How healthy is your research lab?

Building a healthy culture in a research lab matters. Most obviously, a harmonious lab leads to happier members, hence resulting in stronger, more creative research. Yet, the autonomy of labs might create an isolating and unhealthy, sometimes toxic, working environment. In such situations, people become disengaged, they tune out, do the minimal amount of work, stop showing up. So, you think your lab is humming along fine?

Academia is a competitive world where laboratories have a lot of freedom to manage their projects and members. Although they are expected to stick to a code of research ethics and integrity, these principles might be set aside, leading to harassment, bullying, and research misconduct. In such circumstances, Principal Investigators (PI) have a responsibility to maintain awareness and intervene when such events are taking place.

The Principal Investigator is (also) a mentor

Being an effective PI means being both a manager and a mentor – and these two roles demand different skills. Management involves practices such as running effective meetings, establishing rigorous research habits, correcting mistakes, and establishing operational and training procedures. Being a mentor involves skills such as building relationships, encouraging commitment from lab members, creating a team atmosphere, managing conflict and providing regular feedback. In other words, management is the nuts and bolts, while mentoring is about creating a special partnership between people based on shared goals and expectations, mutual focus, trust and respect.

Interpersonal dynamics are therefore an important part of a PI’s role. In contrast, few researchers receive formal training in mentoring or management. They have little or no formal training in research team management or conflict resolution. In this instance, their sole frame of reference is to replicate the environment in which they were trained. Case in point: Many postdocs want to become PIs and therefore publish a large number of papers. But the only way to achieve this is to remain isolated, to work constantly and to keep your project to yourself. Yet the skills to be a PI involve talking to people, leading a group, having interpersonal skills – quite the opposite!

Good research lab cultures don’t happen by accident. All healthy labs don’t look the same. But PIs have to put it on their radar and be intentional about what kind of environment they want to create. It’s important for PIs to understand that they set the tone. It includes communication style, the way they interact with people, the standards of expectations and behaviour.

Toxic environments lead to fraud in the lab

From manipulated results and fake data to plagiarism, cases of scientific fraud are manifold. As such, the environment and culture of a lab is a significant predictor of research practices.

Typically, a lab where members are only seeking research results over human interactions might lead to the creation of an unhealthy working environment. As such members are more likely to cut corners—or even behave unethically. In a healthy culture, you’re more likely to report mistakes and learn from them. In a toxic culture, you’re more likely to hide them. Assuming that ethical issues and research misconduct are more likely to occur in a tensed environment.

Recent studies on research integrity found that the environment in which misconduct occurred was marked by management or mentoring deficiencies. The practices most frequently identified as deficient can all be classified as human/social issues and data quality. Poor management and oversight can create an environment in which the risk of questionable research practices is increased. For example, a PI who manages a group of researchers, but does not adequately supervise their work to the extent that they can identify questionable research practices, nor are they able to produce appropriate research records when requested. While this example may be related to research misconduct, it is primarily the result of negligent management, mentoring and research practices.

When confronted with ethical issues in a research lab, there is an obligation to report the case in good faith, which means based on reasonable belief or facts. Suspecting that someone has engaged in research misconduct is one of the most difficult situations researchers face. This is especially true when relationships are strained for other reasons. As such, the Luxembourg Research Integrity Agency can help researchers, regardless of their seniority and contractual status, to find a solution.

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