Survey of research sins in Estonia

Some institutions connect the research ethics infrastructure to the Whistleblower Directive; when the new law is implemented in Estonia, there will be more options for handling research misconduct.
Some institutions connect the research ethics infrastructure to the Whistleblower Directive; when the new law is implemented in Estonia, there will be more options for handling research misconduct. Source: Airika Harrik

The University of Tartu has conducted a study of researchers' attitudes toward their own and their colleagues' questionable research practices.

"When compared to other countries where a similar survey has been carried out, the outcomes are not that different," Mari-Liisa Parder, a University of Tartu ethics researcher and survey author, said. Estonian researchers perform similarly to others in data falsification, fabrication and plagiarism.

Parder and her University of Tartu colleagues Kadri Simm, Kadri Lees and Anu Tammeleht mapped Estonian researchers' misconduct and questionable practices.

In an anonymous online survey, 354 researchers were asked how problematic they believed such behavior to be (fig. 1), whether they had seen it in the actions of their colleagues (fig. 2), and whether they had engaged in it themselves (fig. 3).

"Based on common knowledge and earlier studies, we understand that people are reluctant to admit that they have done something terribly wrong. So there might be some under-reporting going on here," Parder went on to explain the results of the survey. She said that the same concern also plagued the Norwegian studies that served as a model for their work, but the findings are still internationally comparable.

Toivo Maimets, cell biology professor at the University of Tartu, said that Estonian scientists care about research ethics, but as ethics change over time — as illustrated by the Pere Sihtkapital case — they need to be debated afresh every time: "It is unfortunate that we have such an extreme case right now, but it is also good that there is a discussion."

The survey asked about two types of unethical behavior: misconduct and questionable practices. The first — falsifying, fabricating and plagiarizing facts — is clearly to be condemned, Maimets said. "So the real issue is with the so-called 'grey area,' where research practices are dubious and there is an argument to be made in both directions."

For example, the question "What is your attitude towards this activity?" was often interpreted differently by respondents, but the answers to questions "Have you noticed that colleagues in your department/unit (institute, center, etc.) have done something like this in the last five years?" and "Have you yourself done something like this in the last five years?" were rather uniform. Curiously, people tend to under-reported their own questionable behavior, and they tend to over-reported that of their colleagues. "I think we should seek the truth somewhere between these metrics," she said.

Questionable practices

The most frequently reported professional misconducts were "misuse of research funds, gifting authorship, slicing publications and obstructing the work of another researcher."

There is a significant correlation between the chronic lack of research funds and the misuse of research funding, Padar explained. "If you've got a talented person and you don't have a lot of money for them, how do you pay their salary?" The respondents said that the costs of teaching in Estonia are often covered by research funds, and less so the other way round.

"Estonian research funding is much more competitive than the research structure of most of the countries we want to emulate," Maimets went on to explain. According to the professor, intense competition was justifiable at the end of the 1990s, but now Estonian research is reaping the bitter fruits of this ultra-competitive funding structure.

"Our research lives revolve around projects. But the project will end one day or another and you will have a number of people relying on you for their careers and the completion of their theses. So you have to think continuously how you are going to arrange funding for them if you have a gap of a year, for example," he said.

"The practices of authorship-sharing vary greatly among sectors and there is no international or Estonian agreement on who should or shouldn't be named an author," Parder continued.

Gifting authorship is generally regarded as a serious violation of academic norms. Maimets explained that even though researchers understand the causes of this phenomenon, they are very well aware that it is wrong. "The gift of authorship corrupts young scholars," he said.

Slicing publications is another issue. Scientific journals have space limits, therefore large manuscripts must be split. "But where is this line between justified and unjustified slicing? That also needs to be negotiated internationally, not just in Estonia," Parder added.

"What you measure is what you get," Maimets went on to say. The scientific community everywhere is worried about the excessive emphasis on article-counting as metrics for excellence, and "work is being done to develop content-based criteria for evaluating academic accomplishment. But it is not an easy task. If it were easy, it would have been done a long time ago," the professor said.

Researchers also frequently mentioned that they had seen colleagues obstructing the work of another researcher. The percentages in these reports surprised the team, Parder said. "'I did it myself' was rarely reported, but 'my colleagues have done something like this' was reported with much higher frequency."

In essence, according to Parder, obstructing the work of another researcher is a form of workaholism, but also harassment and withholding information. "Here every researcher can make a difference; he or she can contribute to a work environment, where this kind of behavior would not be tolerated."

The most frequently self-reported misconducts were slicing and dicing articles, gifting authorship and misusing research funds. "So these behaviors are perceived as not-so-prohibited, or a practice that is not shamed," Parder explained.

