Defining a Culture of Excellence in Research

The principal investigator and other leaders play a key role in encouraging group dynamics that make people feel respected and included -- or not, Elizabeth A. Luckman, C. K. Gunsalus, Nicholas C. Burbules and Robert A. Easter write.

June 24, 2021
 
 
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What kind of culture do you want for your research environment? Do you want to facilitate a culture of fear and intimidation? Growth and support? Hard work and merit? Competition or collaboration and joint effort? Playing it safe or pushing the boundaries of innovation?

How do you keep the focus on the purpose of research -- answering key questions and pursuing the truth -- while also caring for the well-being of the members of the research team?

Our work at the National Center for Principled Leadership and Research Ethics has always focused on the intersection of how individuals interact with each other in the standard areas of research ethics: plagiarism, falsifying data, mistreating research subjects, consequences of sloppy research or record keeping, and so on. In recent years, and in collaboration with our partners, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the American Geophysical Union, we have become more explicit about the ethics of inclusion and leadership within research teams themselves.

Promoting excellence in research involves not only what research is done. It also contributes to how research is done, how research teams operate and who participates. Research teams do not only produce result, but they also reproduce and sustain themselves as effective ongoing collaboratives. We argue that the goal is to create a culture of excellence in which certain values, assumptions and beliefs become habits that facilitate ethical and effective interpersonal dynamics, creative thinking and productive science.

For us a culture of excellence means exceptional research done rigorously and ethically, in inclusive working environments with positive interpersonal dynamics, and in ways that support team members in building productive, meaningful research careers. And leadership -- whether it is the research group’s principal investigator or other leaders who step forward within the group -- plays a crucial role here, both in setting the right kind of example and in attending to the elements of group dynamics that can make members feel respected and included -- or not.

Significant generational and demographic shifts are under way in our country. To be most effective, research today must welcome and develop all the talent available. As research groups work to recruit and support the development of talent from diverse populations, and as they encounter generational differences, our understanding of what works to motivate and engage members’ best abilities and insights, what makes them feel part of a group culture, what promotes their professional growth -- and what helps retain them as active participants -- must adapt. A culture of excellence in research means broadening our pool of talent, adapting methods of operation to suit the needs of the participants and taking advantage of their diverse perspectives and insights to enhance the research productivity of the team. And this all must be done while maintaining the rigor of reproducible, evidence-based knowledge discovery.

Many attributes of creating a culture of excellence are not intuitive, especially around the use of authority. People with authority can inadvertently silence or harm those with less power by not understanding the effects of their words and actions on others -- especially others not like them. Closely related to this dynamic, doctoral students and early-stage researchers often enter this competitive environment with high levels of anxiety and insecurity, perhaps even more so when they are different from the dominant composition of team members and must confront ongoing biases and stereotypes. Power dynamics, combined with fear of failure, can intersect to reduce levels of trust among members of the group. In some cases people simply quit, depriving the field of talent and potential. At their worst, such conditions can contribute to severe mental health problems and their effects.

Building Cultures of Excellence

Culture is a manifestation of how individuals behave, so it is not something fixed or given, but rather something that groups create and can change. Ed Schein, author of Organizational Culture and Leadership, identifies culture as "a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration." Informally, culture is often described as “just the way things are done around here.” At work, that includes communication styles and the tone that the leaders set, as well as people’s expectations about how tasks are performed -- including interpersonal dynamics, work hours and group processes.

Building cultures of excellence requires acknowledging these power dynamics and building trusting relationships between individuals and within the group, as well as forming habits that can help build careers. It also includes fundamentally embedding concepts of research integrity. For decades, our community has focused on efforts related to educating individuals about the responsible conduct of research as a way to improve research outcomes. This focus on individuals -- primarily graduate students and trainees -- without considering larger environments and cultures has led too often to online standards or compliance-focused training, or one-and-done efforts. It generally does not help to build the habits and behaviors necessary to uphold those standards and does little to encourage healthy research group cultures that promote excellence.

Specifically, we define excellence in research as the process of building the habits necessary to conduct creative, productive and reproducible research in ethical ways through positive interpersonal dynamics in a team environment. Excellence in research does not just refer to the ends (i.e., the outcome of research); it includes the means (i.e., the processes of conducting and disseminating that research).

Focusing on the ends at the expense of the means is part of what leads to many of the problems in doctoral research today. The pressure to publish is well documented and rewards output instead of improving the means to achieve it. It reduces the time to reflect and think. A focus on the ends of publishing, such as the number of publications in “good” journals, has contributed in part to ethical failures in research: rushing results into circulation, massaging or manipulating data and images, generating fake data, among others. Further, it has contributed to demanding work environments with higher levels of mental health problems.

