Interview with PRINTEGER Policy Advisory Board Member Dr Maura Hiney

Portrait-Jan-2013-017-MauraDr Maura Hiney is a qualified nurse (1982) and holds a BSc (Hons) in Microbiology and Biochemistry (1988) and a PhD (1994) in Molecular Diagnostics and Epizootology of fish diseases. She worked as a researcher and as director of research support services in the university sector. Currently she is Head of Post-Award and Evaluation at the Health Research Board, Ireland.
Maura chairs the Science Europe Working Group on Research Integrity and is member of the ALLEA Permanent Working Group on Science and Ethics, where she leads the recently formed subgroup dedicated to updating the “European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity”. In 2015, she acted as expert advisor on research integrity to the Luxembourg Ministry for Research and Education during the Luxembourg Presidency of the EU. She is supporting the PRINTEGER project as a member of the policy advisory board.

Dr Hiney, you have a particular interest in issues pertaining to research integrity and ethics in research. Can you tell us how you got interested in these issues? How did your qualification bring you to the field of research integrity and ethics?
I‘ve been aware of, and interested in, ethics and research integrity since my PhD studies. I was very lucky to have a supervisor who set high standards of behaviour. From him I learned that failure is just as important as success, and some of our most interesting work arose from the ashes of apparently ‘failed’ experiments. Not everyone had the same attitude to failure as a positive force. I personally observed a number of instances of fabrication and falsification of experimental results, where the ‘failure’ of an experiment was considered unacceptable. Of course, at that time there was little guidance on what constituted good research practices and no encouragement, support or institutional structures for researchers, especially junior researchers, to bring forward any concerns they might have about their own ethical dillemas or behaviours they might be uncomfortable with in their work environments. I found that very disheartening and it sowed the seeds of my interest in this complex area.
When I moved to the Health Reserach Board  in 2007 as a Policy Analyst these issues really came into focus for me since, unfortunately, many of the high-profile misconduct cases in recent years have been in the fields of psychology and medicine. My own efforts to develop policies and processes on research integrity for the agency coincided with the 1st World Congress on Research Integrity in Lisbon and the establishment of the European Science Foundation Working Group on Research Integrity. These initiatives, along with excellent work being done by the OECD and others at that time really galvanised funding agencies around Europe, including mine, to work together to tackle this complex and multi-faceted topic.

What role does research integrity and ethics play in your day to day job at the Health Research Board Ireland?
Ireland has made, and continues to make, significant investment in R&D, particularly in biomedicine and health sciences, which is where the Health Research Board focuses its efforts. As a publically-funded agency we are very conscious that public and political support for research is not unlimited, but is conditional on preserving trust in the credibility and validity of the research endeavour. So we take seriously our responsibility to do all we can to ensure the quality and integrity of the outputs of the research that we support, and that our research investment is not wasted on ill-conceived, poorly designed or executed, or downright fraudulent practices. We have taken a number of steps to reduce poor practices and waste, such as having statisticians participate our peer review panels, requiring a data management plan in all applications for funding, incorporating a requirement for good research practice guidelines and processes for investigating allegations of misconduct into our Grant Terms and Conditions, and introducing mandatory Open Access for the publications we support. These measures are simple but sometimes run against common practice to keep data to oneself or overestimate one’s methodological and statistical skills. We still have a lot more to do, but progress has been steady. Nationally, we have taken a lead role in awareness-raising among Irish researchers and politicians on the importance of putting in place robust policies and procedures to protect both research work and the researchers who perform it. I am a very active member of the National Research Integrity Forum. This group is helping Irish universities and research institutions to implement the National Policy on Ensuring Integrity in Research in Ireland and working to raise awareness of the issues among the broader research community. My involvement with European initiatives over the years has been really helpful in ensuring that the Health Research Board and the National Forum is learning from the experience of colleagues internationally.