An uncomfortable, but widespread issue

According to Marten Juurik, director of the Estonian Research Council's research ethics department, similar studies have been carried out in Norway, Finland, Lithuania and the Netherlands. They raised similar concerns, "The primary threats to the ethics of scientific research are funding and publication pressures," Juurik explained.

Parder said that the survey gave a good insight into the misconduct and practices of Estonian researchers. According to her, the questionable activities that were found to be more frequent show a structural problem in Estonian science: "We shouldn't now look for badly behaved researchers, but rather, let's map the situation: see if there are any structural concerns that need attention."

The researcher was also surprised to find that as many as 15 percent of the researchers who took part in the survey said that they had used research funding for other purposes. "The percentages of authorship gifting and publication slicing also seemed high, but these are somewhat ambiguous issues: what is gifting to one is earned authorship to another."

He concluded that the three issues that have emerged from the survey point to a lack of time, money and publication pressure. "Perhaps Estonian researchers are under greater pressure than usual, and perhaps they are more sensitive than usual to this type of questionable practice," he elaborated. "To fully understand the causes there should be more dialogue with researchers and research institutions. Understandably, this is a very uncomfortable topic and one that we would rather not discuss publicly."

Ethics come at a price

The second part of the survey concerned the awareness and attitudes of Estonian researchers regarding research ethics in general. According to the responses, 89 percent of researchers consider ethics concerns very important and 2 percent of researchers said that the issue is unimportant.

A 2020 survey on research ethics showed a significant increase in awareness of research ethics.

The triumph of good scientific practice is also reflected in a current survey, with 43 percent of respondents stating that their institution has and is using either a code of research ethics or a code of good scientific practice. In addition, 28 percent of respondents said, "My institution has one, but I have never used it." This equates to a total of 71 percent, which is excellent results," the researcher said.

Also, researchers were more frequently confronted with ethics committee procedures and guidelines for obtaining approvals. 38 percent of researchers specifically reported using them. "It's also fairly good because human research research projects are now approved by the ethics committees."

Although a guide on data privacy in research was published this spring, Parder thinks that Estonian researchers could use additional training in this emerging field. Some institutions link the research ethics infrastructure to the newly transposed to Estonian legislation EU Whistleblower Directive. When Estonia implements it, the new law will allow more options to handle these cases, she added.

Ethics evolve over time

"It is evident from recent events that many of our scientists do not understand what scientific ethics is or why it is necessary. In this regard, this research is an excellent mapping effort," Maimets said.

Juurik said that the survey does not aim to compare Estonia with other countries. "The aim is to identify problem areas in our research system and to assess changes over time if a similar study is repeated in several years' time," he said.

Juurik went on to explain that Estonia's situation is generally worse than that of Norway and Finland, but better than that of Lithuania on a number of issues: "for example, Lithuanian researchers were more likely to detect fabrication and falsification of research results; however, 21 percent of respondents in Estonia and 49 percent of respondents in Lithuania did nothing when they observed a potential violation."

Maimets emphasized that ethical concerns evolve over time. Individual perspectives are evolving. The perception of values and principles of knowledge and scientific ethics is also changing.These have evolved over the past 15 years dramatically.

Generational gap in research ethics

According to Parder, doctoral applicants and early-stage researchers have received more ethics training. "Older researchers reported receiving less guidance. They stated that even if they wanted to, they would not have enough time or opportunity to attend one."

She went on to say that a solution is urgently needed to make it as simple as possible for researchers to acquire the most up-to-date ethics information. "If there are any changes or new procedures, how should they be communicated to researchers?"

Maimets also observes that younger researchers are more conscious of and value ethical issues more than older researchers. Young researchers with a much broader horizon and educational opportunities have more opportunities to discuss research ethics.

Maimets said that that explains why the uproar over the Pere Sihtasutus case was so great. "Scientists could no longer be silent precisely because there is clearly a generational conflict," he said.

Juurik and Parder, however, did not draw further conclusions about Estonian research ethics from the case. "Pere Sihtkapital case is very complex and needs to be addressed in more depth," Juurik said.

Juurik pointed out that because the study was conducted outside of the research institution, it is difficult for the Estonian Research Council to comment on research ethics in that case. "This is difficult to verify, but one would think that if a family or birth survey had been conducted by a university research team following the principles of good research practice, the practices of their institution, and the field, many of the problems associated with the Pere Sihtkapital survey would have been avoided."

In light of the findings, what steps does the Estonian Research Council intend to take? According to Juurik, when the revised Research and Development Act goes into effect in the future, the agency will be tasked with various new research ethics obligations. A national commission, for example, will be established to investigate potential misconduct. It also clarifies what constitutes misconduct, questionable practices, and violations.

"In the meantime, we can assist research institutions with improving their ethical research procedures, but now it is still up to each institution to determine what and how to do so," he said.

The Estonian Research Council presents the results of the research ethics survey at a public seminar. You can register your interest to participate here.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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