Therefore, we want to promote ethics in research not only as a normative obligation, but also as a way of improving research outcomes. It isn’t just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Research integrity promotes better results, better reproducibility, the promise of sustainability and greater impact.

What Is Your Purpose?

Creating cultures of excellence in research starts with identifying the critical capabilities and processes that shape day-to-day interactions and behaviors. What is the purpose of the research endeavor? Research groups serve a three-part purpose: impactful, reproducible and innovative scholarship; student learning and development; and extension of knowledge to the broader community.

The first purpose for the research group is its scholarship, of course. But equally important is a second purpose: student learning and development. These groups serve as training grounds for early-stage researchers. Research teams comprise groups of people working toward a shared set of goals, and part of the reason for the group environment -- especially, but not only, in academic contexts -- is to act as a sort of apprenticeship for young researchers to learn the methods of doing rigorous science.

The third purpose is outreach and communication: disseminating new research findings to the community of scholars, and ultimately to the benefit of humanity. Part of effective communication and outreach -- especially these days -- includes perceived credibility and legitimacy. A research team investigating diabetes, for example, that includes no African Americans -- who are affected by diabetes at a much higher rate -- is not only going to miss out on some important perspectives and hypotheses in the design of the research; it is also going to be viewed skeptically by some of the key external groups who could potentially benefit from its results. And almost certainly, the communication of those results would reveal blind spots by the researchers in speaking to and about people affected by the disease.

The Role of Leaders

Healthy and productive research environments are a product of the intersection of people and culture, guided by leaders who are sensitive to how these interact. That means fostering habits of excellence requires understanding how individuals are affected by group interactions, policies, work structure and incentives.

Here as in other academic and knowledge-producing cultures, leaders set tone and provide an example. Who these leaders are, how they treat and motivate others, and their own knowledge of and advocacy for diversity and inclusion will shape the climate and dynamics of the research teams they lead. Making room for different ways of thinking and working aimed at the greater goals can only strengthen the entire enterprise.

A second aspect of research culture, also set by a tone at the top, is developing more open and effective channels of communication for discussing not only the research problem at hand, but also reviewing and discussing the processes and dynamics within the research group. Effective research groups are self-reflective and, when necessary, self-critical, as that allows them to learn and grow. Thinking about how and where such communication can happen effectively is crucial for encouraging voices and perspectives from the less powerful or influential.

A third part is moving past the Darwinian ethos of some research groups. Some members may believe that the rough and tumble of competing ideas is the proper way to ensure that the best ideas survive, and many research groups have taken the same approach toward the interactions of their researchers. Undoubtedly, collaborative research requires intelligence, persistence and the ability to argue effectively, based on evidence, for your positions. At the level of ideas, we do want a “survival of the fittest.” But in many contexts, this is seen as participants themselves being “tough enough” to survive -- and the ways in which that view gets interpreted often interacts with asymmetrical relations of power, stereotypes and exclusionary practices that bear disproportionately on certain groups.

In order to be excellent and effective in their research, research teams must become more self-aware and self-critical about these dynamics concerning how their research is done, and by whom. These are not separate or ancillary considerations of research excellence. They are integral to what excellence means.

Building a culture of excellence starts with awareness of your current habits. Evaluate and observe the current behaviors, values and assumptions at play in your research environment. What patterns do you see? What biases are at play? What habits may not be conducive to your purpose in being a part of the scientific endeavor?

The second step is to honestly and realistically assess yourself and begin to change your own negative behaviors. Culture change starts with the leader. What values are you modeling? What example are you setting? What words are you using?

The third is to motivate and encourage others. Take time to build trusting relationships with each person in your research group -- they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want to contribute to the overall purpose. Celebrate small wins and encourage experimentation and collaboration by being intentional about setting time for group work. Talk openly about process and, especially, the mistakes and failures that are integral to the progress of research, and how to help everyone learn from them.

Culture change is slow and it accumulates over time. Making small, intentional changes today toward a more positive, productive culture that does exciting research and grows healthy researchers will contribute to building a culture of true excellence.

Bio

Elizabeth A. Luckman is a clinical assistant professor of business administration with an emphasis in organizational behavior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. C. K. Gunsalus is the director of the National Center for Principled Leadership and Research Ethics, professor emerita of business, and research professor at the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory at the university. Nicholas C. Burbules is the Gutgsell Professor in the department of educational policy, organization and leadership at the university. Robert A. Easter is president emeritus and dean of agriculture, consumer and environmental sciences emeritus of the University of Illinois.

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