Mapping integrity: a scientific and personal challenge

Portret Fenneke Blom
Fenneke Blom (Amsterdam UMC) and colleagues brought together existing initiatives that encourage scientific integrity and accommodated them at The Embassy of Good Science. Anyone working to promote scientific integrity can now draw on these initiatives for ideas and inspiration. Fenneke looks back at her project, which was both a scientific and a personal challenge.

Scientific integrity is important for the scientific and societal value of research. Science and society need robust and reliable research results that have been obtained through responsible methods. Research practices are changing due to factors such as Open Access publishing and the move to make data reusable. And the scientific system is strained as a result of, for example, the pressure to publish and excessive workloads. This all has implications for the research climate and scientific integrity. For the INSPIRE project, Fenneke Blom and colleagues collected forty initiatives that encourage scientific integrity and made them more widely accessible. The goal is to inspire others and help them tackle integrity in their own research environment. INSPIRE is an implementation project of the ZonMw and NWO programme Fostering Responsible Research Practices (FRRP).

Before we talk about your project, please tell us how you define scientific integrity and good science?

‘A few years ago, it was all about what’s really not allowed in science, such as fraud. And then we moved on to the grey areas. But that’s still about the things that go wrong. Recently, it’s been much more about encouraging the positive. There’s a growing sense that we need to approach the issue from a positive perspective. How you define it sometimes continues to be a matter of debate. That doesn’t really interest me; my take is that it’s a broad concept that encompasses many subjects. In the end, we all have the same goal: to encourage responsible research.

Some issues are more about the research climate, which is not integrity per se. But it is certainly a factor that can cause people to act with or without integrity. The research climate should indeed be taken into account, as far as I’m concerned. Because ensuring a good research climate is something that shows integrity. For example, it’s good to look after your PhD students. Promoting integrity is not just about perverse incentives in the research climate; the research climate can actually have a positive influence, like when researchers feel empowered to initiate the discussion, especially when things get tough. I’m curious about that aspect of prevention. The same applies to issues such as diversity. A few years ago, I was still having to explain why I see diversity as part of integrity, but more recently, this topic was made part of the last World Conference on Research Integrity. It’s a great example of how integrity is not a fixed concept.’

INSPIRE: Inventory in the Netherlands of Stakeholders’ Practices and Initiatives on Research integrity to set an Example

Project leaders: Dr Fenneke Blom (VU Amsterdam) and Prof. Lex M. Bouter (VU Amsterdam)
Implementers: Dr Fenneke Blom and Dr Dorien van der Schot
Implementation project of the ZonMw and NWO programme Fostering Responsible Research Practices.

Many stakeholders in scientific research, such as researchers, funders and policymakers, have developed initiatives to foster responsible research practices (FRRP). This project aimed to collect and share such FRRP initiatives. We used various approaches to compile the inventory of initiatives, including an automated search on the internet – a web crawler. This web crawler yielded a large amount of data, so we made a strategic selection of the data to take a closer look at.

In addition, we provided a checklist to assess and classify FRRP initiatives was developed with input from a variety of FRRP stakeholders. Assessed initiatives are described on The Embassy of Good Science in a ‘spectrum of initiatives’.

You carried out the INSPIRE project with Dorien van der Schot as part of the programme Fostering Responsible Research Practices (FRRP). What was the project’s aim?

‘Scientific integrity is demanding more and more attention these days, and research institutions are actively looking for ways to promote it. We noticed a need for a source of ideas, a collection of best practices where you can gain inspiration. Where you can find something that suits your situation and the problem you and your research institution want to solve. At that time, I was coordinator of the Netherlands Research Integrity Network (NRIN). In this role, I observed that this need was growing, and knew that there were all kinds of initiatives going on to encourage research integrity. We wanted to collect those initiatives and make them more widely available. The FRRP programme was a great opportunity to put that into practice. And not just the usual suspects and best practices, but also the more unusual initiatives. We wanted to have as diverse a set of examples as possible for all the different disciplines, different types of research, different target groups and different requests for help: it was a real challenge. Because how do you find out what those initiatives are, and how do you collect them? And how do you ensure that people can find them and use them? It ended up being a bigger challenge than I’d initially expected.

