The Lithuanian Responsible Research Barometer 2022 signals the need for systemic changes

In Lithuania, national guidelines are well-known and knowledge of ethics is considered important, but research malpractice is rarely reported or resolved.

Julija Umbrasaitė and Eglė Ozolinčiūtė

In 2022, the Office of the Ombudsperson for Academic Ethics and Procedures (Office) in Lithuania conducted the second Responsible Research Barometer survey. It was adapted from the questionnaire developed by the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK. This survey reviews the current ethical practice of research conduct and publication in Lithuanian universities, colleges of higher education, and research institutes (Research and Higher Education Institutions, i.e. RHEIs). The survey, consisting of 23 questions, was filled in by doctoral students and researchers (lecturers, scientists and other researchers working in RHEIs) (N=310). To understand the current trends in the RHEIs, the results were compared with the results of the earlier study “Responsible Research Barometer 2020” (Ozolinčiūtė et al. 2020).

National guidance is well-established in Lithuania, but institutional efforts could be improved

The survey showed that the efforts of the Office have brought certain fruit. The researchers, lecturers, and doctoral students who took part in the survey usually knew well the documents prepared by the Office and applied in the RHEIs (e.g. the Recommendations on the Preparation, Adaptation, and Implementation of Academic Ethics Codes by RHEIs, the Guidelines for Ethical Review and the Guidelines for Assurance of Academic Ethics when Organising Remote Studies). The respondents knew well the Office’s guidance and promotion of research and publication ethics (RPE). They identified training organised by the Office as a resource for improving their knowledge. However, international guidance documents are less well-known, suggesting an opportunity for improvement.

Among other findings, we note that the ethics position of the Lithuanian academic community remains attributable to absolutists (high idealism, low relativism), i.e. the ones who tend to follow universal moral norms with neither exceptions nor adjustments to individual circumstances (Forsyth 2019). The ethical attitudes of respondents were surveyed according to the shortened Forsyth’s Ethics Position Questionnaire (Forsyth 2019). The respondents were asked to rate the statements using five-point scale (1 – strongly disagree, 5 – strongly agree). The scores for idealism and relativism were calculated as average ratings, accordingly 4.55 and 2.49 (N=309).

Approximately half of the respondents have engaged occasionally (i.e. sometimes, rarely, and very rarely) in deepening their RPE knowledge within the last three years. Only about 10% of the respondents reported improving RPE knowledge frequently (i.e. often and very often). Similar tendencies appeared in the 2020 survey, but the approaches to acquiring deeper knowledge differed; for example, the COVID-19 pandemic induced a higher participation in virtual events in 2022. The respondents tended to take part more in the events organised by other Lithuanian institutions, although the number of the events organised by the respondents’ institutions remained the same.

The main reason to acquire RPE knowledge is the belief that every researcher must be well aware of RPE (indicated by 65% of the respondents). Every third respondent indicated a lack of personal knowledge as the reason to deepen their RPE knowledge. Respondents reported that they struggled in improving their RPE knowledge because the training that could be beneficial is not free and they were expected to cover their costs by themselves. Nevertheless, half of the respondents who did not acquire more RPE knowledge within the defined period said that they would be willing to do so. Additionally, the respondents noted that they did not get enough information about the training.

Whistleblowing is rare and its consequences may be negative

The respondents did not notice unethical behaviour often (in its various forms). 28% of the respondents had encountered dishonest behaviour within the last three years. An issue of concern, bringing institutional trust into question, may be that more than half of the respondents did not report dishonest behaviour because they felt no sense in doing so. Only one sixth had contacted the unit’s manager, the ethics committee of the RHEI, or the Office.  

Furthermore, the respondents who had looked for help described further developments of the situation: whistleblowing did not bring positive changes. On the contrary, reporting the suspicion had negative consequences, such as attempts to procrastinate, gloss over or “normalise” the situation (i.e., to explain that what happened is a normal practice) up to psychological or moral damage and, in some cases, even loss of employment. Less than one third of respondents tried to solve the whole situation on their own.

When compared to the earlier survey in Lithuania (Responsible Research Barometer 2020), the 2022 study showed a growing tendency on the part of the respondents to solve the situation on their own. Notifying the ethics committee or the unit of the institution of breaches of academic ethics is simultaneously decreasing.

Observations of research malpractice in the Lithuanian research community

HARKing and p-hacking appear to be the most often noticed forms of research malpractice. Multimedia plagiarism, segmented publication, and self-plagiarism appear as the most often noticed forms of unethical publishing. Gift or guest authorship, mutual admiration authorship and assuming the role of the slacker are the most often noticed forms of unethical authorship.

More than half of the respondents considered the pressure to publish more in a shorter period as a threat to responsible research and publishing. Almost half of the respondents (45%) also found lack of information or knowledge about the rights of researchers as a threat possibly leading to research malpractice.

In conclusion

The Lithuanian results emphasise the need for systemic changes, for example improving institutional trust in protecting whistleblowers and the review of assessment criteria of researchers and managers of RHEIs. There is also need for more education in cornerstone areas on which the proper culture of academic integrity is to be built.

Julija Umbrasaitė, Office of the Ombudsperson for Academic Ethics and Procedures of the Republic of Lithuania, Lithuania

Eglė Ozolinčiūtė, Office of the Ombudsperson for Academic Ethics and Procedures of the Republic of Lithuania, Lithuania