There is a risk that researchers are becoming blind to their own shortcomings, experts have said after a study found that the average researcher believes they are better than their colleagues when it comes to good research practice.

The team behind the study says its findings show that researchers collectively overestimate their own ethical behaviour, pointing out that “almost all researchers consider themselves as good as or better than average, which is a statistical impossibility”.

The team from Linköping University in Sweden also found that researchers believe their own research field is superior to other fields when it comes to following good research practice.

Speaking about why they carried out they study, Professor Gustav Tinghög said: “The starting point for the project is that there’s a bit of a crisis in the research world. Research misconduct or difficulties to replicate research results have been discovered in many studies. Credibility has been called into question.”

More than 11,000 Swedish researchers and doctoral students completed their survey, which was based around Swedish Research Council’s rules on what makes for good research practice. This includes being open and transparent about the premise, methods and results of a piece of research.

Respondents gave their answers based on a seven-point scale, with a score of four equating to “the same as the average”.

Commenting on the results, Professor Tinghög said: “If everyone could look at themselves objectively, an even distribution around the middle would be expected.”

Most of those who completed the survey – 55% – said they were as good as most others at adhering to good research practice, with 44% stating they thought they were better and 1% thinking they were worse.

Ranking research practices within their own field, 63% stated they were as good as most others, 29% felt they were better and 8% believed they were worse.

While this overestimation of their own honesty was mirrored across all research fields, it was seen the mostly strongly among researchers in medicine.

The errors made in research tend to involve procedures, the sharing of results and data reporting, rather than huge mistakes, but doctoral student Amanda Lindkvist, who helped to carry out the study, said “small missteps can increase in number and perhaps become worse missteps”.

The belief that one’s own research field is superior when it comes to research practice can pose problems when interdisciplinary collaboration between research fields is required, the study authors say.

Professor Tinghög said: “Every day, researchers face the dilemma: should I do what benefits me or should I do what benefits science. In such a world, it’s important to constantly look at yourself in the mirror and calibrate your research-ethical compass.”

Read the study in full in Scientific Reports.

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