UG refuses to cooperate on’sloppy science’ survey
All universities and university medical centres were supposed to participate in the National Survey on Research Integrity (NSRI). Research financier ZonMW invested 3.8 million euros and five years to study not just what goes wrong in scientific research, but also everything that’s done right. They planned to disseminate the survey to all researchers from all scientific fields to establish a baseline.
‘But sadly enough, when we were starting the research, the universities changed their minds’, says principal scientist Gowri Gopalakrishna, who works at the Amsterdam UMC.
According to UG spokesperson Jorien Bakker, the reason for this was that the universities’ rectors had questions about how the study was set up. ‘The research question and the impact on researchers also played a role’, she says.
No email addresses
Of the twenty-three universities and UMCs, only eight were willing to share their employees’ email addresses and actively tell their staff to participate. ‘We had to scrape email addresses from open sources, like university websites and PubMed’, says Gopalakrishna. ‘So due to an unclean database, we might not be capturing everyone. That took us a lot of time, but also the response rate is very poor, no more than 8 to 9 percent. People don’t even open the emails.’
Gopalakrishna worries that people think the email, sent by TNS NIPO, is some kind of phishing mail. Another explanation for the low response could be that researchers are inundated by communication from scientific journals. This means the survey runs the risk of not being representative: she needs at least 25 percent of people to respond.
‘I am really disappointed’, she says. ‘We offered the universities the opportunity to take a look at the studies and the questions and give feedback. Within reason we would be happy to try and modify to accommodate that. But they didn’t even want to look at it.’
She fears that ‘integrity’ has become a dirty word and that universities want nothing to do with it. ‘And that is very unfortunate and that is also the reason that we are doing this study. We wanted it to become a common topic to talk about and not one that we feel is a taboo.’
She considers the fact that two thirds of universities refuse to participate in the survey a clear indicator that they fear that ‘something bad is coming out of this’. ‘But we need to be able to discuss these things openly, without being punished.’
Ineke Wessel with Behavioural and Social Sciences, a proponent of open science, appealed to the university on Twitter to participate in the survey after all. ‘Why not?’ she asked. ‘Utterly important! Colleagues, please participate. Anonymity guaranteed.’
‘The goal is very ambitious’, she says. ‘A national survey that includes every single academic discipline is unique.’
If the university participates, it’ll send a message that this is important, says Wessels. ‘I was told that universities aren’t participating because people are sick of surveys. But this is telling; it shows they feel this is less important than other things.’
She’s not entirely surprised. After all, universities are part of the system. ‘Universities want to be at the top in the rankings and earn Nobel Prizes and prestigious grants. But all that is part of the system that needs retooling. It makes sense that they don’t want to promote that.’
She still sees sloppy science happening everywhere. But no one knows how big the issue is, and where the problems actually occur. That hurts the scientific community. ‘It’s clear from the Stapel case that lying isn’t okay’, she says. ‘But there’s a grey area that people don’t know about. Some people don’t even realise that they way they’re handling data isn’t entirely okay. That’s something we need to change.’
If you’d like to participate in the survey after all, check your email for a message from research leader Lex Bouter, sent by TNS NIPO. This is the invitation to the National Survey on Research Integrity.