Let’s Talk About Research Misconduct

detective-152085__340Research misconduct is on the rise, certainly within hard science subjects, quite possibly elsewhere. Researchers around the world are inventing data, falsifying findings, and plagiarising the work of others. Part of this is due to the pressure on some researchers to publish their findings in academic journals. There is also career-related pressure on researchers to conduct accurate polls, produce statistically significant results, and get answers to questions, among other things. Some clients, managers, funders and publishers have a low tolerance for findings that chime with common sense or the familiar conclusion of ‘more research is needed’. They may expect researchers to produce interesting or novel findings that will direct action or support change.

Publishers are working to counteract misconduct in a variety of ways. Plagiarism detection software is now routinely used by most big publishers. Also, journal articles can be retracted (i.e. de-published) and this is on the increase, most commonly as a result of fraud. However, the effectiveness of retraction is questionable. The US organisation Retraction Watch has a ‘leaderboard’ of researchers with the most retracted papers, some of whom have had more papers retracted than you or I will ever write, which suggests that retraction of a paper – even for fraud – does not necessarily discredit a researcher or prevent them from working.

Some research misconduct can have devastating effects on people, organisations, and professions. People may lose their jobs, be stripped of prizes or honours, and be prosecuted in criminal courts. Organisations lose money, such as the cost of wasted research, disciplinary hearings, and recruitment to fill vacancies left by fraudulent researchers. And whole professions can suffer, as misconduct slows progress based on research. For example, in 2012 the Journal of Medical Ethics published a study showing that thousands of patients had been treated on the basis of research published in papers that were subsequently retracted. Retraction Watch shows that some papers receive hundreds of citations even after they have been retracted, which suggests that retraction may not be communicated effectively.

Yet even the potentially devastating consequences of misconduct are clearly not much of a deterrent – and in many cases may not occur at all. Let’s examine a case in more detail. Hwang Woo-Suk is a researcher from South Korea. In the early 2000s he was widely regarded as an eminent scientist. Then in 2006 he was found to have faked much of his research, and he admitted fraud. Hwang’s funding was withdrawn, criminal charges were laid against him, and in 2009 he received a suspended prison sentence. Yet he continued to work as a researcher (albeit in a different specialism) and to contribute to publications as a named author.

Closer to home, a survey of over 2,700 medical researchers published by the British Medical Journal in 2012 found that one in seven had ‘witnessed colleagues intentionally altering or fabricating data during their research or for the purposes of publication’. Given the pressures on researchers, perhaps this is not surprising – though it is deeply shocking.

The examples given in this article are from hard science rather than social research. Evidence of misconduct in social research is hard to find, so it would be tempting to conclude that it happens less and perhaps that social researchers are somehow more ethical and virtuous than other researchers. I feel very wary about making such assumptions. It is also possible that social research is less open about misconduct than other related disciplines, or that it’s easier to get away with misconduct in social research.

So what is the answer? Ethics books, seminars, conferences etc frequently exhort individual researchers to think and act ethically, but I’m not sure this provides sufficient safeguards. Should we watch each other, as well as ourselves? Maybe we should, at least up to a point. Working collaboratively can be a useful guard against unethical practice – but many researchers work alone or unsupervised. I don’t think formal ethical approval is much help here, either; it is certainly no safeguard against falsifying findings or plagiarism. Perhaps all we can do at present is to maintain awareness of the potential for, and dangers of, misconduct.

A version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association.

Writer’s Block Debunked

writers blockI don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it’s an umbrella term for a whole bunch of problems, each of which has a solution. For sure, writing is difficult, and it is perfectly possible to get stuck. That happens to me all the time. But a complete block? I don’t think so. Seems to me ‘writer’s block’ is a lazy catch-all term which conveniently shifts responsibility from the writer to the ‘block’. That’s certainly not going to help.

Here are six of the things I think may be really going on.

Fear of failure. Writing for submission or publication can be terrifying. You’re working towards putting your work out in the world where it – and to some extent you – will be judged. What if people don’t like your writing? What if they don’t like YOU? This kind of fear can be paralysing.

Fear of success. Success equals change, and change is frightening, because it’s a leap into the unknown. This can be equally paralysing.

Boredom. This is a higher risk for long-term projects, or writing that has been imposed on you – say, by your manager, or a departmental imperative – that you don’t want to do.

Perfectionism. Novice writers sometimes think that writing is (or should be, or is for some people) as easy as reading. It isn’t. To write, you have to be willing to write badly first, and then make it good at the editing stage, sometimes through many revisions.

Running out of steam with a particular avenue or genre. Minette Walters is a successful author of psychological thrillers who published 12 books between 1992 and 2007, then didn’t publish another book for 10 years. She had become bored with writing psychological thrillers, but her publisher wanted her to carry on, presumably because they sold well. Now she has found a new publisher and is bringing out a historical novel. This can apply for non-fiction and scholarly writers, too, particularly if you’ve been writing in a specific area for some time and long to change tack.

Self-sabotage. If you say, think, believe that you want to write, but you’re not writing, then you are in some way sabotaging your own desires. This is a common human trait and probably links back to fear of failure, or perhaps fear of success.

Here are five potential solutions.

