A profession under pressure: How can we help researchers navigate challenges posed by questions over quality?

Lower levels of confidence in research output are adding to researchers’ workloads and changing the way they collaborate

© istock.com/Hotaik Sung

At Elsevier, we share the research community’s belief in what science can achieve, and we also understand their frustration with how demanding and difficult the role of a researcher can be. After all, many of our people began their careers in science and medicine, and we work with a worldwide network of editors, authors and specialists covering hundreds of disciplines.

It matters greatly to us that we stay close to the researchers we serve. Over the first half of 2019, we conducted one of the largest surveys of the global research community on trust in research. We found that researchers are currently having to work harder than ever before to verify and validate the information that they build their research on.

Working with our partner Sense about Science, we asked the community how they are coping with the proliferation of information and for their views on its impact on trust levels in scientific research. One of the key findings was that a lower than expected level of confidence in research output is having a big impact on workload.

When it comes to sifting through information, researchers told us they spend almost as much time searching for articles as actually reading them – an average of just over four hours searching and around five hours reading. And the situation is getting worse rather than better – between 2011 and 2019, researchers have been reading 10 percent fewer articles while spending 11 percent more time finding articles.

Reliability is playing a part in this. While 62 percent of researchers regard all or a majority of the research outputs they see as trustworthy, over a third (37 percent) said they only viewed half or some of them as such. And 1 percent viewed none as trustworthy. This has led to many researchers developing time-consuming coping mechanisms to ensure the reliability of the research they use. For example:

  • More than half (57 percent) check supplementary data carefully.
  • Over half (52 percent) seek corroboration from other trusted sources.
  • Over a third (37 percent) rely on reading and accessing outputs from researchers they know.

Many researchers have developed time-consuming coping mechanisms to ensure the reliability of the research they use.  (Source: <em>Trust in Research</em>, 2019)This could have consequences for the research community as researchers read less and cross-pollination of ideas becomes more difficult as researchers stick to what they know. We recently featured the story of Dr. Eoghan Clifford, an engineering lecturer at NUI Galway and Paralympic cyclist, and Prof. Bert Blocken, an aerodynamics specialists at Eindhoven University of Technology and KU Leuven. The two experts in their own fields found each other through their wider reading and collaborated to make new breakthroughs in our understanding of aerodynamics that are now used by paracycling teams around the world. Examples like this may become less frequent if researchers simply don’t have time to read beyond their field and the researchers they know.

Lower levels of confidence in research output have the potential to impact public confidence in science, according to researchers. More than a third (41 percent) of those surveyed said increased low-quality research was a large problem in terms of public confidence, with a quarter (28 percent) citing the volume of information available to the public as a big issue.

Our Trust in Research report is the latest in a series of studies we have conducted to help us better understand the needs of the research community and start a discussion about how information analytics companies like ours can best respond.

The answer to any problem is only as good as the knowledge behind the solution, and by understanding what will most help researchers, we’re able to develop solutions that help our customers stay in control, work faster, manage complexity and free up time to focus on their goals.

Tracey Brown, OBETracey Brown, CEO of Sense about Science, our partner for this research, said:

Trustworthiness is something that we have asked researchers about this summer when we revisited the peer review survey 2009 in a ‘decade on’ look at how issues of quality and reliability are changing. We will be sharing and consulting more on those opinions ahead of their publication in peer review week in September.

What I can say now is that, amid increasing volume of research papers and new kinds of publishing, researchers are really alert to the need to maintain and improve quality. This is also increasingly important for others navigating the findings of research, including affected communities, policymakers and journalists.

To help researchers continue to address the challenges they face around data proliferation and trusted content, we invite them to access useful tools and resources on our Trust in Research page.

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