You are the author of a briefing paper entitled “Research Integrity: What it Means, Why it Is Important and How we Might Protect it” (December 2015) for Science Europe, and the editor a Survey Report “Research Integrity Practices in Science Europe Member Organisations” (July 2016). What are the main findings and conclusions of these publications? Did you get any feedback on them so far?
More than anything, delving into the available evidence on all aspects of research integrity demonstrated for me the complexity of this issue and the multiple actors who need to work individually and collaboratively to advance it. The feedback on this paper was very positive, and helped my work with the Luxembourg Presidency greatly, when they were compiling the Council Conclusions on Research Integrity, published in December 2015. That, in turn, was an important document in informing the thinking of the European Commission, who have taken steps to incorporate research integrity into their Model Grant Agreements, and are investing in a number of ‘Research on Research Integrity’ initiatives including PRINTEGER.
The Survey Report focuses on the state-of-play regarding the policies and processes of Science Europe member organisations. In order to identify future actions we needed firstly to understand the prevailing policy/process landscape in member organisations. The finding that there is still some fragmentation across member organisations in their policies and how they define research integrity was not really surprising, given the diversity of membership of Science Europe and the differing legal and regulatory requirements they face. We also found that promotional activities were patchy, in both type and level of implementation, and training provision or recommendations were few. In terms of mobility of researchers, the survey found that there are very few processes in place for tracking researchers under investigation for misconduct or already found in breach, once they leave an institution or are incoming to an institution. Also, very few member organisations require standard research integrity clauses in collaborative agreements. The recommendations in the survey report are for the most part quite easily implemented by funding agencies and research performers. For example, that policies should be publically accessible, downloadable, available in English and that a contact person should be clearly identified. There are some recommendations that I’ll be working to put in place in my organisation this year, such as flagging our expectations on research integrity for researchers in our call documents and application forms. There are also a number of recommendations around training and awareness-raising and on collaborative research, at which I will be taking a closer look.

As a member of the ALLEA Permanent Working Group on Science & Ethics and chairperson of a formed subgroup you are currently working on a revision of the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. Why is this revision necessary?
The development and dissemination of the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (March 2011) issued jointly by the European Science Foundation and ALLEA, was an important step in creating a European Framework that could be used by a wide range of actors involved in the research endeavour. However, a lot has changed in the research landscape since first publication, such as technological advances that facilitate access, linkage and sharing of publications and research data, a growing concern about the reproducibility of research results, and challenges arising in the context of cross-sectoral, cross-discipline and cross-border research and the Open Science agenda being promoted by the European Commission. Earlier this year, the Commission approached ALLEA to undertake a revision of the Code, so that it could become the standard reference document for EU-funded research projects.  ALLEA considers this as a great opportunity to ensure that the European Code of Conduct continues to be relevant in framing the conditions for science and scholarship in Europe. We see the Code as an empowering document for researchers, which should be universally applicable and should aim to promote a culture of integrity and good research practice.

Relevant stakeholders and experts outside academia will be involved in the revision of the European Code of Conduct through a two-stage consultation process. Can you describe this process a little more?
As you say, the consultation will be in two phases – an initial scoping consultation of the issues that stakeholders see as missing or inadequate in the current Code, and a second consultation seeking a much more detailed feedback from stakeholders on a draft revised document. Stakeholder consultation will take place through representative bodies, since opening the floor to individuals across Europe would be simply unmanageable, given the short turnaround time required by the Commission. The first phase has already been initiated, with a deadline for responses by mid-August. In the meanwhile, a small drafting group within the PWG (of which I am lead) has already started working on restructuring the Code to remove the considerable duplication there, enhance its flow and logic and to ensure that new issues have a home. We will also be examining other codes that were published subsequent to the ALLEA Code for good practice, clear definitions and structure etc. Following receipt of initial feedback the drafting group will work through September/early October to develop the content of a first draft of the revised Code, which will go to the PWG for approval at its meeting at the end of October.
The second phase of stakeholder consultation will be an invitation to submit detailed feedback on the first draft of the revised Code. This will be initiated in the first week of November with a deadline of the second week of December for submissions. Following this, the drafting group will finalise the document for the end of January, with an intended publication date in February 2017.

