Peer pressure, social media, mainstream science

Science watcher Dr. Daniele Fanelli, London School of Economics, speaks about “the devil’s details” when practicing research integrity.

Honesty, responsibility, fairness and accountability are the principles of research integrity. These are the common standards for any responsible job. Why, then, is it so important to emphasise integrity in research and make it a buzz in politics and media?

Daniele Fanelli profileDaniele Fanelli: The general principles are important to define what excellent research looks like. Nevertheless, when we move from principles to practice, the details become essential. How should misconduct be tackled? How to deal with authorship in collaborative research? How about data management, and who is in charge of sanctioning problematic behaviour? Answers to these questions are less obvious than it may seem, and research integrity guidelines can help scientists navigate difficult situations.

What has motivated you as a natural scientist to focus on meta-studies about ethics and practices in research – was it a negative experience?

Daniele Fanelli: My PhD experience was as formative as it was disappointing. Science did not turn out to be the perfect process I had expected. Next to these unrealistic expectations, my disappointment was also because, like many young scientists at the time and still today, I lacked appropriate guidance and training in research integrity.

Do we actually know enough about what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ science ?

Daniele Fanelli: When I started to investigate research integrity, I believed, rather naively, that, in essence, there is a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” science. Fourteen years later, my conclusion is that there is no simple solution and no one-size fits all approach. All research, including research about integrity topics, is flawed, biased and incomplete. That’s because we are all imperfect. Research is a never-ending collective process of learning, and the only way for it to progress is for scientists to critically evaluate the results of others and allow others to criticise their own.

What were the most blatant cases of scientific misconduct you have encountered?

Daniele Fanelli: The worst cases usually make the news and are known by non- specialists, too. However, one of the errors we tend to make is to pay too much attention to rare cases of outright fraud, and ignore more subtle and widespread problems. Throughout the research process – from formulating a scientific question and collecting or analyzing data to publishing results – researchers have to make decisions. These decisions may be affected by conscious or unconscious assumptions and intentions that are arbitrary and can distort the interpretation of results, usually making them seem more important or general than they truly are.

A few years ago, the European Commission funded a Mutual Learning Exercise to promote research integrity through precise standards and quality control in European research systems. What were the lessons learnt?

Daniele Fanelli: As the name suggests, this exercise was aimed at exchanging experiences across EU Member States. There is a lot of diversity in how countries tackle misconduct. Some countries, in particular the Scandinavian countries, have  a longer history of initiatives and more experience, whilst other countries are at an earlier stage. More importantly, however, all countries face their own particular realities and challenges. This has been one of the key lessons of the EU Mutual Learning Exercise: that research integrity policies in Europe must emerge from opposing and complementary tensions. On the one hand, we need more unified principles and practices but, on the other hand, there are local challenges that require localised approaches.

Social media are causing a kind of new pressure for researchers who need to follow the mantra: ”I Twitter, so I am.” Can social media threaten research integrity – in terms of overselling or polemics?

Daniele Fanelli: In my opinion, the effect that social media is having on science and scientific debates is one of the growing serious challenges to research integrity, and unfortunately it is largely overlooked. The conflation of popularity on social media with scientific impact might be pressuring scientists into conforming and avoiding to challenge mainstream beliefs. Combined with growing monopolies over the control of scientific journals and sources of research funding, this trend risks suppressing the publication of unorthodox research and dissenting points of view. But opinion diversity is crucial to advance in any field of knowledge. Without the freedom and power to challenge the status quo, both science and society will grind to a halt.

Today’s numerous crises lead to high demand for scientific advice from policymakers, who tend to base their decisions on majority scientific opinions rather than following dissenting views.  But the scientific communities themselves may also question researchers who represent so-called new knowledge. Is it becoming increasingly important to defend academic freedom as part of the integrity of research?

Daniele Fanelli: I definitely see a problem with how political decisions are conflated with scientific ones. For example, during the Covid-19 lockdowns, I was troubled by how the notion of “scientific consensus” was used to justify certain policies and interventions, like the still controversial lockdown policies. They were entirely new and untested. I tried to measure the scientific consensus about some of these policies, and my results suggested a much broader diversity than was being assumed.

See data analyses here:
Probing academic consensus on COVID-19 mitigation: are lockdown policies favoured mainly in high-income countries?
Are public health policies keeping up with shifting scientific consensus? The case of vitamin D

How could policymakers enhance their skills in harnessing science expertise especially under the pressure and uncertainty in emergency contexts?

Daniele Fanelli: To be fair  to politicians, they have a very tough job. They need to make decisions balancing a number of different considerations, constraints and values. Scientific evidence is only one element of their decisions. However, the difference between scientific evidence and policy decisions should be communicated clearly and transparently. To pretend that politics and science are the same is doing immense damage to the public trust in science as well as in institutions.

With dissenting opinions, researchers may – besides the fear of being smeared – also risk alienating the support of funders. Is science regressing to the days of Charles Darwin, who, among other reasons, but allegedly also for fear of social control, kept his findings secret for 20 years?

Daniele Fanelli: I definitely see signs of regression. For example, academics are starting again to publish anonymously, for fear of career repercussions. A new journal was founded for this purpose, called the `Journal of Controversial Ideas`.

A big part of the problem is that, nowadays, almost any topic can be seen as controversial or politically sensitive, and thus bring trouble to anyone who speaks publicly about it. In a survey reported by the journal Nature, for example, large proportions of scientists reported receiving death threats just for speaking publicly about matters relating to Covid-19.

Can “Open Science”, which includes fully open access to data, as strongly advocated by EU science policy, promote research integrity?

Daniele Fanelli: In a general sense, I do agree that Open Science expresses the values of research integrity. However, like any other policy or initiative, Open Science initiatives have downsides and unexpected costs. They are not a panacea, but a tool that can be extremely beneficial if implemented carefully, and can be disastrous if applied improperly or maliciously.

The key, I think, always lies in never imposing a research policy from the top-down and across the board. The EU may give common principles, but then, the implementations should be developed from the bottom up. Policies for Open Science, in other words, need to be specific to research fields, countries or even institutions, in order to address local challenges and maximise the costs-benefits trade-offs across the great diversity of European science.

Useful link

Scientific integrity: Handling knowledge as a public good

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