Participants at HKU conference call for attention to research quality

August 02, 2019

Scientists worldwide work tirelessly to advance human knowledge and discoveries. One estimate suggests that about three million research articles are published each year, spread across some 30,000 journals.

Despite the quantity, however, many think that improvements can be made to the research culture to bring forth even more significant impact on the world.

To explore the way to go and share best practices, about 700 researchers, teachers, leaders of funding agencies, government officials, journal editors etc. from 60 countries gathered at the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity held at the University of Hong Kong between June 2 and 5. Entitled New Challenges for Research Integrity, the conference heard enriching views on improving the current system for funding research and rewarding faculty.

Among the plenary speakers were Australia's Chief Scientist Alan Finkel; Dr David Moher, Associate Professor from the School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa; Professor Mai Har Sham, Associate Vice-President (Research) of HKU and co-chair of the organizing committee for the conference, and Dr Maura Hiney, the Head of Post-Award and Education at the Irish Health Research Board. They agreed on moving away from the current, long established practice of assessing research efforts on the basis of metrics predominantly the number of publications and citations in academic journals.

Dr Finkel noted that there are more than 20,000 retracted papers in the Retraction Watch database, which reflects a need for strengthened quality control. "Research institutions have to be more explicit in conveying the message to their research staff that quality counts," he said.

He suggested the Rule of Five for funding agencies and institutions, namely that aspiring researchers should be asked to submit only their best five papers over the past five years, accompanied by a description of the research, its impact and their individual contribution. To ensure quality, agencies should only consider research that has been published in journals compliant with Publication Process Quality Assurance (PPQA) guidelines or those developed by organisations like COPE - the Committee on Publication Ethics.

"Higher levels of PPQA could pick up on the Transparency and Open Promotion guidelines, known as the TOP guidelines, compiled by the Centre for Open Science, or the Reproducibility and Replicability in Science recommendations published this year by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine," he explained.

Dr Finkel singled out Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) as an example of a granting agency thoughtfully and deliberately shifting the incentives to strengthen the system. The Rule of Five is now in place for some NHMRC grant schemes - and in future, it may well be extended.

Based on the principle of "follow the money", Dr Finkel also recommended that granting agencies should make proof of research integrity training a requirement for applying for a grant - a call echoed by other speakers.

The conference saw the release of the Hong Kong Principles for Assessing Researchers: Fostering Research Integrity - intended to serve as guiding principles to help institutions improve the current system of faculty incentives and rewards.

Co-author Dr David Moher noted the common frustration with the prevailing "Publish or Perish" culture, which he claims exacerbates the pressure on academics and causes some to engage in duplication, use poor methodology, research design or other practices that could undermine the credibility of their scientific endeavours. "There is evidence that researchers will tailor their publication practices and behaviours in order to advance their career," said Dr Moher.

The five Hong Kong Principles include 1, Assess researchers (and institutions) on responsible practices from conception to delivery, including the development of the research idea, research design, methodology and execution and effective dissemination; 2, Value the accurate and transparent reporting of all research, regardless of the results and reward honest and transparent reporting ; 3, Value the practices of open science - such as open methods, materials and data - when feasible; 4, Value a broad range of research and scholarship, such as replication, synthesis, and meta-research; 5, Value a range of other contributions to responsible research and scholarly activity, such as peer review for grants and publications, mentoring, outreach, and knowledge transfer.

Dr Hiney defines research integrity as the collective responsibility of researchers, funding agencies, institutions. "It is inward facing, addressing quality, reliability, trustworthiness of the research output and outcome, with which we are moving towards innovation, translation of research innovations."

Professor Sham supports the idea of incorporating research integrity training into the graduate curriculum. It is equally important, she adds, that ranking agencies put the same weight on the proposed values in their assessment of institutions.

The University of Hong Kong

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