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.
Science is a team effort, which brings together disciplines, teams and institutes. Collaborations have the potential to foster greater understanding and knowledge for both the scientific community and society at large. As collaboration is an essential part of research, avoiding the many pitfalls that can turn a successful research collaboration into a nightmare requires careful consideration.
Collaborative research entails coordination between researchers, institutions, organisations and/or communities. Such collaborations usually occur on a voluntary basis or in consortia, and take place in a disciplinary, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, in a national or international framework.
Identifying the challenges of collaboration
While research is a collaborative endeavor, things may go awry at times. Authorship issues or miscommunication or personal differences between team members are often behind collaborations going wrong.
Misunderstanding may occur between participants due to disagreement on what and when to publish. Some prefer to publish each new discovery whereas others prefer one comprehensive publication after compiling all the data. Likewise, collaborative research presents challenges to the traditional notion of authorship. The perceived lack of recognition for researchers’ contributions is the main factor deterring scientists from participating in multi-group research. While team cooperation is important, there is little evidence that individuals’ contributions are valued in career decision-making, which is particularly worrying for PhD students and early career researchers. Similarly, co-authorship can mean different things. Asserting what kind of contribution merits authorship is not always clear. As author lists get longer, this means that a smaller proportion of researchers get the coveted first author position.
Differences in approaches among the collaborating partners might also be an issue. Misunderstandings may be caused by working in different research disciplines and may be due to different understandings of science, terminology or methods. Moreover, sometimes the competing priorities and objectives of the organisation of researchers may lead to differences in opinion on how research should be conducted and within what duration. Conflicting working styles and practices can seem frustrating, for example, not sharing the same working days. Other ineffective communication may stem from differences in social structures and practices, for example, practices such as gender segregation in certain countries can pose difficulties.
Issues in collaborative research can also arise from individual perceptions, interactions and relationships within the research team itself. When passionate about an exciting scientific idea, researchers may neglect to think realistically about the multiple tasks that will need to be accomplished to construct an effectively functioning scientific team. All too often collaborative relationships are derailed by conflicts that emerge because potential tensions, differences and difficulties were not identified or discussed at the outset of the collaboration. Team diversity and interpersonal skills have a strong impact on research outcomes, as they affect key aspects of team functioning, such as communication patterns, problem solving and group creativity. Ultimately, what matters more than the individuals themselves is how the members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.
Building a sound collaborative environment
Multiple forces come together to make collaborations work. Trust is certainly one of the most critical elements influencing team cohesion. In research, trust becomes especially important because it has an impact on team members’ judgments about another’s abilities, designs, observations and scientific results.
Leadership is a further driving force in making collaboration work. The Principal Investigator (PI) starts with a vision, which may be of their own making, emerge from a group discussion. The PI uses the articulation of the vision to recruit team members and engages them in further defining and outlining the shared vision. As such, each team member needs to have an overview and understand how their work fits into and contributes to the overall effort to play an active role. With a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities, members can more easily understand how the various resources and activities are coordinated to achieve the goals, and how all together, they can contribute to the creation of something bigger. So team spirit does play a key role in collaborative efforts.
Additional critical elements include developing a strong vision, sharing recognition and credit, managing conflict, and team building. Communication is extremely important and, not surprisingly, it cuts across all types of contexts. There are many aspects of communication that are important to recognise, from the simple logistics of communication to the discussion of science, to establishing, building and maintaining team dynamics.
The Covid-19 Task Force has shown that collaboration works, bringing together people from different disciplines, backgrounds and institutes to solve very complex scientific problems. With a few soft skills in each scientist’s toolbox, the focus can be on the scientific problem rather than on personal interests.
The Montreal Statement outlines general responsibilities, and responsibilities in managing the collaboration, in relationships within the collaboration, and for the outcomes of the research. Read it here
Researchers’ behaviours can seriously enhance or, on the contrary, undermine research integrity. Such behaviours are primarily driven by the attitudes and professional values of individual researchers, the institutional research climate, and the research system as a whole. The 7th edition of the World Conference on Research Integrity showed how much fostering it can create greater trust and knowledge.
