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Science 21 January 2021

Work atmosphere a key factor in sloppy science

In almost one-third of cases involving questionable research practices, the atmosphere in the relevant department is a key factor, according to research carried out by Tamarinde Haven for her PhD. “Young academics need role models.”
BY Welmoed Visser PICTURE Peter Valckx

Many young academics feel as though they are too much left to their own devices in their work – as though they are the only ones who run aground in their analyses or whose data does not match their hypotheses, that it is only they who have trouble working as hard as is deemed normal in the academic world. It is perceptions of this kind that encourage the tampering of data, according to Tamarinde Haven in her PhD research into questionable research practices at VU Amsterdam, the University of Amsterdam, and Amsterdam’s university hospitals (at the time, there were two – Amsterdam UMC, AMC location, and Amsterdam UMC, VUmc location).

‘I don't know what you’re expecting, but I can’t keep this up’

 

Haven recognizes the accounts of young academics from her own experiences. She has found that implicit norms can be transferred in very subtle ways. “I would often receive e-mails from one of my supervisors, Lex Bouter, on Sundays and I would feel as though I should get working on them straight away. My other supervisor, Joeri Tijdink, would send e-mails at half past midnight. After a year, I told them, I don't know what you’re expecting, but I can’t keep this up. Lex told me that he is often off on Fridays, while Joeri explained that he’s a night person. They were not expecting me to work at the same times as them, but as a young academic, it is very easy to interpret it in that way.”
For her PhD research, Haven interviewed 200 professors, 300 postdocs and assistant professors, and 500 PhD students about the work atmosphere in their departments and whether they had any experience of colleagues falling short in their observance of the norms on good academic research. And what was the outcome? The young researchers had a markedly worse opinion about their work atmosphere and the academic integrity in their departments than did the professors and associate professors.

Grey area

Sloppy science is a not infrequent phenomenon: previous research has shown that around one-third of academics have been guilty of the practice in one way or another. It’s a grey area that ranges from the omission of sub-groups from your data in order to establish a link (by constantly checking whether to see you have managed to establish a link and then stopping collecting data once the link has indeed been established), to adjusting your article because your referees would otherwise not positively assess it. This is a much larger area than actual fraud, in which data is fabricated or where academics commit plagiarism.
“Our suspicion was that the pressure of work, the atmosphere in the departments, and supervision would be factors. The more fairly people feel treated at work, the more likely they are to be honest and open about what they are doing”, says Haven. And her data does indeed show that there is a connection between work atmosphere and sloppy science; in other words, academics with a negative view of the atmosphere in their department had experienced forms of sloppy science more frequently. From the analysis of Haven’s data, it appears that almost one-third of cases of sloppy science was attributable to such factors as pressure to publish, poor supervision, and an adverse research climate. 

Mutual rivalry and mistrust

Although Haven was aware that the pressure of work and the atmosphere in the academic world is not as it should be, she was shocked by how widespread dissatisfaction among her interviewees was. The most dissatisfied are those in the humanities who frequently find the demands for generating revenue impossible. And of the various academic ‘ranks’, it is PhD students, postdocs, and assistant professors who are the most unhappy. PhD students are affected by mutual rivalry and mistrust. Postdocs, meanwhile, complain mostly about the pressure to publish. Among younger academics, there is general dissatisfaction with the level of supervision.

‘We are all normalizing overtime. To me, that’s a very worrying development’

 

Haven had separate discussions with groups of PhD students and established academics about the problems and possible solutions. “PhD students have a great need for role models and for supervisors who actually listen to them”, she says. “A more open atmosphere would help them share their own experiences, even when their work had ground to a halt, for example.”
She was shocked by the number of young academics who had experienced symptoms of burn-out or similar complaints, as well as the responses from some managers: Well so what, I’ve had frozen shoulders for twenty years. Haven continues, “We are all normalizing overtime. To me, that’s a very worrying development.”
Some of the young academics came up with the idea for a training programme for supervisors: “It is seen as normal for someone without qualifications to simply become a supervisor, just as we used to think it was fine for anyone to teach. But why would you not train people to supervise others? And, as with teaching, why not devise a training programme for the purpose?”
So with that in mind, Haven got together with a trainer to develop a pilot course for supervising PhD students. It has been so successful that Amsterdam UMC has decided to continue using the Superb Supervision course, and it is has also been introduced at the University of Amsterdam and in Twente.

Uncomfortable

Openness, expressing your expectations, learning from mistakes – these are all ‘soft skills’ that are not compatible with the competitive and individualistic climate that predominates in the academic world. This situation effectively leads to the screening out of people who struggle with the culture, leaving only alpha personalities behind. Consequently, the difference between how professors and PhD students perceive such aspects as integrity and work atmosphere that emerges from Haven’s research does not sit well with her. “It’s a form of natural selection that makes me feel uncomfortable. It is not healthy for the academic world to be populated by only one type of personality. In recent years, there has been too strong an emphasis on obtaining grants and on publishing. I am pleased that organizations like the Dutch Research Council are slowly coming round to valuing the merits of other types of academic achievements.”

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