Egotistical researchers fueling a credibility crisis in science

LINKOPING, Sweden — It turns out that the average researcher thinks they are more ethical than their colleagues when it comes to following appropriate research practices, according to a new study. They also think that their own field of study is better than others. As a result, study authors in Sweden say many researchers are failing to recognize their own weaknesses.

“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,” says Gustav Tinghög, a professor in economics in the Department of Management and Engineering at Linköping University, in a media release.

In collaboration with postdoc Lina Koppel and doctoral student Amanda Lindkvist, Tinghög sent a questionnaire to over 33,000 Swedish researchers using questions based on the Swedish Research Council’s rules for what defines good research practice. For instance, researchers should always be honest about their research, openly presenting the methods and results of their work.

The participants were asked to answer these two questions:

  • How well do you think you follow good research practice compared to colleagues in the same research field?
  • How well do you think that your particular research field follows good research practice compared to other research fields?

Respondents answered these questions using a seven-point scale, where a score of four was the average. The team received over 11,000 responses.

“It turns out that almost all researchers consider themselves as good as or better than average, which is a statistical impossibility,” says Gustav Tinghög. “If everyone could look at themselves objectively, an even distribution around the middle would be expected.”

Scientist or lab researcher performing COVID-19 / coronavirus test
Study authors in Sweden say many researchers are failing to recognize their own weaknesses. (© luckybusiness –

The study reveals that 55 percent of respondents thought they were as good as most others when it comes to following good research practice standards. A staggering 44 percent thought they were better than most. Only one percent thought they were worse at it than other scientists.

Regarding the question of practices within their own field, 63 percent said that they were on par with most everyone else, 29 percent thought that they were better, and eight percent felt that they were worse. Across all of the fields, the researchers generally overstated their own honesty level. Interestingly, this was noted most often among medical researchers.

According to the Linköping team, the results demonstrate that researchers collectively think that they are more ethical than they actually are, both within their profession and outside their field of study. Thinking that one’s own field is better than another can create a significant divide within the research world as a whole, researchers explain. This can interfere with interdisciplinary collaboration opportunities between fields and could hinder advancements.

In conclusion, the team explains that researchers are still people. It’s not entirely surprising that they think highly about themselves and not assume the worst about their work. Still, recognizing this is important for the overall credibility of the research world. This study sheds light on the importance of that.

“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,” says Tinghög.

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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