Research integrity in consultancy – More common ground than differences?

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Research integrity in consultancy – More common ground than differences?

Research integrity can be broadly described as a commitment to ethical principles and adherence to professional or disciplinary guidelines. It covers an array of practices that support values such as honesty, rigour, transparency and open communication, care and respect for participants in research and accountability.

In an academic context, the essence of research integrity is to preserve the trustworthiness and accuracy of the research process, from gathering and analysing data to reporting outcomes and publishing results. This can be enforced to some extent through monitoring and compliance mechanisms, but the most productive way to foster research integrity is through raising awareness, sharing success stories and providing support and mentoring at different levels in an organisation. A positive focus on research integrity helps prevent and mitigate inappropriate practices, such as plagiarism, data fabrication, manipulation, which are well known to undermine the legitimacy of research findings. Research integrity helps maintain the public’s confidence in scientific endeavours, promoting interdisciplinary collaboration and propelling innovation.

Over the last year, our involvement in the research integrity landscape has increased significantly, building on years of work around open access publishing, open science practices and research reproducibility. By working more and more on these topics, we came to realise that the principles of research integrity are very much embedded in the way we work, too.

In this article, we draw on our past experience and everyday working practices to explore three key things that any researcher – whether in academia or in business – should prioritise to uphold the principles of research integrity.

1. Deliver evidence-based and actionable recommendations

In our work, we aim to prioritise robust, evidence-based findings that can withstand examination. This involves applying rigorous methodologies, choosing dependable sources and maintaining a critical approach throughout the research process. Staying informed about industry best practices and evolving ethical guidelines helps us ensure that findings and recommendations align with the highest standards.

In contrast to academia, consultants have a much higher focus on delivering actionable findings. For example, it is common for academic articles to present conclusions with no immediate practical application, as their objective typically is the advancement of knowledge. On the other hand, consultancy reports and presentations tend to focus on solving challenges experienced by a client.

In our projects, our team of specialists help contextualise and interpret the evidence collected through expertise across scholarly communication, research impact, knowledge exchange and commercialisation and more. When doing this, we work hard to ensure that there isn’t too big a leap between the data and the recommendations made – which is why we have a structured ISO 9001-certified quality management system and strive to share information openly and transparently.

Examples of evidence-based and actionable recommendations:

2. Share openly and transparently

Embracing transparency and openness helps demonstrate research integrity in academic and consultancy settings alike. We aim to cultivate an environment of open communication and transparency, both internally and with our clients, associates and the broader communities we support. Our openness enables our audiences to better comprehend, validate and build upon our prior work.

In addition, being transparent about potential limitations or conflicts of interest bolsters the credibility of our research and demonstrates a dedication to ethical conduct. In a small number of cases, we have had to turn down potential leads due to conflicts of interest between new opportunities and our existing client commitments. This can be disappointing from a business perspective but as the American advertising executive Bill Bernbach said, ‘A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.’

We have two key pathways to implementing the principles of openness and transparency. Firstly, during projects, we communicate frequently and openly with our clients. This means flagging challenges or issues as soon as they emerge, so they can be dealt with appropriately. Secondly, we share our work publicly whenever possible (e.g. when the work is not confidential or sensitive). Our objective is to be “as open as possible, as closed as necessary“, and we typically achieve this by the means of the Zenodo repository and the Kudos platform. This allows us to share as much of the evidence behind our findings as possible, which does require additional time for curation and documentation but also helps enhance trust.

Examples of openness and transparency in a consultancy setting:

3. Safeguard data, personal information and intellectual property

Protecting sensitive information, personal data and intellectual property rights is another critical aspect of our work. As a starting point, we must adhere to data protection regulations (such as the Data Protection Act and the General Data Protection Regulation) and employ robust security measures to prevent unauthorised access, loss or misuse of data.

Additionally, we work hard to safeguard sensitive information entrusted to us by clients or collaborators. This includes adhering to strict confidentiality protocols (including NDAs), ensuring secure storage and communication of sensitive data and only sharing sensitive information with authorised personnel on a need-to-know basis. By maintaining a high level of confidentiality where needed, we foster trust, build strong professional relationships and uphold our ethical responsibility towards clients and stakeholders alike. This kind of work tends to result in confidential reports, which we have delivered for a diverse set of organisations, such as the Ministry of Education of Saudi Arabia, Research Libraries UK and Health Education England, alongside a wide range of individual universities, publishers and software suppliers.

Beyond these process-related considerations, there is a lot we can do within projects, too. The most formal approach to safeguarding project-related data involves the creation of a data management plan – which is not at all dissimilar to what academics do. Such a document can help demonstrate care and respect for participants in research projects and establishes clear informed consent procedures, emphasising participants’ autonomy and their right to make informed decisions.

Examples of care and respect for participants in research projects:

Fostering research integrity to inspire trust

As we have discussed in this article, integrity is a cornerstone of both academic and consultancy work. The importance of maintaining trustworthiness and accuracy in either setting cannot be overstated, as it helps build credibility and trust in one’s chosen audience.

We always aim to learn from our work for clients around research integrity, open science and reproducibility, taking the opportunity to implement emerging best practices in our own work wherever possible. A focus on integrity enables us to foster a culture of excellence, accountability and collaboration. We hope it also inspires confidence among our clients and stakeholders, who rely on us to guide them through complex decision-making processes and to navigate an increasingly competitive landscape. Our clients have now been trusting us for over ten years, which, to us, demonstrates that our investment in quality and integrity has paid off.

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