Shortly after President Biden took office, he issued the “Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking”, which directed the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director to create an interagency Scientific Integrity Task Force. This Task Force was to review and create a report on Federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies, examining several points, mainly around political interference in the conduct of scientific research. This report was released in January 2022.
One thing that is clear from its recent release is that protecting research integrity is multifaceted and will require collective action from the entire research ecosystem to achieve. Though preventing political interference and supporting evidence-based policymaking spurred the creation of the Task Force, it’s only one aspect. As the report affirms, effective and trustworthy communication to the public, openness and sharing of research, ensuring the quality of data, and maintaining the integrity of the scientific record are all aspects as well. Publishers, including Springer Nature, have long supported the integrity of the scientific record with our initiatives and policies.
“Protecting science means upholding scientific integrity during all stages of its development and application, from conducting and managing research to communicating the results and making use of them in decision-making.” - White House Scientific Integrity Task Force report
I’ve been saddened to see the attacks on science during the COVID-19 crisis, but even more disturbed by the harassment and personal attacks on scientists and journalists who are trying to communicate accurate information to the public. As the report points out, “open, clear, and trustworthy scientific communications have never been more important”. Given the hostile environment they often face, I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for the efforts of my colleagues to bring accurate and trustworthy information to a diverse audience with broad levels of scientific expertise. They are pushing back against a tide of misinformation by amplifying experts’ voices and giving the public a credible source to turn to.
But it’s not just communication to the public that’s important to support research integrity. We must be able to give a source of unbiased, quality information to scientists so they can be confident when building on the work of others. Publishers have long been trusted stewards of the research record, supporting the dissemination of vetted information and correcting the record when necessary. A key aspect of integrity is admitting and correcting mistakes, which the report recognizes.
“Open Science is an essential enabler of scientific integrity” - White House Scientific Integrity Task Force report
The report points out that one way to ensure that mistakes, or outright fraud, are caught and corrected early is to provide immediate open access to scientific publications and the underlying data. It’s encouraging that the report acknowledges that “open science is an essential enabler of scientific integrity” and makes clear that full openness is the path forward. My colleagues have written about the benefits of immediate open access to publications extensively so I won’t go into a lot of detail, but the short version is it needs to be sustainable so we can continue to provide the editorial services that maintain the scientific integrity of the research record, and we across the research ecosystem - publishers, funders, policymakers, researchers - need to work together to achieve it. I’ve been with Springer Nature for about a year, and I’ve never regretted joining a publisher so willing to put its “full weight” behind opening up the scientific record. (I can’t resist pointing out that we recently published our one millionth open access article, a first in the industry!)
But publications would not exist without the underlying data, and really, making sure that the data is correct and accessible is the key pillar of research integrity. Data management and sharing is a huge issue and many people across industries, including we publishers, are grappling with how to do this consistently, fairly, and with the least amount of administrative burden to already stretched-thin researchers. The research integrity report identifies two important needs: 1) robust data quality and integrity processes for the collection, storage, management, analysis and security of data, and 2) the need for timely release of that data.
One thing that we’ve learned through consultation with researchers is that aligning practical support and training with strong policy is important to bring about change. Our 2021 State of Open Data report, led by Figshare and Digital Science, indicated that, despite supporting open sharing of data in theory, researchers are still hesitant in practice. Until credit mechanisms are sufficient and they are supported by good infrastructure, practical help, funding and education, researchers do not have strong incentives to share their data. Government and funder policies on data management and sharing that are already in place, and those that are likely to spring from this report, are a good foundation, but we need to work together to put the practical support pieces in place. There are numerous areas in which publishers can support change: mandates and policies; data management planning and stewardship; training; and accreditation and aligning incentives are some of the most important.
So the big question is, how can we work together on all these issues to protect the integrity of science? According to the report, OSTP and agency heads will be assessing and improving their scientific integrity policies and practices in light of the report soon. As they work through those policies, I hope they will take advantage of the practical support publishers already provide to make those policies successful and think about ways in which we can collaborate in the future. At the end of the day, protecting scientific integrity is a community responsibility, and we can work together as a community to achieve it.