Elsevier Chats: Adrian Mulligan on trust in research

A Research Director at Elsevier talks about gauging the state of trust in research and how we can work with the community to develop solutions

Adrian Mulligan presenting
Adrian Mulligan is Research Director for Customer Insights at Elsevier. (Photo by Alison Bert)

To kick off our Elsevier Chats series, VP Chrysanne Lowe interviews Adrian Mulligan, Research Director for Customer Insights at Elsevier.

Adrian, we’re talking about the concept of trust in research, and Elsevier recently released the findings of one of the largest surveys of the research community on this topic. What prompted that survey?

The survey was part of our ongoing partnership with Sense about Science, a campaigning charity that advocates for openness and honesty in research findings. Initially we were looking to build on a survey we did on peer review back in 2009, where we spoke to about 4,000 researchers and asked them for their input on how they felt the system was performing. In the decade since that survey, there’s been a huge amount of change, and we’ve adapted our approach in response.

You mention a huge amount of change, what do you mean by that?

Advances in technology, the rise of social media, and a much greater volume of research outputs, all have impacted the way research gets done, evaluated and shared. So we wanted to get a sense of whether or not that had affected people’s view of peer review. But we also expanded our scope to capture feedback on trustworthiness and which metrics best signal quality and aid evaluation. We heard from about 3,000 researchers from around the world and from a variety of disciplines.

What did those 3,000 researchers tell you?

What we saw is that the majority of researchers – 62 percent – regard most of the research outputs they encounter as trustworthy. There’s a tendency to focus on the negative. But what we saw is that overall, researchers trust each other to do their work well, whether they’re conducting research or reviewing it.

So overall it’s good news?

Yes, but that being said, more than a third of researchers (37 percent) said they only viewed half or some of what they see as trustworthy, and 1 percent viewed none as trustworthy. When you combine that with some of the insights generated by the peer review report and the Research Futures report we conducted at the start of 2019, you start to get a picture of a community that is working the best it can but is starting to feel the pressure of the overall system.

What does pressure mean in this context?

Whilst the increase in the volume of research brings more opportunities, more information also means more work. Over the last decade, we’ve seen the rise of mega-journals with a soundness-not-significance approach to peer review; researcher profiles; and pre-print servers.

And this is just more stuff to get through...

Yes, it means there is more content to sift through, which puts pressure on researchers to determine whether a research output is worth their attention. It is not always clear to them whether content has been peer reviewed, and if so, to what standard.

And what is the impact?

Essentially we’re seeing inefficiencies being introduced. In another study we did earlier this year, over 1000 researchers told us that they are spending almost as much time searching for articles as actually reading them. On average, researchers spend just over four hours a week searching for research articles and more than five hours reading them. And the picture is actually getting worse over time – they are spending 11 percent more time searching today than they did eight years ago.

I can see the challenge. So with all that in mind, how do researchers decide what to trust?

More than half said they check supplementary data quite carefully, 52 percent seek corroboration from other trusted sources, and quite interestingly, more than a third (37 percent) only read and access information from researchers they know.

Now that is really something if, in this age of unlimited information, we end up limiting our exposure to information to the limited pool of people that we know? That’s ironic.

Yes, and this is what some in the academic community fear and what slows down the advancement of science and knowledge.

If researchers are unclear what to trust, how has this impacted trust in science more widely?

More than a third (41 percent) of those surveyed said the increase in low quality research was a large problem in terms of public confidence in science, and over a quarter (28 percent) thought that the sheer volume of information available to the public as a big issue.

So what are you doing with this study?

These findings strengthen Elsevier’s determination to work with the community to develop solutions that make evaluation easier and ensure researchers can rely on the integrity of the information. Customers have long trusted Elsevier because of the deliberate care we place in verifying and managing knowledge. We see our role as helping them better navigate these complex times.

Download the Trust in Research report

Elsevier Chats

Elsevier Chats Throughout Elsevier, we share the research community’s belief in what science can achieve. This is a series of informal chats with people at Elsevier, sharing their work in progress and thinking on the pressing topics of today and the future.

Adrian Mulligan

Adrian Mulligan is Research Director for Customer Insights at Elsevier. He has more than 20 years' experience in STM publishing, much of that time spent in research. He oversees research programs used to drive action in the business and to help shape Elsevier strategy. The Customer Insights team works in partnership with external groups to deepen understanding of the scholarly landscape across the industry. He has presented on a range of research-related topics at various conferences, including STM, ESOF, AAP, SSP, APE and ALPSP. Adrian’s background is in archaeology; he has a BA Honours degree and a master of science degree from the University of Leicester. He also has a diploma in market research from the Market Research Society.

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