What kind of contribution can the science community make to promote integrity? And what would you like politicians to do in order to promote integrity as an integral dimension of excellence in research?
To date, a lot of the focus has been on developing policies and processes to police the academic community and make corrective adjustments where necessary. However, individuals are still accountable for their own actions, so bottom up support and effort are critical. Leaving aside the practices that damage the research record (falsification, fabrication and plagiarism) which no researcher would condone, I am more concerned about questionable research practices. Deliberate or not, these practices are all too common and have a deteriorating effect on the quality and the credibility of research results. It is in this realm that I feel the research community can have its greatest impact. Taking questionable research practices seriously at an early stage in a researcher’s career is vital, since every poor practice that is left uncorrected will make the next transgression easier – the so-called ‘slippery slope. Looking at the trajectory of some of the most spectacular cases of misconduct has really emphasised for me that everyone starts small. The good news is that prevention of such practices is very amenable to training and good mentoring. Therefore, one of the most important things we can do is educate researchers about research integrity and why it is so important. Training and mentoring starts the moment the fledgling researcher enters a research environment, so the responsibility and influence of more experienced researchers is huge. At a time when research practices and scientific fields are constantly changing, it would be wrong to assume that there is no need to update ones knowledge on the challenges to and requirements of research integrity when a researcher reaches a certain seniority. It is never too early to start training but it is also never too late to learn something new.
Unfortunately, in terms of bad behaviours individual researchers are often responding to the performance-related pressures brought to bear on them by the structure of today’s academic world namely: greater competition to attract research funding and publish in high impact journals; and the career system and metrics used to assess research quality and excellence. This puts a lot of pressure on people to bend the rules. So, we need to explore ways we can remove and decrease some of the perverse incentives being imposed by the system and I believe that serious consideration of career rewards and metrics to assess research quality may be required. This will have to be a shared task between the research community, its institutions, the journals that publish its outputs, the research funding providers, and the political system that sets research priorities and responds to public sentiment in making investment decisions. Each will need to show willingness to take responsibility for the pieces of the jigsaw that they can influence and change.

What do you expect from a project like PRINTEGER to contribute to the promotion of a research culture in which integrity is a crucial factor?
I’m very excited about the potential outcomes of the PRINTEGER project. Since misconduct refers to people’s behaviours and actions and the principles by which they live their lives, if we want to decrease or prevent research misconduct we need to understand the drivers of those behaviours. Providing good research practice frameworks and processes for handling misconduct when it arises are, of course, very important, but that is only part of the puzzle. Rules guiding research integrity need be supported by an understanding of what drives personal integrity and accountability. The challenge is how to make research integrity part of the research culture. I think that the outputs from the PRINTEGER project will be crucial in helping us to understand how we can change both individual and institutional behaviours.

If you could change one thing in the European research ecosystem, what would that be?
It is unlikely that changing just one part of the ecosystem will solve the manifold problems researchers face. However, if I had to pick one, I believe that of the biggest improvement we can make is to develop really high quality training on good research practices across Europe. If you want to win people’s minds and hearts, you have to start with promotion and awareness-raising. I want to see training move from its current position in many institutions of a module of a few hours over a four year PhD course, to something much more substantial that is embedded with methodological considerations, ethics and so on and this has to happen at all career stages. It is not simply enough to confine training to postgraduate students—it has to become part of the fabric of professional development. But to really succeed this will require empirical evidence of the best approaches to take, and this is where projects like PRINTEGER will be so important.

Final question: for our readers, do you have a suggestion for a good book/article?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what drives people to commit misconduct or to accept poor practices in their work and how we might address these behaviors through environmental interventions. Some of the thinking emerging from behavioral economics and business ethics is really illuminating in this regard. Three books that I’ve found really interesting are:

  • “Blind Spots: Why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it” by Max H Baxerman and Ann E Tenbrunsel (Princeton University Press, 2011), which argues that ethical failures will continue to emerge unless we take into account the psychology of individuals faced with ethical dilemmas. This is particularly relevant to how we design and structure training courses on ethics and research integrity so that they give people the tools to examine their own behaviours and perceptions and make better choices.
  • “Cultivating Conscience: How good laws make good practice” by Lynn Stout (Princeton University Press, 2011) which provides evidence that current law and public policy is often founded on the belief that people are basically selfish and will only respond to punishment and reward. Lynn argues that this is not necessarily the best basis for policy making, and that we can tap into the unselfish elements of people’s nature to restructure environments that encourage good behaviours.
  • “Intuition” by Allegra Goodman (Atlantic Books 2009) is a fictionalized account of what might drive a researcher to manipulate data, and the fall-out for their colleagues and themselves.


Thank you for taking part in our interview, Maura!