Our aim is to provide ways of thinking around how to begin fostering scientific integrity. We didn’t want it to come across as a set of guidelines. It is truly meant as a source of inspiration, which is why we called it a “spectrum of initiatives”. By using the word “spectrum”, we want to make clear that it encompasses research practices in their entirety. Scientific integrity is about much more than the core topics that everyone knows about. Sometimes there are also some very interesting niche subjects and you want to be able to map those as well.’

Did you know what you were looking for and how you wanted to classify the initiatives?

‘That’s what we asked at the start of the project. What should we look for? What do we see as an initiative? What are the initiatives about and how do we categorise them? How to describe an initiative so that someone else can take it forward? We started working with a very broad target group of stakeholders: researchers, policy advisors, reviewers, you name it. We asked them what was key for the classification and what they wanted to search for. They wanted to be able to select quickly by type of initiative, target group, online or physical, and what the initiative is about. Then you can find the right examples to provide inspiration and decide if they’re suitable.

In this way, we arrived at a checklist you can use to share or describe an initiative. And if you want to launch your own initiative, it’s a useful tool to identify everything you need to think about before you start. By going through the list of items, you can get inspiration for your approach. So the checklist helps you decide what to report and what will help you set up a good initiative. That’s one half of the checklist. The other half is more about assessing the initiatives: How to decide whether an initiative is right for you? This includes usability aspects as well as costs and benefits. So, the checklist is multi-purpose: it can be used for selection and for, reporting and evaluation. This Open Access checklist has been published at You can also find it via The Embassy of Good Science, which has a download link. So I hope people will start to use it.’ 

Hoe heb je het verzamelen van die initiatieven aangepakt?

“Dat hebben we gedaan via verschillende wegen. De eerste was om de mensen, met wie ik in gesprek was, vragen of ze hun voorbeeld wilden insturen. We hebben via NRIN-kanalen een oproep gedaan en mensen gevraagd hun initiatief aan te melden met een webformulier. En er heel veel erover vertellen! Ik heb allerlei presentaties gehouden bij verschillende bijeenkomsten in Nederlandse en Europese netwerken. En door zelf allerlei congressen te bezoeken waar ik allerlei voorbeelden hoorde.

We zijn ook aan de slag gegaan met een online zoektocht met een webcrawler. Dat was een tip van iemand van het EnTIRE project (Mapping the Ethics and Research Integrity Normative Framework | horizon 2020 ( Een webcrawler is een soort robotje dat je programmeert om het web af te speuren. Dat was nog niet eenvoudig want we konden niemand vinden die ons daar bij kon helpen. Het kostte veel tijd om het uiteindelijk voor elkaar te krijgen. Jammer was wel dat we dit relatief laat in het project konden inzetten. Er kwamen echt super veel resultaten uit. De selectie en prioritering was een enorme klus. Zo zijn we achter een paar voorbeelden gekomen die ik nog niet kende, ondanks dat ik als coördinator van het NRIN echt wel veel hoorde om me heen. Het is dus de moeite waard om zo’n webcrawler in te zetten."

If people are interested, where can they find the scientific integrity initiatives and gain inspiration?

‘The Embassy of Good Science was a European project which is hosting the results of our project. The options available there turned out differently than we’d expected. The platform was developed as part of the EnTIRE project, which is part of the Horizon 2020 programme Science with and for Society (SwafS). They had many different questions and objectives that they were trying to accommodate as part of that project. They had to make choices in terms of functionalities and design. I didn’t have much influence over that, but it did determine the way we were able to shape our project. That was one of the project’s challenges.

The nice thing about The Embassy – it’s actually a kind of Wiki – is that anyone can add and contribute to it. You just need to have an ORCID account and most researchers do. With that, you can log in and keep track of your contribution. It’s also a nice way to showcase your output. The idea is that The Embassy will keep growing by adding to it. Descriptions can be fleshed out with experiences and additional examples. And new initiatives can be added. So, I’d like to invite people to share their experiences and contribute to the collection. We also welcome any adjustments that people make to tailor an initiative to their own practice. For example, when a technical university takes an initiative shared by, say a university medical centre, and adapts it to its own situation. I also hear that people on other continents, such as Africa, are following this development with interest because it makes it possible to share a lot of training material. Countries that haven’t yet developed so much in this area can put that to good use. There’s a lot of Open Access sharing with step-by-step instructions on working groups, working methods and complete course programmes. It’s all on there. It’s precisely by sharing that you can inspire others in turn.’