Freewrite. I love the technique of freewriting, and so do the doctoral students I teach it to. Here’s what you do. Set yourself a prompt, which must be in the first person and active voice, such as:

What I want to say is…

In this chapter, I want to argue…

I am writing this [thesis/dissertation/article/report/etc] because…

Then write for five minutes without stopping or correcting your work. This is only for your eyes so it doesn’t matter how scrawly or mis-spelled it may be. If you hesitate during the five minutes, write the prompt again, more than once if you need to, until it leads you somewhere else. Then see what you’ve got. You may well have a new insight or a phrase or sentence that you can use in your project. More importantly, though, you’ll have a load of words on a page, which – in five minutes flat – gives the lie to ‘writer’s block’.

Set small targets. Some people prefer word targets; others prefer time targets. Either is fine. Choose a target that feels easily achievable: perhaps somewhere between 100-500 words, or 10-30 minutes. Then set a frequency: once a day is good to begin with, or twice if you can manage that. And stick to it.

Switch projects. Working on more than one project is great because if you get bored, or stuck, you can move to another. I didn’t have a single idea for a blog post this morning, so I worked on a short story for a while till I came up with the idea of writing about writer’s block.

Keep a daily journal. Writing about your life, or some aspect of your life, for your eyes only, is a great way to convince your subconscious that you can write. This can be structured, or unstructured, as you prefer. For example, you might want to keep a journal of your dreams, or a ‘resilience journal’ where you write down three things you are grateful for and three things you did well each day, or a ‘reflective journal’ where you record what you have learned that day. Or you might just want to write whatever you feel like writing.

Go for counselling. If fear of failure, or fear of success, are really getting in the way – and, for some people, they can – then find a counsellor or therapist who can help you work on this.

If you have other solutions to share, please add them in the comment box.

Writing, Fast and Slow

fast and slowOn Monday of last week, Pat Thomson published a very interesting post about writing fast. I don’t use the exact approach she describes (though I might, one day, now I know about it) but I do often write fast, so the post resonated with me. I was writing fast that very day, and the day after as well; Pat’s post kept flitting through my mind.

Then last Wednesday, the fourth full day of my writing retreat, I ground to a halt. I did some good thinking, and a little actual writing, but not much. I told myself I was tired – and I was: a big storm had disturbed my sleep on the Monday night, and a recurrent car alarm on the Tuesday. So I did bits and bobs at my desk, in between going out for a walk, and making food, and having a nap. But I knew, really, that the slow-down was part of my process.

I’m good at writing, and part of being good at writing is getting the words down on the screen (or the page, if you’re that way inclined). But now and again there is a day, or part of a day, when the words won’t come. This isn’t me waiting for the muse, or procrastinating, or suffering from writer’s block. Though I much prefer being productive, I know that sometimes I need to do a kind of active waiting. It’s not taking time off, it’s like what musicians do during the rests in a piece, attending closely to the pauses between notes which are as much a part of the music as any of the sounds.

Last Wednesday evening arrived, which was a relief because I could declare myself off duty, fairly sure that the words would be flowing again by next morning. I spoke to my partner on the phone, ate a cheese salad washed down with a glass of wine, and read some more of the terrific Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman-edited issue of the New Statesman. Then I retired to the sofa with a novel and a cup of cocoa, enhanced with a dash of spiced rum, and some salted caramel chocolate. All this with a gorgeous sea view. Bliss! So relaxing.

Around 9.45 pm I got up to head for bed, looked out of the window, and saw a low red moon rising from the Channel between England and France. I have no idea why ideas began to flow just then, but they did, and generated so much energy that before I knew it I was pulling on a jacket and trainers and heading out of the door, over the road, and down the steps onto the beach. The waves thundered onto the shore in rhythm with the insights thundering into my mind. I stomped towards Dungeness, then back towards Dover, shingle crunching underfoot like an army eating popcorn in synch. The moon path followed me, patient and attentive, a French lighthouse winking to its right as if to remind me not to take myself too seriously. I walked until all the ideas had settled, and felt as relieved as if I’d just had a good [insert bodily emission of your choice]. And of course the next morning I was back to working at full speed.

In his great book Thinking, Fast and Slow (which the observant reader will notice inspired the title of this post), Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman explains the difference between our fast, intuitive thinking, and slow, rational thinking. He says, ‘The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind.’ (2011:4) His central thesis is that human reasoning is flawed, and I’m sure he’s right. But I wonder whether creative thinking is rather different from rational thinking. From learning about my own writing process through several decades, I am certain that now and again I need to make time for slow, intuitive thinking. Perhaps particularly in our world of information overload, I need to make space for the silence in my mind so that the mental work can happen. Sometimes I can do this consciously, such as by booking a writing retreat, or by thinking of a writing problem as I fall asleep and trusting my silent mind to solve it overnight – which it usually does. But sometimes, like last Wednesday, my process tells me it’s time for some slow writing. In practice, that means a few hours or a day with little or no increase in the actual word count. I know from experience that if I ignore this, and try to struggle on, I just get more stuck and cross and frustrated. I’m much better off going for a walk or pottering around the house, actively waiting while the mental work happens, silently, in my mind, which I can’t hear but I can choose to trust. So, although they don’t always come at times that I would deem convenient, I’ve learned the value of my slow writing days.

A sweet tweet

These are the kinds of tweets that warm an author’s heart – thank you, Amanda Taylor!

(It also shows one of my lovely bookplates, designed by Carol Burns. If you’ve got a copy of my book and would like a signed bookplate, please get in touch and let me know. No charge.)