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Case Studies, News

Swimming against the research current

A scandal ripped through the higher education sector recently as the public statements of Researchfish were held accountable by researchers across the UK. If you haven’t heard of Researchfish, it’s an American company contracted by the UKRI to data capture the impacts of publicly-funded research. So it’s job is to serve as a data repository for holding fundees accountable to the public with what they do with their grants. It seems Researchfish also believed its job was to directly confront academics who grew frustrated with its interface and communications frequency.  

From time to time, a weary academic, tired of the constant demands of mundane and repetitive data entry requirements would whinge to the ether via Twitter. The whinges ranged from mild to pointed, but regardless, Researchfish took issue with any and all critiques. The organisation chose to search out any mention of its name regularly and should any negative comment be noted, respond to the academics’ post with a formulaic rebuff, typically along the lines of: 

We understand that you’re not keen on reporting on your funding through Researchfish but this seems quite harsh and inappropriate. We have shared our concerns with your funder. 

Now, Researchfish is completely entitled to be unhappy with critique, but it also is responsible for its own behaviour on the internet. It’s not a good look to be seen to ‘threaten’ academics for holding an opinion contrary to its own – the threat being reporting to their funders, which could endanger their entire career and preclude them from ever getting access to funding again. Whatever the impolite or otherwise tone of the academics, the repercussions of realised threats outweigh the slight created by venting frustrations. 

As one academic put it: “When I was denied a leadership position in my UK university … I was told my social media criticism of Researchfish (and the REF) was indicative of my unsuitability for research leadership.” Similar examples of detrimental impacts (ironically) of Researchfish’s activity were shared and satired by the comically-titled Research Phish account. Other academics pointed out potential large-scale issues around GDPR and the complicity of UKRI and funder networks. It was quickly established that Researchfish’s approach was policy rather than the actions of an individual, and that threats to report fundees’ comments were followed through. 

The momentum behind the issue, a bit of a Twitter train wreck at present, are still unfolding as a recent response from UKRI has gone down like a tone-deaf lead balloon to most academic audiences.  

This is a BILT blog so, you may ask, What does this have to do with teaching? Fair enough, but let’s look at what this can teach our students entering the world of research. Our students need to understand the realities and complexities of research culture, policy and practice if they are to thrive in research environments. Our Curriculum Framework and Education Strategy prioritise a research-rich curriculum, but what that means for each subject differs.  

Do we want to create graduates who are “research-ready” only in so far as they can act as a research-generator? Or do we want them to be research-ready for anything the world can throw at them? The Researchfish story lays bare the sensitive underbelly of power dynamics and accountability in academia. Some may believe that academics overstepped in their critiques, while others think the comments were fair and highlighted low-quality provision by Researchfish. Others may believe that Researchfish overstepped its boundaries completely and is complicit in a policy of bullying academics, placing undue pressure particularly on early-career staff. Real negative consequences for staff are already evidenced, but some may believe repercussions were proportionate. Others may align themselves with questions of academic freedom of speech, the right to have their say publicly online without fear, while opponents may think academics should not engage with perceived frivolous tweeting. Beyond these issues are how such criticisms may be protected or ignored by institutions who are aware of the funding preferences of the UKRI, and the long-term (financial) issues that may emerge from challenging UKRI decisions.  

This is an example of a real-world issue that can be tackled by students from a range of subjects and levels via problem-based learning. Students can see how their online presence may impact their career, how research accountability is managed nationally, how a myriad of voices can chorus and discord on the same topic, and how attempts to resolve issues can backfire and spark a new feud. Rather than shying away from semi-scandals like this, we can train our students to be the confident and reflexively-aware researchers of tomorrow, ready to tackle complex and public-facing issues. For our students, it’s not about learning whether Researchfish was right or wrong, it’s about learning how to resolve problems that impact research, learning how to establish and protect ones own ethical stance, and how to enter into dialogue with those of differing perspectives.  

2 thoughts on “Swimming against the research current”

  1. Research is not an American company, it is a UK company, owned by Interfolio, which is an American company. The main issue about UKRI’s response was not that it was tone deaf, but rather that they appeared to be encouraging and perhaps even colluding with Researchfish’s online bullying.

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