Research Integrity as a driver of research excellence and public trust
Trust plays an important role in carrying out scientific research. Firstly, trust enables the promotion of relationships and cooperative activities between researchers. It includes collaborative work, publication, peer review, and data sharing. Trust is also at the heart of many different relationships in scientific research. When researchers work together on a project, they trust that they will receive appropriate credit, such as authorship. Similarly, when scientists read an article published in a professional journal, they trust that the work has been carried out as described, that the information relevant to evaluating the methods and results has been disclosed, and that the data has not been fabricated or falsified. Ultimately, research integrity is a moral duty intrinsic to the research profession. It is about ensuring that scientific practices are valid and reliable.
As far as society is concerned, researchers are expected to generate knowledge and expertise that can inform public policy. As such scientific research takes a leading role in policy debates on societal and social topics such as public health, climate change, sustainable economic development, and education. In this relation, the results of scientific research ought to be an honest and accurate reflection of the researcher’s work to inform public policy decisions.
LARI as an advocate for research integrity in Luxembourg
The Luxembourg Agency for Research Integrity (LARI) has a dual objective: to promote responsible conduct of research; and to ensure an independent inquiry and investigation in cases of alleged scientific misconduct.
LARI’s activities focus on investigating allegations of misconduct in research, including corrective actions. All of its interventions take place within an adversarial framework, in strict compliance with the principles of confidentiality and the presumption of good faith.
LARI makes its knowledge available for the sake of preventing research misconduct and raising awareness. As such, LARI provides established and early stage researchers with applied ethics training sessions.
The Luxembourg Agency for Research Integrity is responsible for dealing with reported breaches of research integrity, promoting good practice, and participating in relevant national and international initiatives.
The Luxembourg Agency for Research Integrity (LARI) plays a pioneering role in fostering responsible conduct of research. All of its interventions take place within an adversarial framework, in strict compliance with the principles of confidentiality and the presumption of good faith.
A pioneering Agency for Research Integrity in Luxembourg
Established in 2016, LARI is the national organisation in charge of the promotion and investigation of research integrity in Luxembourg. The Agency is a joint venture between its five founding members: the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR), the University of Luxembourg (Uni.lu), the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) and the Luxembourg Institute for Socio-Economic Research (LISER).
As a member of the European Network of Research Integrity Offices (ENRIO), LARI is strongly connected at the international level with similar organisations. In total, more than 20 European countries have their national research integrity officers represented in ENRIO.
As an independent body, LARI was established to handle specific cases of alleged research misconduct. Its Commission for Research Integrity (CRI) consists of up to five members—all of whom renowned international researchers in their respective fields. The Commission provides a neutral and factual platform for investigating cases of research misconduct thoroughly and objectively. To guarantee the independence from the Luxembourg science and research system, the members of the Commission are from abroad.
Fostering integrity in research practices
LARI intersects with a variety of research disciplines including medicine, behavioural and social sciences, physical sciences and mathematics, engineering and materials sciences, law, and computing.
The Agency strengthens responsibility in research and ensures the observance of the respective guidelines. Its activities focus on investigating allegations of misconduct in research, including corrective actions.
LARI makes its knowledge available for the sake of preventing research misconduct and raising awareness. As such, LARI provides established and early stage researchers with applied ethics training sessions using a creative approach called CAPRI.
It also offers bioethics and research ethics consultation from a professional bioethicist.
The Agency can be contacted whenever advice is needed regarding research integrity. There are several methods to report a case. You can visit the LARI office in person and meet with the Secretary General. You can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send LARI postal mail. Anonymous reporting (including sending evidence files) can be done via the app, SIGNAL.
When the Agency receives a research misconduct allegation, it enters case into its registry and notifies the Commission’s chair and vice-chair. Evidence, including publications, copies of laboratory notebooks, patents, agreements and contracts, activity reports, correspondence, minutes of meetings, is collected to a secure cloud platform.
When it receives a report, the Commission for Research Integrity checks that the complaint falls within its remit and notifies its correspondent accordingly. Following the investigation and based on the opinions of CRI members, LARI forwards its conclusions and the entire case file to stakeholders and its board.
Independent inquiry and investigation in cases of suspected research misconduct are performed according to the principles of Section 3 of the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.
Read more about how we handle investigations