Estonian researchers are keen to improve their qualifications in the research integrity field and would like to see a publicly organised, harmonised and clear research integrity system in Estonia, revealed a recent survey initiated by the Estonian Research Council and conducted by the Centre for Applied Social Sciences (CASS) and the Centre for Ethics of the University of Tartu.
Estonia is one of the few countries in the European research sphere that lacks a publicly organised, or at least publicly agreed, system for dealing with research integrity issues, including establishment of legal bases, procedures and monitoring arrangements. “While there are individual elements of the system, such as ethics committees, the Centre for Ethics of the University of Tartu and the Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, they do not form a harmonised whole,” said Siret Rutiku, Head of the Estonian Research Council Department of Research Funding, explaining the crux of the problem. She added that there is no public institution that is responsible for compliance and monitoring. “This complicates the pursuit of ethically sound research in Estonia, inhibits international competitiveness of Estonian researchers, and prevents Estonia’s participation in international cooperation networks, thereby posing a risk to the quality and reputation of our research,” Rutiku explained.
In order to eliminate this deficiency and prepare a comprehensive support and monitoring system for research integrity in Estonia, the Estonian Research Council and the Ministry of Education and Research tasked the University of Tartu to conduct an applied survey on “Creating a public monitoring and support system for research integrity in Estonia”.
Research integrity is important, but awareness is lacking
According to survey respondents, research integrity is an important part of research activities, that serves as a seal of quality and reliability of research. “Insufficient training in research integrity at the universities and shortage of information on solution options for different cases were identified by the respondents as some of the main weaknesses of the current research integrity system in Estonia,” said Siim Espenberg, Project Manager and Head of the CASS, describing the results of the survey. “The main problems that had been encountered by the respondents in their research efforts included authorship issues and corruption, including the influence of authority and nepotism,” he added.
The work of ethics committees in Estonia was rated very highly by the respondents, but significant shortcomings were noted in terms of the slow speed of procedures and being bogged down by formal bureaucracy that does not pay sufficient attention to the content of research projects and lacks an understanding of the nuances of the respective research fields.
The participants criticised the current research integrity arrangements in Estonia. “Several respondents believed that such a system does not even exist,” Espenberg explained. While research integrity issues are being considered, the efforts are so fragmented that they do not constitute a harmonised system. In addition to field-specific or institutional ethics committees, the participants would like to see a public organisation that, while being financed by the government, would be independent in its decisions.
The Estonian scientific community expects a sustainable and transparent system that would support training and awareness on research integrity, conduct transparent reviews of irregularities, and provide relevant advice. “The key for the next step is to negotiate the division of responsibilities between different institutions, to make it comprehensible for researchers and other stakeholders, in order to streamline the research integrity system. Estonia could benefit a great deal from this,” Espenberg believes.
Estonia needs a research integrity commissioner
“Establishing a politically independent office for coordinating the research integrity field is also important to facilitate creation of the position of a research integrity commissioner and participation in the promotion of research integrity at the EU level,” Rutiku said, adding that failure to reach an agreement regarding this position could potentially deprive Estonia of the chance to benefit from relevant developments and cooperation opportunities in the EU.
The results of the survey were translated into practical recommendations on developing the research integrity system in Estonia. Improving the advisory and training system, ensuring impartial and transparent processing of irregularities, streamlining the work of ethics committees and creating a coordination office for research integrity were highlighted by the authors of the survey as some of the essential next steps.
“Hopefully, the Ministry of Education and Research, in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Rural Affairs, will soon reach an agreement on an action plan, based on the results and proposals from this survey,” Rutiku hoped. “The Estonian Research Council has, on its part, already drafted some preliminary measures for supporting research integrity.”
The survey encompassed 47 institutions (incl. public universities, institutions of applied higher education and other research and development institutions), with 520 total respondents. In addition, the survey included 13 individual in-depth interviews and two focus group interviews.
The survey was financed by the Estonian Research Council through the RITA programme, supported by the European Regional Development Fund and Estonian state funding.
Siret Rutiku, Head of the Department of Research Funding, Estonian Research Council, firstname.lastname@example.org
Siim Espenberg, Project Manager, Head of the Centre for Applied Social Sciences, University of Tartu, email@example.com
Margit Sutrop, Head of the Centre for Ethics, University of Tartu, firstname.lastname@example.org