You have collected forty initiatives. Are there any striking ones among them?

‘That’s a tricky question, because I’d have to mention one and not another. What I really like is that they include examples that aim to start the debate and are about daring to be vulnerable during such a conversation. About people setting an example. I really like that. You often hear people say: it’s good to talk about it, but who dares to show vulnerability? That’s super important, so it’s nice that it is discussed here too.’

So how do you do that, make those role models visible and start the conversation?

‘There are meetings with that very aim, where someone discusses a case. This could be in the form of, say, peer support or a moral deliberation. There are also meetings where a senior researcher discusses a case first to set an example for more junior researchers. I also do this for my students when teaching about integrity. I talk about what got me into this field of work myself. I have often taught PhD students at the VU medical centre where I did my own doctoral research. I used to share with them how my research progressed and what problems I encountered. What things I had questions about. This, on the one hand, made me feel rather vulnerable, but on the other, it’s invaluable for these students. I can show them what happened and what the solution was. Overall, they really appreciate it. People come up to me afterwards and thank me for sharing my experience. I’m in favour of being open about the dilemmas you encounter in your work as a researcher. My situation there is relatively safe because I’m no longer part of that research group. But I do try to set an example.’

What role does the NWO and ZonMw funding system play in conducting responsible research?

‘The dependence on funding is a factor in how you want to come across to the funding provider. How much vulnerability can you show without losing trust? It’s also about how you interpret each other’s expectations. Looking back at the requirements of the FRRP programme and the proposal we submitted, I felt that absolutely everything had to go right for those goals to be achievable. But you do need to write it up according to the research funder’s requirements and criteria because these are the requirements stated in the call. On paper, it looked like a great plan. But I did feel that there was no room for failure. I had in my head that we needed to collect a hundred initiatives, but I did not commit that to paper anywhere.

And, then, initially – we couldn’t find anyone to develop the web crawler. I had massive doubts about whether I was putting in enough effort. I really thought I was doing something wrong somehow because not everything went smoothly. But that’s not how it works in science; it never happens that everything goes entirely to plan. I struggled with that at the time. My project was about integrity and now I was right in the middle of it. It really brought me face to face with the facts, with being part of the system that you’re actually criticising. It was precisely the topic I felt so passionate about, the one I really wanted to address. I talked about it later in the project because I was conscious of my need to set an example as an integrity researcher.

Now that some time has passed, I can look back on it clearly. We created the checklist, and that’s become a very useful tool. We’ve published some really cool initiatives on The Embassy. And we also held a final symposium which was really great fun. The project ran for eighteen months, how much is it possible to do in that time? In the end, it’s also about the efforts you made to achieve your goals. And about reflecting together on how it went. In fact, we did achieve a lot. But I found it very hard at the time. I kept asking myself whether I’d been doing something wrong, and I ’didn’t actually talk about it with others. In hindsight, though, that’s a real shame because I’ve now realised that some of my worries were unnecessary, and that no one expected it all to be plain sailing. If I had talked about it, I might have enjoyed the project more.’

We are all committed to promoting scientific integrity, to making it better. But do you also see perverse incentives in the science system

‘Responsible research practices depend not only on the way funding is structured but also on what people are used to. You won’t change that overnight. That’s something people often say, especially about Recognition and Rewards: we may be able to contribute something in a small country like the Netherlands but what does that mean for our researchers’ opportunities abroad and for international grants? But we’re not the only country working on this. Maybe we’re the forerunners and we should set an example for others.

Many researchers would like to see more room for slow science, when you really have time for your research without that extreme pressure to write proposals or to publish. It also makes it easier to see what the relevant questions are for research, instead of just choosing a question quickly because it allows you to apply for a grant tomorrow, or writing your proposal to fit the question, rather than about what’s really needed. Funders don’t always know what’s needed either. They ask for something and as a researcher you need to have the nerve to say: you’re asking for this, but I think something else is needed. It would be great if the funder went along with that. But that takes guts on both sides. The question isn’t just whether we’re doing science in the right way but whether we’re doing the right science; people should ask this much more often. These issues are not directly about scientific integrity, but I believe they all need to be part of the discussion and of our spectrum of initiatives.’

Where does your interest in this topic stem from?

