The Growing Need for Transparency: A Source of Frustration and Pride
By Marianna Evola
Transparency elicits trust, secrecy elicits suspicion. Academic research is a transparent
endeavor because it promotes trust in the research community. I use these lines quite
often when I lead conversations on responsible research with students. However, recently
I've been contemplating how transparency addresses the growing number of concerns
related to responsible research. Pretty much every topic of RCR training begins with
a discussion on the importance of transparency. Luckily transparency has been central
to the integrity of research and scholarship since the start, so students have a good
grasp or the importance of transparency. However, students have not always thought
about how important it is to broadly apply the practice of transparency to all stages
of a research project. From conceptualizing an idea to publishing a study, we are
not allowed any secrets and of course, we are never permitted to purposefully omit
any aspect of a research methodology from our research presentations or publications.
We have very high expectations of transparency from our colleagues and we train our
students to be actively transparent in their research endeavors.
No, I'm not a blind idealist. I'm aware that we can all identify one or two colleagues that are not fully transparent in their research reports. However, their research and decisions are often discussed with shaking heads and shoulder shrugs. Their research is not wholly trusted. Their lack of transparency is judged as engaging in deception, so their work is deemed questionable at best. Students are not often overtly informed about these colleagues because we want our students to embrace positive research practices, not engage in gossip. However, gradually as students gain knowledge and status in their discipline, they notice the missing pieces in the research reports and note that their mentor does not reference those articles. Gradually, students get strong mentoring that research cannot be trusted if it is not transparent.
We encourage students to engage in transparency from the day that they start in the lab, often as undergrads. We know when students walk into the lab they will make mistakes, fail to follow instructions and cost the lab time and money as they learn to conduct research. As such, many of these first lessons on transparency occur when students make critical research errors. Mentors practice patience and deep breathing so that we will be approachable and not react in anger when students come to us with costly errors. Well, that was my strategy but I have to admit that my deep breathing was more often a growling sigh with a healthy eye roll. Then after a moment of silence, I would rally the team to correct the problem or clean up the mess. That being said, my students did come to me to report errors which suggests that to some extent, I maintained the aura of approachability. Since then, as my former students have developed their own careers, they have complimented me on my patience when they recall their mistakes. The memories are generally triggered while they are struggling to maintain composure while mentoring their own students. Regardless, my students learned the importance of transparency when they braved coming to me with mistakes and problems. Now they mentor the importance of transparency with their own students. Practicing and teaching the importance of transparency is a historical tradition in the research world.
So, if transparency is such a long standing practice inherent to the research world, why is there ever any confusion regarding the need to be transparent? Are researchers purposely engaging in deception? The answer to that is, absolutely not. Rather, there is an increase in the number and complexity of regulations associated with research. Thus, it is difficult for researchers to stay abreast of their need to maintain transparency with the ever growing and changing regulations. In addition, technology has evolved, such as plagiarism detection software, which is creating greater scrutiny and accountability of academic research. Finally, the focus and nature of academic research is also evolving so that more researchers are focused on translational research so that they can possibly market their ideas and reap the rewards of their sweat and creativity. All of these evolutions in research are creating a need for transparency in a manner or degree which did not previously exist. As such, with research careers and regulatory oversight rapidly evolving, academic researchers can easily and accidentally fail to meet growing standards of transparency. And sadly, in the competitive research world, these mistakes can be misinterpreted as purposeful deception and one's research reputation can inadvertently be damaged.
So, how do you protect yourself? I think the first step is to go back and evaluate what it means for a researcher to be transparent? At a recent presentation on the issue of self-plagiarism, I asked the students in attendance to define transparency. After a pause, the students began to try and define the term and largely they approached the definition as being truthful in research reports and never being deceptive. Now, of course, the students were blind-sided with the question during my presentation so I did not expect them to provide a perfect response, rather I wanted to get a feel for their understanding of transparency. However, as the students finished their definition of transparency, it was interesting to note that their definitions lacked a proactive component to transparency that is likely critical for promoting trust.
Transparency is proactive full disclosure of practices and activities. Yes, we are required to answer questions honestly and not be deceptive. However, like so many attributes of academic research, we hold ourselves and our colleagues to a higher standard. It is not enough to merely answer questions honestly, we must proactively provide all pertinent information. Researchers don't just answer questions, rather we are required to provide our audience with a list of invasive questions by disclosing all the skeletons in our research closet. We enable our audience to ask challenging questions by providing them with the questions. As such, the audience is readily able to question whether our practices and activities are appropriate. In a sense, transparency enables the audience to say "No". Hence, transparency comes with an element of vulnerability.
However, due to the growing regulatory environment of academic research, researchers are accountable far beyond their academic audience. Researchers are now required to be transparent to a plethora of regulatory committees, all of which are empowered to say "No". They are, of course, accountable for their research activities, but researchers are also accountable for personal business that could be perceived to be related to their research endeavors, in the form of conflicts of interest. In other words, research ideas and practices are increasingly vulnerable to restriction and oversight, but so is personal business (i.e., conflicts of interest) that is related to research endeavors. It is worth remembering that these regulatory committees are made up of research colleagues that want to promote research productivity while also enhancing ethics and transparency. I work with multiple faculty committees and their support staff and all of these committees are pro-research but they exist for a reason. All of these committees exist because our academic ancestors made bad choices and as such, systems for oversight were created. As such, the second step for researchers to take to ensure that they meet growing transparency standards is to utilize these committees. When committees request additional information from investigators, what they are saying is that additional transparency is needed to meet regulatory standards.
In addition, technology, such as plagiarism detection software, has enabled editors, research sponsors, reviewers and competitors to easily assess our entire research and publication history. As such, the ethics of historical publication practices, such as recycling the text from published methods, are being questioned and debated (http://www.depts.ttu.edu/vpr/scholarly-messenger/2016/October/rcr-self-plagiarism.php). These technologies make it critical for researchers to be aware of the standards of their discipline and the expectations for transparency. I warn students to educate themselves on the accepted practices of their discipline and whether their professional societies, research sponsors or high ranking publications consider recycling published methods to be self-plagiarism. And, even if it is currently acceptable, students should be clearly transparent about recycling methods so that their actions cannot be construed as deceptive. Hence, the third step that investigators should take to make sure that they are meeting transparency standards is to familiarize themselves with the expectations of their professional societies, research sponsors and publishers.
The academic research world has always had high standards to promote the integrity of research. Not only were we not permitted to be deceptive, the practice of transparency minimized the likelihood that one's audience would perceive deception in our research practices. Now the regulatory world and technology are holding us to an even higher standard of transparency. Researchers need to be aware that there are growing standards because our practices are under increased scrutiny and as such, research reputations are vulnerable. We can be resentful of the increased scrutiny, and we all are, on occasion. A bit of grumbling and resentment is expected. However, we can also remember that the rudimentary ethics and research standards that are widely accepted today were probably resented by our academic ancestors. They, no doubt, grumbled as they witnessed the infancy of ethics in research. Our academic ancestors set the standard of transparency and the research world continues to refine the practice today, holding us accountable to growing standards of transparency. We have high ethical standards that have largely been self-imposed. Those standards can be difficult to meet. We should be proud.
Marianne Evola is the director of the Human Research Protection Program in the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.