Increased public scrutiny of scientific research, report finds

Share this on social media:

The landmark ‘Confidence in research: researchers in the spotlight’ report published finds that nearly two thirds of scientific researchers surveyed (63%) feel the pandemic has increased public attention on research. But only 38% think that better public understanding of research will be a legacy of the pandemic.(1)

Conducted by Economist Impact and supported by Elsevier, a global leader in scientific publishing and information analytics, the report combines the findings from a global survey of over 3,000 scientists, scholars and researchers on how the pandemic has affected the practice of undertaking and communicating research in the face of increased public scrutiny. The full report includes recommendations for potential solutions from a Global Expert Panel of researchers, academic leaders, science organisations and policy makers.

Being published in a peer-reviewed journal is the most important marker of reliability according to 74% of researchers surveyed. The study also reveals that more than half of researchers (52%) feel the pandemic increased the importance of publishing research early, prior to peer review, and many – particularly women, early career researchers and those in Global South countries – feel the pandemic has widened inequalities in, and access to, funding in their fields.

More than half of respondents expressed concern about the challenges of over-simplification (52%) and the politicisation of research (56%) because of increased public attention and social media focus on research and the research process. As a result, many say they now lack confidence in their ability to communicate their findings to the public in this new environment. Fewer than one in five researchers (18%) participating in the study feel highly confident in communicating their findings on social media. This is against a background of nearly a third (32%) of respondents having experienced, or knowing a close colleague who has experienced abuse after posting research online.

Half of all researchers surveyed (51%) say they feel a responsibility to engage in debate online and over two-thirds (69%) believe the pandemic has increased the importance of separating quality research from misinformation. In fact, misinformation has become such a concern globally in recent years that nearly a quarter of academics (23%) now see publicly countering it as one of their primary roles in society, compared to just 16% who said this was the case before the pandemic.

Alongside supporting the landmark survey by Economist Impact, Elsevier partnered with leading science and research organisations(2) to bring together world-renowned experts, academic leaders and early career researchers to explore the impact of the pandemic on researchers and to identify potential areas of action to help the research community and enhance confidence in research. 

Economist Impact has combined the findings from the global survey with the insights from the extensive stakeholder dialogue to develop recommendations, which are set out in the ‘Confidence in research: researchers in the spotlight’ report. These include:

  • Providing formal communications training to give researchers the tools and guidance to communicate ethically, effectively and with confidence, and incentivising strong communication skills as part of career development
  • Providing support for researchers in the face of online abuse by drafting clear codes of conduct and guidance on how to manage online interaction
  • Embedding the right incentive and reward structures to ensure that researchers’ contribution to furthering confidence in science receives appropriate recognition, in particular their role in teaching, public engagement and participation in the peer review process
  • Promoting collaboration and impact by providing financial incentives for researchers to collaborate in larger teams and facilitate quality trials and studies over quantity
  • Prioritising equity and diversity by directing research funding to countries and research communities that need it most
  • Adopting more digestible summaries and user-friendly formats to make it easier for policy-makers, journalists or the general public to better understand and identify quality research
  • Prioritising consistency in R&D spending to ensure that researchers can properly plan their research, staffing and infrastructure needs

Laura Hassink, Managing Director of Scientific, Technical and Medical Journals at Elsevier, said: “The pandemic showed just how important quality research is for addressing global challenges and accelerating progress for society. Science is advancing at an extraordinary pace but that has brought new pressures on researchers such as tackling damaging misinformation, handling public scrutiny, and communicating their work with confidence. The Economist Impact report can be a helpful stimulus as all stakeholders in research come together to turn recommendations into action. At Elsevier, we are committed to supporting the research community to tackle these challenges and thank our expert partners and the thousands of academic leaders, scientists and researchers who lent their invaluable perspectives to this important collaboration.”

Tracey Brown, Director, Sense about Science, and chair of a Global Expert Panel that discussed the findings said: “People who use research evidence need to know what weight they can put on it, and the pandemic exploded the numbers of people who use research evidence by millions. Researchers had to bring decision makers, the public and reporters in on all those questions about how reliable a study is, and how convincing its findings are. And they did this – they did it incredibly well the world over, with innovation and determination, but at some price. This research is a step to figuring out how to take the benefits forward, and address the challenges that make it unnecessarily difficult to talk about what we know and how.”

Jonathan Birdwell, Regional Head of Policy Research & Insights for EMEA, Economist Impact said: “The pandemic demonstrated the research community’s ability to come together and solve global problems. It increased public attention on that community like never before, presenting opportunities for open science and policy influence, but also challenges around higher volume, speed and demand for simple stories. But do researchers have confidence to embrace a more public-facing role? And are their support structures and incentives fit-for-purpose amidst this new landscape? Our research finds that many researchers want to solve societal problems, influence policy and boost public understanding of research. But to do so confidently, they need more time to devote to communication, support in the face of online abuse and recognition of their public-facing contributions.” 

Statistical references/methodology

1. Economist Impact’s research was conducted with 3,144 active researchers globally between May and August 2022, spanning 100 countries and dozens of fields of expertise. (N.B. active is defined as having published an article within the last three years). This quantitative research was informed by a literature review and supplemented with qualitative in-depth interviews with a range of independent research experts, plus a Global Advisory Board. 

2. In addition to the quantitative survey and expert interviews, insights were also gathered from six regional roundtables led by Elsevier’s regional convening partners:

  • Chinese Association for Science of Science and Science & Technology Policy (China)
  • Japanese Association for the of Advancement Science (Japan)
  • Koninklijke Hollandsche Maatschappij der Wetenschappen, (Netherlands)
  • Körber Stiftung (Germany)
  • Research!America (United States)
  • Sense about Science (UK)

Combined, these roundtables featured the perspectives of around 200 researchers covering approximately 14 countries.

3. The survey findings, insights from the qualitative in-depth interviews and the regional roundtables were discussed by a Global Expert Panel, convened by Elsevier, which contributed recommendations for action and further exploration. These were collated by the Economist Impact and set out in the full report.

More information on the methodology of the study and a full list of the experts consulted can be viewed via the report.