Researchers face widespread bullying and insecurity

A survey of 4,000 researchers conducted in the United Kingdom and globally for the Wellcome Trust provides an alarming insight into research culture, revealing widespread bullying and feelings of job insecurity.

Poor research culture is leading to unhealthy competition, bullying and harassment, and mental health issues. Close to half of researchers have experienced bullying and more than half have sought or wanted to seek professional help for depression and anxiety.

At the same time the vast majority of researchers have worries about job security.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said: “These results paint a shocking portrait of the research environment – and one we must all help change.

“The pressures of working in research must be recognised and acted upon by all, from funders, to leaders of research and to heads of universities and institutions.”

Farrar added. “As a funder, we understand that our own approach has played a role. We’re committed to changing this, to foster a creative, supportive, and inclusive research environment.”

The survey results were drawn from 4, 267 researchers, 76% of them based in the UK, the rest in other parts of the world, particularly the United States, Germany, Australia, Spain and South Africa.

Key findings included that researchers are passionate and proud about their work, but only 29% of researchers feel secure pursuing a research career.

The vast majority of researchers (78%) think that high levels of competition have created unkind and aggressive conditions.

Aggressive conditions

Nearly two-thirds of researchers (61%) have witnessed bullying or harassment, and 43% have experienced it themselves. Just one in three (37%) feel comfortable speaking up, with many doubting appropriate action will be taken.

Just over half of researchers (53%) have sought, or have wanted to seek, professional help for depression or anxiety.

The high rate of bullying could be related to poor quality management, since the survey found a disconnect between researchers’ perception of their management skills and their abilities in practice.

Although 80% of researchers who manage people say they have the knowledge and skills to manage a diverse team, only 48% have received training.

In addition, those being managed often miss out on critical aspects of good management – only half have received feedback on their performance (55%) or had a formal appraisal (49%) in the past year.

Creativity stifled

Worryingly the survey found that the research system favours quantity over quality, and creativity is often stifled. Despite creativity being one of the most commonly cited features of an ideal research culture, 75% of researchers believe it’s currently being stifled.

In addition, although 69% of researchers think that rigour of results is considered an important research outcome by their workplace, one in five junior researchers and students (23%) have felt pressured by their supervisor to produce a particular result.

Some 43% of researchers believe that their workplace puts more value on metrics than on research quality and only 14% agree that current metrics have a positive impact on research culture.

Shift Learning, which was commissioned to carry out the qualitative and quantitative research for the Wellcome Trust, interviewed 94 UK-based researchers before devising the survey.

A report on their findings said that most researchers came into the job with their eyes open, expecting less desirable aspects of the academic culture to be present, including: long hours, high-pressured working environments, multiple commitments, isolation, poor work-life balance and frank exchanges.

But historically these had been offset by other characteristics such as job security (once in permanent positions), autonomy, collaboration, creativity, societal contribution and flexibility.

“Participants felt that these previous career advantages are being negated by systems that are open to gaming, pressured by financial needs and focused on metrics at the cost of individuals. The decrease in these benefits is also seen to impact on researchers’ wellness and sense of job satisfaction,” the report said.

The report warned that the long working hours, a pressure to find positive results, a lack of job security and intense levels of competition create the conditions ripe for stress, anxiety, poor mental health, bullying and aggressive behaviour.

Many researchers talked about the impact of this not only on their own wellness but also on their families. Academia was often cited to be ‘a lifestyle choice’ rather than simply a job.

Quantity over quality

Many researchers feel that current reward systems are driving quantity over research quality, the report said. A regularly cited example was the actions taken by researchers to try and gain publication in high-impact journals, which often preferred shorter report-style entries with positive findings.

“This was unquestionably felt to make replicability harder, with less focus given to method, and lead to some inflation of results or massaging of the data,” the report found.

Few doubted that this increased level of output would impact the quality of research in the long term, with many raising concerns that the current culture did not afford time or space to properly consider research, which would ultimately lead to less creative and innovative work being produced.

“Indeed, many felt that the current culture of research was too risk-averse and focused on preserving the status quo, and that these attitudes would make it significantly harder to produce research offering real breakthroughs,” the report said.

Many UK researchers held the Research Excellence Framework or REF and wider culture of metricisation accountable for the increased presence of poor research culture.

Beth Thompson, head of UK and EU policy for the Wellcome Trust, commenting on the findings, said she herself had left research not long after her PhD because the culture “pushed me away from the thrill of discovery, the creative, challenging debate and international camaraderie that I’d so enjoyed. I was worried that if I’d stayed, the culture would erode my values and I’d start acting in ways I disliked so much in others”.

She said funders like Wellcome have – often unintentionally – shaped the current culture through the rewards, requirements and support we put in place for researchers.

“We now have a responsibility to reimagine research, and to use our influence consciously as a tool for change.”