Introduction to research integrity and selective reporting bias

Insights for journal editors from Professor Lex Bouter, a research integrity expert

Professor Lex Bouter works in the Department of Methodology and Integrity at Vrije Universiteit.

In July 2019, he spoke at the Amsterdam Scholarly Summit, sharing his expertise on different aspects of the research integrity landscape.  

What is research integrity?

Research integrity means conducting research according to the highest professional and ethical standards, so that the results are trustworthy. It concerns the behavior of researchers at all stages of the research life-cycle, including:

  • Declaring competing interests
  • Data collection and data management
  • Using appropriate methodology 
  • Drawing conclusions from results
  • Writing up research findings

Research integrity can be confused with research ethics and publishing ethics. Although these terms are connected, there are differences. Research ethics is specifically concerned with the ethical issues which may arise when conducting research involving animals or human subjects. 

Publishing ethics is related to the integrity of the publication process, rather than the conduct of the research itself. Publishing ethics cover a range of issues, such as:

    • Dual submission
    • Authorship disputes
    • Bias in peer review
    • Breaches of confidentiality in peer review

Download the “What is research integrity?” transcript here

Professor Bouter pictures research integrity on a sliding scale, with responsible research at the top. This is research which is valid, accurate, and reproducible, meeting the highest professional and ethical standards. The results are highly trustworthy. 

In the middle of the scale, there is research following questionable practices, which Professor Bouter terms ‘sloppy science’. This is a grey area, where researchers make honest mistakes or cut corners in their research. 

At the bottom of the scale is FFP (Falsification, Fabrication, and Plagiarism). Researchers guilty of FFP conduct research in a knowingly dishonest way, and do not adhere to accepted standards of integrity. Findings from research in this category are not trustworthy, and can damage the reputation of science and academia more broadly. 

Why is research integrity important?

Research integrity is important because it upholds the trustworthiness and validity of academic research. Without rigorous adherence to research integrity guidelines, the value of research findings is called into question.

In today’s landscape of ‘fake news’, with so much information available to the public, it’s crucial for academic research to be trustworthy. To achieve this, researchers must work with responsible conduct, in an ethical research environment. 

What is selective reporting bias?

Selective reporting bias is when results from scientific research are deliberately not fully or accurately reported, in order to suppress negative or undesirable findings. The end result is that the findings are not reproducible, because they have been skewed by bias during the analysis or writing stages. 

Selective reporting is one type of bias which undermines the integrity of academic research. It is a large contributor to the current ‘reproducibility crisis’ facing scientific publishing. 

Download the “What is selective reporting bias?” transcript here

As Professor Bouter explains, selective reporting bias can incorporate a number of other types of bias, such as :

  • Publication bias – where the results of negative clinical trials are not published or under-published
  • Outcome reporting bias – where the results of negative clinical trials are cherry-picked or distorted to improve the overall findings
  • Spin – communicating results in a way which amplifies positive findings or tones down negative findings
  • Citation bias – positive studies are more likely to be cited than negative studies

Selective reporting bias, FFP, and other examples of research misconduct, all contribute to a culture of mistrust in science and academia. However, journal editors can play a role in helping change this perception, by upholding a culture of research integrity on their journals.

Eight ways to promote research integrity on your journal

Download the “How to foster research integrity on your journal” transcript here

Professor Bouter shares eight suggestions for journal editors looking to promote research integrity:

  1. Follow the TOP Guidelines: TOP stands for ‘Transparency and Openness Promotion’. These are guidelines from the Center for Open Science, covering a range of topics relating to open science, from data transparency to citation standards. Journals can sign up to these standards, committing to different levels of implementation. 
  2. Implement pre-registration or registered reports: Pre-registration, or registered reports, means that before conducting any research, the introduction and research methods undergo peer review. It’s one way to eliminate bias, because there are no results at the time of the review. 
  3. Use reporting guidelines: These are guidelines designed to improve and standardise reporting on different study designs. Reporting guidelines originated in biomedical sciences, but can apply to a range of disciplines. 
  4. Promote pre-prints: Pre-prints, sometimes called ‘working papers’, are full research papers which are shared publicly before being peer reviewed. Pre-prints provide an opportunity for feedback before the paper goes through official peer review. 
  5. Consider open peer review: Open peer review means the identity of the author and reviewer is known by all participants in the process. Some forms of open peer review also publish the reviewer reports alongside the final article. Professor Bouter suggests that open peer review could help to improve the quality of the peer review process. 
  6. Use the latest technology: There are a growing number of tools available to help editors check for plagiarism, spin, text recycling, and image duplication. Some of these tools already feature in online submission systems like ScholarOne Manuscripts and Editorial Manager, such as plagiarism or similarity checks using iThenticate and CrossRef. 
  7. Experiment with post-publication peer review: As Professor Bouter says, “the story has not ended after publication”. Post-publication peer review never really finishes, as articles are available for peer review and commentary on an ongoing basis. This typically happens in a forum or comments thread hosted alongside the paper. 
  8. Use updated versions: Some research lends itself to being updated every few years. Professor Bouter suggests that researchers create updated versions of their manuscripts, and add these to the scholarly record. As publication operates in a primarily digital space, it’s easier than ever before to be clear about which paper is the latest, and maintain a version of record. 

Taylor & Francis is committed to publishing high quality research which meets the highest standards of research integrity and publication ethics. Please read the Taylor & Francis Editorial Policies, including our guidance on research ethics and consent. If you have any concerns or questions about research integrity on your journal, contact your Portfolio Manager at Taylor & Francis. 

For more information, take a look at our introduction to publishing ethics for editors or browse the other resources from the Amsterdam Scholarly Summit

Are you a researcher? For more information on responsible research conduct, read our ethical guidelines for authors.