‘When I was on the student council, I was already dealing with issues like this. And I can’t abide injustice, which helps. That’s part of who I am, I think. And that trait has been strongly reinforced over the years by my experiences. Especially during my studies and PhD, I found that you can have a lot of setbacks in life. These aren’t always within your control and they can make you feel rather embittered. I learned to use that energy in a positive way. Sometimes that comes across a bit like activism. But it helps me to recognise integrity dilemmas more easily. The fact that someone is aware of the issue and starts a conversation about it is already such a huge gain. Showing that you can choose to adapt yourself or start the conversation. That’s what I like about teaching. I can tell students what I came up against and how I handled it. Sometimes I’m invited to guest-lecture at the University of Amsterdam, for example, or I am asked to give a workshop at a conference. And for a long time, I taught on the PhD course at the VU medical centre, where I could apply my knowledge and experience. That’s another thing I like about teaching. It’s fundamental on the one hand, and super applied on the other. And that’s what fires my passion. You’re talking about fundamental principles of scientific integrity, but also about practice. And I can have a pretty direct impact. In my work as a policy advisor at Amsterdam UMC, it’s even more direct.’

You’re now a policy advisor. How do you put your knowledge of scientific integrity to use?

‘That’s right. My position now is research policy advisor. I chose this because I didn’t have the time and freedom to lobby for a part-time contract to do something until another funding call came along. And then this vacancy came up. Here I can put into practice what my research work was about. In our own institution, I can address some of the issues that PhD students struggle with. It feels like a nice next step to take. But at the same time, it also feels like a loss, not being able to do this research any more, where my passion lies. Because where are you supposed to get the funding? There are few funding opportunities in this field of work. You hope opportunities will present themselves again but at the moment they’re very scarce. More and more people are getting involved in this, though, which is a very positive development.

A lot of researchers feel that you’ve “failed” if you stop doing research. And it’s harder to get back into research because you’re not publishing any more. That’s the picture you grow up with in academia. Once you’re out, you realise that it’s a ridiculous picture. I did have the idea that, with what I’ve learned in recent years, I could play a meaningful role in fostering integrity in science. It’s definitely not a step back, but I still know what it’s like to be that researcher in that competitive world. The practical impact that I have now counts too, which is satisfying on another level. It’s great to bring my experience with me; it helps me progress in my current work. And I’m still involved in research: for example, I’m currently supervising a junior researcher at the HAN University of Applied Sciences. I hope to continue that cross-pollination.’

What is your wish for the future when it comes to scientific integrity?

‘There is an awareness that scientific integrity is important. But as researchers and research institutions we are still looking for ways to flesh that out. You want to move towards a situation where it is a fundamental part of what you’re doing. That would render the question of whether we have to make it compulsory superfluous because then it would already be embedded in what we do. The change lies more in shifts of emphasis. For example, you could put a different scientific integrity issue on the agenda every year and enable researchers to examine it full-time. That would make for a very promising future. And not having to encourage them to address scientific integrity. But first, it’s important to embed it into your day-to-day research and devote time to it with each other. Especially with each other. Interviews I did as part of the TETRIAS project showed that integrity isn’t something individual, but something you do with your team. I feel that is a great insight. This kind of awareness might not yet be as widespread as we’d all like to see, but I hope that it will become so soon, that everyone will feel it more strongly.

Who is Fenneke Blom?

Fenneke Blom has a background in health and biomedical sciences with a focus on epidemiology, communication and policymaking. After defending her PhD thesis on periconceptional folic acid supplementation, she coordinated the Netherlands Research Integrity Network (NRIN).
Fenneke continued her work on research integrity as a postdoc for the INSPIRE project, where she was involved in collecting and classifying initiatives that promote research integrity, with the aim of enabling others to implement similar initiatives. Fenneke also worked on the VIRT2UE project, where she developed online training courses and taught trainers to provide virtue-based ethics and integrity training. At HAN, she worked as a senior researcher on the TETRIAS project and designed customised training courses for researchers at universities of applied sciences; she is now involved in the RITS project, developing training for final-year nursing students. Fenneke is an experienced moderator of moral deliberation and has designed and redesigned research integrity courses and training materials for several institutions. She now works as research policy advisor at Amsterdam UMC, where her portfolio does, of course, include scientific integrity. But not all her work is about integrity; as a photographer, she produces a visual record of academic ceremonies and conferences. She became a mother to Lias a year ago and is thoroughly enjoying it