‘We may be reaching a tipping point’

Ella Rhodes reports.

In a move towards aligning efforts to improve the robustness and openness of research and tackle questionable research practices and reproducibility, 10 universities have joined the UK Reproducibility Network. Formed of grassroots networks of researchers and stakeholders including publishers, funders and learned societies, including the British Psychological Society, the network hopes to shift incentives in academia to reward open research practices.

The 10 institutions, Aberdeen, Bristol, Edinburgh, Keele, Newcastle, Oxford Brookes, the Royal Veterinary College, Sheffield, Surrey, and UCL, will form a group of instructional leads within the UK Reproducibility Network (UKRN) and will each create a senior academic role who will focus on improving research. These are the first institutions to formally join the network, co-founded in early 2019 by Professor Marcus Munafò, with more universities keen to become part of the network.

Munafò, Chair of the UK Reproducibility Network steering group and Professor of Biological Psychology (University of Bristol), said the UKRN’s stakeholders were elements of the wider research system that had a role to play in improving research quality but that the final piece of the jigsaw was the institutions themselves. ‘The institutions are important because in many ways they embody much of the research culture that many of these issues of reproducibility relate to for example in promotion and hiring criteria, the extent to which they incentivise certain types of research and publishing in certain types of journal.

‘I think that's why getting the institutions on board is important because they will be responsive to the changes that the funders introduce, they also need to listen to the voices of the grassroots researchers in terms of what their needs are and they also need to think about how they create more positive incentives to work in ways that improve the quality of the work that we do.’

The institutions which have joined the UKRN will act as a link between its grassroots network of researchers and stakeholders, allowing efforts to improve the incentive structure in academia and certain research practices to be aligned and coordinated. ‘In academia and research our most important asset is our people and those people tend to move across institutions, particularly early in their careers. If certain things are done in a consistent way across those institutions it makes their interoperability far greater. 150 years ago trains from one company couldn't work on the tracks from another company; standardising the gauge of tracks allowed a far greater degree of efficiency because trains could move across different tracks. We’re thinking about the same thing here in terms of training in basic transferable skills, having a common standard across those institutions, delivering a common set of training modules across those institutions so that, rather than having this competitive mode of working we have at the moment, we also bring in a degree of collaboration.’

Munafò has been involved with communicating a need for better quality, more replicable, research as well as misaligned incentive structures in academia for around 15 years. He said it is only in the last four years he has felt a sense that we may be reaching a tipping point. ‘These conversations are much more mainstream now, the funders, the publishers, the researchers themselves are much more engaged with these issues and now we're starting to see the institutions coming on board. There's a real momentum building that I think is really positive. There's a really healthy feeling of self-reflection in the air, and we're starting to think more positively about what we can do to improve things, how we can collect the evidence to determine whether or not things have improved, how we can evaluate the way in which we work. We're past the point of saying things aren't great and we're in a much more positive phase of thinking about solutions and working together.’

Possibly one of the most important shifts that the open science movement has brought with it is a greater emphasis on meta-research, or research on research, as a discipline. Munafò pointed to the Research on Research Institute recently launched at the University of Sheffield, and the University of Bristol has announced it will create a centre and appoint chair in research quality. ‘You're starting to see this coalescing of activity around the other side of the coin which is the empirical evaluation of some of these changes.’ 

The British Psychological Society and UKRN will be offering two full-cost bursaries for the Society’s 2020 conference in Leeds for postgraduates or early career researchers who would like to present a paper on open science – one of the conference themes.

See tinyurl.com/wc7tnql for our interview with Munafò on his work with the UKRN, and another interview about his work more broadly.

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