RESEARCHconnect travelled to Berlin in late February to attend the REWARD-EQUATOR Conference 2020. Under the headline ‘Sharing Innovative Strategies for Research Improvement’, actors from across the research sector gathered at the historic headquarters of the Berlin Medical Society in central Berlin to discuss ideas for better support structures for academics and scientists.

The conference attracted researchers, academic publishers, universities, research organisations and funders from all over the globe, including the Wellcome Trust, Cochrane, The Lancet, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Helmholtz Association, the National Institute for Health Research UK (NIHR), and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).

Over two and a half days, delegates heard about the latest developments, discussed the challenges and shortcoming of current practices in research, and shared ideas for better strategies, tools, and techniques.

Many talks at the conference highlighted the need to secure high quality and increased transparency in research to tackle waste. Questions were also raised about poor priority setting with more than 50% of studies today designed without reference to systematic reviews of existing evidence.

One of the conference’s main topics was what is generally referred to as ‘research waste’. It is research time, effort and funding that is simply wasted due to poor study design, ineffective methods or inadequate publication. This is a problem particularly in biomedical research, with one paper in the Lancet suggesting up to 85% of this type of research is being wasted. This shockingly high number is explained by a cumulative effect. The authors argue that flaws are likely to add up along a paper’s journey from the initial research question to its final publication, with each individual step harbouring risks of bias, inappropriate methods and ineffective approaches.

The role systematic reviews can play in minimising research waste was highlighted by Professor Lisa Anne Bero from Cochrane, one of the leading resource for systematic reviews. During her talk about the journal’s approach to protecting research integrity, she emphasised that meta-research might not be very popular, but it was vital to improve research outputs and strengthen the scientific basis for future studies in many fields.

Both unreported results and a lack of reporting of negative results was identified as another key issue in the fight against research waste. While negative or unreported results could be vital to other researchers in the field and may help to minimise the duplication of work, most scientists still simply ignore them.

The battle against research waste is however not just down to the individual researcher. In her presentation on ‘tools for transparency’, Professor Lisa DeBruine pointed out that funders have a role to play as well.

Many research tools are commercially available. But particularly in the life sciences, large numbers of tools require custom development. This area is still seriously underfunded. With few funders offering support for targeted tool development, this work is often taken on by junior scientists in addition to their other duties. Junior researchers are however more likely to work on short contracts, often moving to other institutions or projects in short succession. As a result, tools are frequently abandoned mid-development or forgotten shortly after the project is concluded.

Development time for useful tools that could have benefitted many other projects is thus wasted, mainly because funding for this type of work is not secure.

While most talks at the conference focussed on the particular challenges for researchers in the life sciences, there were also contributions which transcended the science-humanities divide.

      

Dr Alison Harbin offered an emotional account of her experience with plagiarism during her PhD in art history. The academic-turned-campaigner denounced the inner workings of an academic system which she argued incentivises unethical conduct. Senior researchers are under immense pressure to constantly produce new, world-class research. ‘Is it really any wonder then that many advisors and professors are eager to eat their young?’, Harbin asked. The temptation could be great to appropriate the ideas of researchers further down the career ladder and pass them off as original work.

This issue surrounding research culture has recently been highlighted by the Wellcome Trust’s report on research culture. It was also discussed by Dr Anne-Marie Coriat, the Head of UK/EU Research Landscape at Wellcome. She described the changes Wellcome has made to its PhD funding programme in order to promote a more positive research culture. The new programme is designed to ensure improved PhD supervision, enhanced career planning and better mental health support. A key element is also the Wellcome Open Research, a gateway for the speedy publication of any results by a Wellcome Trust funded researcher. The service is designed to promote rapid publication, transparent peer review and open data. At the same time, researchers are protected in case of disputes about intellectual property.

The effects of a ‘toxic’ research culture could also be felt in the presentation of Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch. He offered his insights as one of the founders of a website which tracks retractions of scientific papers across the globe. His verdict was far from hopeful: ‘misconduct is on the rise,’ and the self-correction mechanisms of the system are far too slow.

Yet, the commitment and passion of the delegates at this year’s REWARD-EQUATOR Conference shows that change is already happening. Examples of proactive responses can be seen all across the sector: Embassy of Good Science is currently building a crowd-sourced platform for research integrity and ethics, while the reference management software Zotero is now the first such software to offer retraction notifications to ensure its users are not relying on invalid sources.

Summing up the key message of the conference, Professor John P. A. Ioannidis, Co-Director of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford University (METRICS) and one of the conference’s organisers, is confident: ‘We have a lot of ideas now about what the problems are, and we start thinking more and more about what we can do to solve them.’ As he emphasises, it is the ‘wonderful enterprise that we call scientific research’ that is at stake.

A complete book of abstracts of all papers presented at the conference is now available at the REWARD-EQUATOR 2020 website alongside videos and presentation materials from key lectures.

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