How the introduction of new digital infrastructure is improving research culture.
Since taking office in January, US President Joe Biden has reaffirmed a national commitment to integrity in scholarship and research, appointing scientists to numerous leadership roles.
A growing number of UK universities are also on a path to support greater intellectual integrity in research and science and recognise that it will take the combined effort of students, teachers and research leaders to instigate this cultural change.
At Derby, our research journey is developing rapidly, and our 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) submission will be significantly stronger than in previous years. This change is supported by the introduction of new research management tools which are fostering enhanced collaboration and best practice.
One of those tools is ‘Ethics Monitor;’ a tool which digitises the ethics applications across the university. All research undertaken by staff and students associated with the University of Derby should only be initiated after effective consideration of its ethical implications. Ethical standards in universities are the backbone of research integrity and this digital tool will help us embed appropriate practice.
Turning the page on paper
Our old system was paper based, which was effective in the sense that applications were carefully considered, and we had a robust governance system in place, but, as with most paper-based systems, analysis on the data was almost impossible.
The online Ethics Monitor makes our monitoring around ethics applications much more effective. Running cross-university statistical analyses now takes us about ten minutes, whereas before it would have taken us an entire day to go through files. The digitised process means that all the steps and considerations of an ethics application can be viewed by the research ethics committees.
In the first year of implementing the ethics monitor, 2,000 submitted applications were approved. We started the project with a bit of ‘big bang’ and went digital overnight. This concerned some people, but our grassroots approach involving a cross-section of users in the design has helped us to successfully introduce the system.
For each college, we appointed dedicated ethics ambassadors, who trained colleagues in how to use Ethics Monitor. So, we had psychologists training psychologists and biologists training biologists. It worked well as they speak the same language and come across similar ethical challenges.
The advantage of an online system is that we have been able to maintain the ethics approval process in the university throughout the pandemic. We have also been able to support students and staff whose ethics applications had to be modified due to COVID-19. Our old, paper-based system would not have been accessible because our university, like so many others, had to close its doors.
The use of Ethics Monitor is now part of our curriculum. It helps our students to learn about the concept of research, and not just in terms of statistics and methodology, but also in terms of governance and ethics.
Most of our students will not go on to have a career as a researcher in a university, but we think that understanding ethics and governance is important for all students and will help shape the research culture. We see it as an important skill for researchers and an important transferrable life skill for students, no matter where they end up working.
The introduction of Ethics Monitor is just one element of a raft of measures we are currently taking to create a more integrated, holistic approach to university research. It is not just about introducing new systems, but also about looking at how we can empower students and staff in the long run and support and share best practice.
As a result of introducing our new digital system, we have seen a wave of interest in research ethics, bringing together people from across the university; that can only be a good thing.