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What COVID-19 Pandemic Teaches Researchers on Data Integrity

By King Carl Tornam Duho | Dec. 16, 2021  | COVID-19 Ethics

In 2019, I wrote a short AuthorAID article about the relevance of peer review in academic publication. The article argued how peer-review is vital despite the challenges that authors of research products may face in the process. From lessons in the Research Writing in the Sciences module, it is key to pick up some relevant research ethics and apply to all research processes. Today, the world has changed significantly with the impact of the pandemic felt across the world and in all aspects of livelihood, including research.

Notion of Ethics and the Need for Multidisciplinary Application

The pandemic has reiterated the relevant works of researchers who create new knowledge in a systematic and scientific manner. My previous notion of ethics as a postgraduate accounting student was limited to the ethics of business activities. Yet, with the experiences from the pandemic where lives of people were at stake, it became clear that research ethics must be treated in all fields just like how we expect medical ethics to be treated seriously to save lives.

Thus, this article is based on the premise that while research in business or social sciences for example could not draw critical attention as compared to health research ethics, this is now changing. The pandemic has affected all walks of life which led to the rise in research works that explore the COVID-19 impact on all activities. Today, most research repositories have systems to vet and provide some checks on articles posted on COVID-19 even where they are working papers. Could this not be the basis to also ensure critical research rigour, the need for replicability and the data integrity demanded in scientific and medical research across all fields?

Two Sides of a Coin with A Goal – Producer and End User of Research

Again, over the past years, I have worked within the public policy space providing research synthesis and policy analysis meant to offer policy recommendations for governments (at least of Ghana) and within the international development space (as a Youth Fellow with the International Monetary Fund). This gave me insights into the two extremes, where I have worked as a researcher producing research outputs and later as someone at the end-user side as a policy analyst. Due to the complexities in the research processes, there are a number of things which are essential to consider as a researcher in the quest to achieve research integrity altogether. We must be concerned about research integrity whether as producers of research or as end-users because the aim must be to ensure the research makes the needed impact positively.   

Avoiding Predatory Publication

Where you publish is a key sign of what type of researcher you are. Thus, again and again, researchers are reminded to ensure they publish in journals that follow a transparent review process so as not to yield to predatory journals who are merely profit-making enterprises. Yet, the greatest risk of predatory journals is that because of the weak review processes or utmost non-existence, analysis in these journals mostly may be based on fake data or entirely misapplied analysis. The relevance of peer-review in forming direct policy options to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic shows why all researchers must avoid predatory journals. Researchers should avoid all forms of engagement with a known predatory journal. This may include citing articles published in these journals or performing peer review for these journals. To address desires to publish and not to do so in predatory journals, researchers especially in the Global South should aim to collaborate and combine resources to develop quality research to be published in quality journals.

Ensuring Data Integrity

In previous experiences, you may have realised how some researchers have faked their research data, some intentionally and others ignorantly. Some students aim to add data to ensure they complete either their PhD or Masters programmes, leading to timeliness in completing but at the expense of data integrity. How honestly are you collecting your research data and does your manipulation of the data cause any material impact on the findings? A personal check on data integrity is to ask team members, “Are you sure you will be proud of the work and its underlying data when engaged to share it to organisations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the World Health Organisation?”. Besides, the data cleaning must be a rigorous and transparent process.

Starting Early and Ending Well on Data Cleaning

Having been a co-author, you may have realised that some potential co-authors express interest to publish with you and you asked for the underlying data and the persons fail to come back. Check and be sure of the underlying data supporting your research even if you were engaged as a researcher after the article was in an advanced stage. Recently, data falsification was reported on the COVID-19 research and these things have always been happening and must be discouraged (See this example). But it is not enough to wait after the researchers finalise the works, the knowledge on data quality should be inculcated by educating team members at an early stage of the process. Researchers should aim to have a data integrity meeting before starting their research as a way to ensure their data quality is excellent and all team members are prepared to do the best.

It is also key for researchers to continue to monitor their teams during the process of data collection. More like an entire monitoring and evaluation process for the research process and specifically the data management process. Yet, even when the data is quality but the model used is not appropriate, the findings can be materially different and wrongly affect policy and practice. Again, peer review should be critical of the data quality of research submitted for publication, aiming to engage the authors to clarify the data sources and the processes of collecting the data. Principal researchers and the supervisors in research teams should aim to inculcate the right ethical principles in their research team. When researchers are not ethical or where they fail to ensure data integrity, their research may be retracted in the future when errors are identified and that will have reputational damage.


Author Biography

King Carl Tornam Duho is currently a Youth Fellow with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Technical Director of Dataking Consulting and Dataking Research Lab. He has published more than 40 articles including more than 15 peer-reviewed articles in CABS/ABDC ranked journals. King reviews for many journals and has experience in academia, public policy and the business context as a researcher applying data integrity principles.

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