Supporting DEI in research: What researchers need from institutions

By: Una Farr, Thu Apr 25 2024
Una Farr

Author: Una Farr

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives have gained increasing recognition within the academic community, reflecting not only ethical imperatives but also the crucial role they play in driving research innovation and excellence. However, realising substantial progress in DEI requires more than just acknowledgement; it necessitates deliberate and strategic action from all research organisations, including institutions, publishers, funders, and research leaders.

Last year, Springer Nature published its first report on DEI in the global research community, using an online survey and series of interviews to capture the perceptions and experiences of 4,866 researchers around the world. For an upcoming poster presentation at EARMA Conference 2024, we took another look at the survey results to discuss the key takeaways for institutions, and understand what researchers want from their institutions in order to feel better supported

Supporting DEI in research: What researchers need from institutions (1) © springernature 2024

Understanding the climate

When we asked researchers about their treatment at work, the findings were quite alarming, with 70% of respondents reporting having experienced some kind of discrimination, harassment, or bullying, and 60% facing these types of incidents at least once a year. The most commonly reported types of discrimination were age discrimination (31%), gender discrimination (29%) and verbal microaggressions (29%).

Unsurprisingly, there were notable variations amongst underrepresented groups. For example, 46% of researchers belonging to an underrepresented ethnic group reported experiencing racial discrimination, and 57% of women and 45% of non-binary respondents reported experiencing gender discrimination.

What can institutions do to support greater DEI in research?

The high prevalence of instances of discrimination highlighted within the report shows that there is still much more to be done to improve DEI within the research community. While changing the entire structure of the research environment is not something that any one organisation can take on alone, the survey results and interviews highlighted a number of steps institutions can take to help their researchers feel better supported:

1. Create a safe environment to report discrimination

Despite the high number of researchers experiencing discrimination on a regular basis, the majority of respondents (60%) felt comfortable only to a small or very small extent in reporting these behaviours or seeking resolution. This was even more the case for underrepresented groups, which creates a major barrier to improving DEI within research environments.

During our interviews, early-career researchers highlighted concerns about reporting people in positions of power for fear of career repercussions or being easily identified even through anonymous reporting mechanisms. This shows that institutions must continue to create a safe environment for researchers to improve reporting, and foster a culture where researchers feel empowered to speak up without fear of negative consequences.

2. Incentivise leadership to support DEI

When researchers were asked what they perceive to be the biggest barrier to DEI, the most common answer was prejudice, inertia and unconscious bias (56%). Many comments mentioned the structure of the research community, where some felt power was often held by dominant groups, along with low buy-in from senior researchers and supervisors.

Interviewees highlighted that vocal support of DEI from institutional leaders can make a real difference to the culture of an institution, along with encouraging supervisors to develop inclusive environments. Some examples could include offering professional development opportunities, publicly recognising leaders who demonstrate a commitment to DEI, or including DEI goals in strategic planning and decision-making.

If you have all the faculty members speaking about diversity and caring about it in tangible, actionable ways from the top-down, I think a lot of people would naturally start to shift over and be less resistant to that change.” - Interview, early-career researcher

3. Normalise dialogue on DEI on an ongoing basis

Only 56% of researchers surveyed considered themselves to be aware of DEI initiatives or policies, which indicates that there is still much more to be done to embed a culture of DEI within institutional communities. Though on the whole the availability of DEI initiatives and policies was seen as a positive step, there were differing opinions on the effectiveness of these initiatives, especially between dominant and underrepresented groups.

During the interviews, participants noted that DEI training is often a mandatory part of inductions to institutions, setting an expectation to new faculty members from the outset. However, in many cases this type of training is not ongoing, meaning that its impact is limited, and people who have been at the institution a long time may never have received it.

Interviewees stressed the importance of institutions not treating DEI initiatives as a “one-off”, and instead creating an ongoing programme of engagement with dialogue at every stage of a researcher’s education. This should be done both in a formal setting embedded into regular training and development, but also by offering plenty of opportunities for informal conversations about DEI.

4. Facilitate opportunities for peer-to-peer support

Many respondents and interviewees highlighted the positive role that mentorship can play to support those from underrepresented groups, especially those in the early stages of their research career. Having a strong support network was seen as a key way to alleviate the feeling of being alone when experiencing discrimination, bullying, or harassment.

“[Mentoring] is one of the things that I think can offset some of the negative experiences, having a broad mentoring network of people who can guide you through certain experiences, guide you through certain decisions and guide you through certain places.” - Interview, early-career researcher

Institutions should continue to facilitate opportunities for researchers to find support and mentorship, both with others in underrepresented groups but also with allies in dominant groups.

5. Recruit people of diverse backgrounds from an early stage

A number of interviewees highlighted the fact that underrepresented groups face many barriers when it comes to even starting an undergraduate degree. In order to improve representation within the research community, it is important for institutions to improve recruitment, outreach and accessibility even earlier than university, to be able to attract potential recruits from a wider pool of backgrounds.

What can publishers do to support greater DEI in research?

As discussed, a change in research culture requires action from all members of the community, and by aligning and collaborating we can help ensure that DEI initiatives have a greater impact. The survey also made many recommendations for publishers, including providing economic support for disadvantaged researchers, increasing DEI awareness within the research community, and ensuring diversity of reviewers and editors. 

Read the full report, “Insights into Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the Global Research community, and learn more about Springer Nature’s commitments and progress towards DEI.

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Una Farr

Author: Una Farr

Una Farr, a tech-curious Senior Content Marketing Manager based in London, delves into AI and research management on her blog, "The Continuing Rise of Collaboration". With a passion for empowering research administrators, librarians, and information professionals, she explores new trends and insights to foster knowledge sharing in the research community.