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Research with integrity – a look back and a look forward

by Phil Prime | Analysis

14 June 2023

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Here at the Beatson, we recently celebrated our research integrity advisor, Dr Catherine Winchester having been in post for 10 years… and yes, there was cake. This made me think, not only about how much she has contributed to the research ethos of the Institute in the past 10 years, but also how the focus on research integrity has changed during this period…

This entry is part 1 of 13 in the series Research Integrity


There was a time, when Catherine and I were still postdocs in the lab, when problems with data integrity were talked about in hushed tones and only occasional, high-profile, cases of research misconduct reached the press.

Now there is much greater openness about problem data and correcting errors. There is also a genuine concern from researchers, their host institutions, funding bodies and journals about ensuring research is done to the highest standard and reported accurately. Ultimately, this is about giving the public the confidence in the work that we do; and what can be more important than ensuring that this is the case for cancer and other important areas of medical research? So, how have things changed in last 10 years?

Dr Catherine Winchester

Where we have got to

Well, in the UK we now have the Concordat to Support Research Integrity, which aims to provide a national framework for good research conduct and its governance. This was first published in 2012— just a year before Catherine joined us—and was updated in 2019. For us, the commitments set out in this document – maintaining the highest standards of research integrity, embedding a culture of research integrity, dealing with allegations of research misconduct, and strengthening research integrity – have all helped shape our policies and processes at the Beatson. It has also helped us develop the support and training we provide to our researchers.

Training in good research practice is a major component of our approach to research integrity.

Our view is that clear polices are important, but changing the mindset of the next generation of researchers and providing with them with the confidence and skills they need will reap much greater rewards in long term.

Having an in-house leader for research integrity, Catherine in our case, that researchers can respect, talk to, and learn from has also been key. At the national level, a wealth of support is available from the UK Research Integrity Office, which held its tenth annual conference this year focused on ‘culture and confidence’. In addition, Cancer Research UK has made strong inroads into supporting research integrity by signing up to the Concordat and encouraging research advisors like Catherine to be embedded within all its Institutes.

Future challenges

So, where do the challenges for research integrity lie in the future?

We believe that the ongoing discussions about ways to improve research culture so that everyone involved feels included and valued – led by the Wellcome Trust, UKRI and others – also have the potential to have a positive impact on research integrity by removing some of the pressures that lead to mistakes or even bad practice.

Here at the Institute, we hope to use some of these discussions as a starting point to further develop our research integrity work, focusing on our ethos of research excellence, openness, and collaboration.

The pros and cons of generative AI are also currently being much talked about in the press and educational establishments across the globe. What could the impacts of this technology be on research integrity, and how might it need to be regulated? Could it lead to lazy practices or misinformation, or does it offer opportunities for better communication or spotting errors in the data?

Like many discoveries, it may end up being a combination of both, and certainly the debate will be fascinating. Finally, data sharing is becoming ever more critical in research and could efforts in this area to ensure data integrity also help drive best practice?

So, exciting, and possibly challenging times ahead for both researchers and research integrity advisors.

Author

Jacqueline Beesley is Head of Research Management at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute