The recent Research Culture and Practice Forum was full of wonderful examples of practice and embedding the principles of the concordats. Policy Manager Rachel Persad was invited to give the perspective on research integrity from smaller and specialist institutions as part of the panel ‘Supporting Research Integrity: Principles and Practice’. Read on for a transcript of her talk, which you can also watch on YouTube.
Of all the concordats, for smaller and specialist institutions and emerging research cultures, research integrity is fundamental. It is a cornerstone of creating a research environment, and compliance is essential for keeping terms with funders and for demonstrating rigour, transparency, and fitness for collaboration with others. In my experience it is the most prominent, along with the Knowledge Exchange Concordat. It is not an accident that GuildHE has a role in both.
I want to start by putting the institutions we represent in context. They are varied and on a spectrum, from brand new, aspiring research environments, to emergent cultures that are on track to achieve their own research degree awarding powers, to institutions that are consolidating their excellent research and impact, expanding their cohorts and achieving increased confidence from the sector.
They are close to industries and professions, spanning a wide range of disciplines from creative arts to agriculture and sports science, offering practice-led and applied approaches to research. They are teaching intensives with very small to no QR allocations; they receive less than 2% of all the mainstream funds distributed.
To support the research environment there will be stark choices to make. A subscription to UKRIO or Vitae which would hugely help with understanding, networking, and support, will be pitched against a fundamental piece of infrastructure, such as an outputs repository. It will be an either / or decision, and infrastructure will usually win.
Yet all institutions need to implement the same principles and practices to adhere to the concordats, and whilst SSIs have less research intensity, the processes will have to be done to the same level of scrutiny and rigour as in any other institution to ensure a good research culture.
Given their context, how do they achieve that in proportion yet to the standard expected? I asked our members what support they get, what they need, and the challenges they face in implementing the concordat.
Start at the start
Institutions at all stages of development identify the usefulness of the Concordat in and of itself to provide a framework and a clear steer for panels and committees. This has been echoed by others in his conference, and as a signatory there is real benefit to understanding what a tool for persuasion and giving assurance the document is.
Institutions at all stages aspire to embed the principles, and move beyond a sense of ‘policing’ ethics and integrity. In some ways, those at very early stages of building a research environment have an advantage, those that have recently expanded their environment are finding it more challenging to implement.
They make use of resources that are freely available – this conference is commendable for being so, as are the UKRIO webinar series – and as they mature and / or achieve more income for research, they also begin acquiring infrastructure and external training sources. Yet in most cases these off the shelf options are not affordable, nor is the content tailored enough; they offer a foundation on which they must build.
Moments and mentors
Realising that small support teams and minimal budgets to spend on expensive proprietary software restricted the scope of ‘formal’ training, institutions find alternatives, including mentoring models, distributed leadership, learning moments, and involving the whole academic community in discussions about implementing the principles of integrity.
Achieving a balance between the requirements of the concordat and other pressures on researchers’ time is a challenge, particularly in teaching intensive contexts and institutions recovering from the effects of the pandemic.
Small is not necessarily perfectly formed
SSIs rely on expertise and experience from outside of their institution for matters of integrity and ethics. It may be due to simply not having enough individuals with the right expertise to conduct an investigation, or too many conflicts of interest within a confined community, or a need to bring in another perspective. Peer to peer support is therefore crucial, yet may be rather ad hoc and precarious.
Leading in specialisms, and bringing others together
Monotechnics have unrivalled expertise and deep understanding of their discipline, and they lead the way in taking a laser focus on the integrity issues that pertain to that discipline. That is useful for others, and indeed we’ve been active in putting those into the wider sector via UKRIO and the signatories’ work.
Others with multiple specialisms have found value in transferring understandings of integrity from one domain to another, facilitated by proximity within a smaller institution.
Inclusion at the heart
Those with more experience are taking inclusion to the heart of integrity and ethics, learning from and listening to staff with neurodivergence to fundamentally shift expectations; the concept of ‘slow’ research to counter a ‘quantity over quality’ culture. We, I hope, have also held up our principles and values, particularly around inclusion, equality, and diversity, to raise questions about how well the concordats address the full range of people, roles, places, and institutions in their principles and guidance.
Addressing structural barriers
In a teaching intensive context, research needs to make a stronger case for itself. For the individuals tasked with doing so, reaching understanding and visibility with all functions of the university can be a huge challenge. To embed the principles a holistic view is needed to interrogate where work happens, what is needed to support it, and how individuals are resourced and rewarded to do it.
Extending integrity and ethics to impact, public engagement, and knowledge exchange has been a refrain from our institutions. They have demonstrated a nimble attitude to identifying where integrity could enhance relationship building, trust, and transparency, even in the absence of a research impetus.
What they need
Being smaller and specialist, and emergent in terms of research culture, is both a blessing and a curse. The ‘blank slate’ allows institutions (and individuals) to establish good principles and practices, based on up to date understandings, and experiment with the kinds of leadership, structures, and values that lead to the best outcomes. Yet the burden of embedding all that, and maintaining it, falls heavily on a small number of individuals, and when they move on, the thread can be lost.
For many reasons, collaboration with others is necessary for success, not optional, and a strong sense of collegiality and peer support exists in our consortium. There are things the whole sector can learn from them, and there is support they need which others can effectively provide, including:
Translatable, scaleable guidance, advice, models
Access to expertise and people
Examples of good practice that they can emulate
A seat at the table and inclusive practices
There’s a core of optimism and constructive intent at the heart of the discussions on research culture that gives me hope that as a sector the usual habits of competition can be replaced by a turn to cooperation and collaboration. Individuals in diverse contexts are working very hard to achieve difficult things, we would be wise to create conditions for exchange, translation, and peer learning so that we can collectively make change.