from occurring in future”.
“We are also continuing to review which data we require and how best to collect it, and to work with Interfolio to ensure that the Researchfish system works as smoothly as possible for our users,” they added.
But some researchers remain unconvinced, including the person behind the anonymous Twitter parody account, PhishResearch, which aims to hold Researchfish and UKRI to account over the incident.
“What is needed now is a genuine apology and a full disclosure of what happened,” the person behind the account, who wished to remain anonymous, told Research Professional News.
They claimed that “several people” had sent requests about how their data were used and about the incidents to Researchfish and UKRI but “never got a reply”.
A Researchfish spokesperson insisted “everyone who contacted us to enquire about their data use received a full written response”.
The UKRI spokesperson did not address data requests directly, but they directed Research Professional News to their 19 April 2022 statement on the matter which said: “We understand that this has raised questions around personal data. We take data protection very seriously. Our assessment of the data protection considerations is ongoing and is expected to be concluded shortly.”
They did not provide an update on the assessment of the data protection mentioned in that statement.
Christopher Jackson, a former academic at the University of Manchester, who became embroiled in the controversy on Twitter last year, told Research Professional News: “As far as I’m aware, nothing has changed. But this doesn’t surprise me, given many companies and institutions rush to make face-saving comments, saying they’ll investigate but then do nothing when not being scrutinised.
“Meanwhile, academics continue to suffer with systems that are not-fit-for-purpose, and which waste their time, taking them away from important research and teaching activities.”
The mandated use of service remains unpopular among some academics, who are raising the issue again as the 2023 submission period for reporting impact using the service opens up.
Stephen J Tucker, a biophysicist at the University of Oxford, on 5 January, wrote on Twitter: “Only 1 month until my #Researchfish submission period opens and the pointless form filling begins…Oh joy!”
And Alison Phipps, a professor at the University of Glasgow tweeted on 18 January: “Tis the season. Watch out for the brand protection police and further erosion of our right to protest/complain/ withdraw.”
‘Improved user experience’
A Researchfish spokesperson told Research Professional News it “publicly and wholeheartedly apologises for the concern caused among researchers last year”.
It added that it has also “improved user experience with clearer, easy-to-read pages. There is now greater accessibility for all users, especially those using screen readers and other accessibility devices”.
“Our social media channels will now be used to keep researchers up to date on developments like this and our wider activity,” they said.
“Early feedback shows that the research community appreciates the improvements we have made, there is always more work to be done and the updates will not stop here.”
A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight