Initial Training and Inequality in Scientific Research. An Exploratory Survey

Abstract

In recent years, research has been constantly debated and represented a main public concern. Specific topics such as national and international financing of research, visibility of research outcomes, brain drain, research ethics, or recognition of research achievements have represented the main core of debates that involved not only researchers and academics, but also the wider public. The present paper analyses the issue of equality in the domain of scientific research with special emphasis on the topic of equal opportunities, respectively unequal opportunities in research based on the idea that factors such as complexity of research practices, values and axiological hierarchies established in the process of research, accreditation and recognition system, or dominant practices in education and professional research can generate inequality. The authors conducted a survey to identify the perceptions of Romanian researchers about types of inequality affecting their work, awareness of the sources generating such inequality, opinions about their own readiness to cope with the requirements of the international research market. The authors advocate for development of research skills to students during their university education. Research skills may be seen as professional skills for many students in universities or as skills that may help students in their university life. The paper clarified important aspects regarding initial training of future researchers and identified possible solutions and actions in universities in order to diminish and eliminate this source of inequality for future researchers.

Keywords: Scientific researchsources of inequality in scientific researchinitial training of future research

1.Introduction

It is widely accepted that social and economic progress is primarily generated by empirical

research, experimental development and innovation (Academia Romana, 2014). In recent years, research

has been constantly debated and has been a main public concern. Related topics have also been debated,

including national and international financing of research, visibility of research outcomes, brain drain,

research ethics, and recognition of research achievements. Such topics have been a concern of

researchers, academics, as well as of the wider public.

This study is approaching, highlighting and discussing equality of chances in scientific research.

The complex nature of research practices, the processes of establishing axiological hierarchies,

accreditation and recognition systems, dominant educational and research professional practices can

generate inequality (OCDE, 1995).Therefore, the paper provides answers, albeit provisional, to the

following questions: (1) Is it possible that the quality of human resources involved in scientific research

to generate inequality in this domain? (2) Is the quality of research depending on initial training of human

resources involved in?

2.Initial Training – Potential Source of Inequality in Scientific Research

A fundamental question is on when you need to start the training of the future researchers. The

training capacities of experimentation, observation, cultivating creativity, curiosity, formation of research

skills etc. stays in school task (COM, 2005). For example, the children are faced with doing experiments

in the natural sciences, to compile projects, essays, portfolios and other works that stimulates thinking

skills, generalization, abstraction, experimenting, searching, and systematization of information. They are

the basis of the future career in research (OECD, 2002).

Some authors talk about certain "critical transitions" covered by future researchers the process of

becoming professional moments that can "propel" a person in scientific research or professional route

diverts to other domains. Some of these events are visible, others hidden. For example practicing gender

roles in childhood is important for future career in research and in some areas of research (the boys are

oriented especially towards science and engineering). Among the visible "critical transitions" there are

some included such as: the scientific organizing at the level of faculties, hiring and working as a

researcher (Etzkowitz, Kemelgor, and Uzzi, 2000; Etzkowitz, 2007).

At the university level, training for the future career in research is more explicit. We meet

disciplines in the curricula of universities which approach the issue of research (the scientific research

methodology), student scientific communication, scientific seminars, guidance and tutors etc. All these

aim to empower students and research capabilities to be exploited in the works for evaluation / graduation

or in the future career of researchers / teachers (canberra manual; frascati manual,). Unfortunately, not all

faculties have in the curricula of undergraduate cycles such disciplines.

The guidance practice and the participations in scientific communication are not uniform. In some

cases the subjects of the research methodology are found in the curricula of programs for master or

doctoral school, which we appreciate it very late to develop the real student research skills and the turn to

practice as researchers. We consider this a major impediment in the development of future researchers.

3.Research Skills Training at Bucharest University of Economic Studies

The lack of preparation still minimal in research methodology during the undergraduate program,

insufficient guidance from mentors of researchers, non-involvement or low involvement of students in

research projects are factors contributing to a poor involvement of students / graduates in research.

An analysis of the curricula for undergraduate at the Bucharest Univerity of Economic Studies

shows that for certain specialization the training and the development of students research skills is

achieved by means of specific disciplines (AMP, BT MAN, REI). In the curricula we find explicit but

also some related disciplines, which can serve to shape research universe (ex. Sociology, Statistics). It is

worrying that in some faculties there is really no specific discipline to develop future researchers in the

domain (FABIZ, IGC as EAM). In all faculties we find, in the final year, the support for preparation of

license works, works that must be pronounced as haing a scientific character.

Figure 1: Courses in the curricula of faculties of the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest in 2015 - 2019, processing by: http://planinvatamant.ase.ro/
Courses in the curricula of faculties of the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest in 2015 - 2019, processing by: http://planinvatamant.ase.ro/
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The development of human resources in research must take into account an integrated approach,

both in terms of initial training and continue, and the universities must take measures to promote this

aspect.

4.Methodology

In the survey we have conducted, the hypothesis was that initial training of future researcher is a

potential generator of unequal opportunities in scientific research. We have to mention that initial training

of future researcher was one of the issues we have analyzed in a more complex survey we have conducted

on perceptions of Romanian researchers regarding the types of inequality that affects their work and

awareness degree in respect with the sources of respective inequality.

Data were collected through a primarily qualitative empirical research which enabled engagement in

the setting and in-depth exploration of respondents’ views through qualitative semi-structured interviews.

Eleven one-to-one interviews were conducted in March-April 2016 with academics under obligation to

undertake research activities and communicate their results.

The semi-structured interview was selected as the most appropriate sociological research tool in

accordance with the study objectives. It enabled direct contact with the people those perceptions we set

out to explore (academics those professional obligations include teaching and research) and were

conducted in a familiar university setting. The relevant topics were approached in formal language

appropriate to the issues under investigation (Chelcea, 2001).

The group of respondents was fairly homogeneous as they were all academics teaching social

sciences subjects (education, management, modern languages, economics, physical education and sport),

with a minimum of 10 years of experience in higher education and research and involved in writing and

conducting research projects. By participating in the survey, all respondents had the opportunity to reflect

on their own experience, to understand it better, and to articulate their thinking about issues of wide

concern.

The methodological approach entails inevitable limitations: the findings are valid for the

respondents and context of the interviews, they cannot be generalized to a wider population as is the case

with most qualitative research endeavours. Nevertheless, they should be taken into account by researchers

investigating a similar topic in other settings.

5.Findings

The structure of human resources involved in research and pre-service research training is a

source of inequality. All respondents described personal experiences related to the topic under

investigation. Their opinions are relevant both in terms of their personal relevance and in terms of future

drafting and adoption of an institutional strategy meant to diminish inequality effects. The key issues

highlighted by respondents in their description of institutional constraints are discussed below.

All respondents acknowledge the necessity of initial (pre-service) research training and most of

them complain about the delayed inception of training and the lack of a coherent pre-service training

system. Many of them experienced research training no sooner than during their MA studies and others as

late as during their doctoral studies (R3, R5, R7, R8, R9, R11). Pre-service training tends to focus on

transmission of knowledge rather than on building research competences („how to conduct research and

how to communicate results”) or transferable ones useful in research work: critical thinking,

communication, teamwork, self-evaluation, creative thinking, etc. „We are not less competent than other

researchers but we suffer from lack of coherent initial training and many of us try to overcome this

shortcoming through self-development” (R11).

Development of research management competences is equally useful. Several respondents

highlighted the fact that one can have research competences but not necessarily abilities to manage

research processes and products, (R1, R5, R9, R11). Such additional abilities reflect skills in evaluating

existing norms and standards (regarding publication, journal or conference indexing) or in adopting a

suitable, systematic pace of work. In the absence of an institutional training framework, academics are

responsible for developing their research skills. Wider ranging initiatives are isolated and patchy.

Researchers use the opportunities they happen to identify and the connections they have, without

receiving any financial support for continuous learning (money for books, conference participation,

publication) (R 2, R 3, R5, R6, R8, R10). Several other respondents have mentioned their attempt to draft

research articles following existing models, in the absence of any form of training.

The absence of mentors and advisers to guide and inform the work of junior researchers (lecturers or

researchers from research institutes) generates inequality (R5, R6). Without receiving consistent initial

training, doctoral students work on their own most of the time and present the results to their supervisers.

Work overload can hamper researchers’ work . The amount and range of professional tasks takes

up time which otherwise would be devoted to research work(R2, R3, R5, R7, R8, R9, R10). A heavy

teaching load, pressure of internal evaluation and the need to publish, involvement in projects are all tasks

that take up valuable research time. Such tasks are distributed unevenly and researchers use the time

which remains available when other activities are not predominant. Participation in several projects at one

time (because of financial needs or the willingness to make the most of professional opportunities) can be

counterproductive for research. Research work is usually patchy and some respondents admitted they

sometimes do it under evaluation pressure.

All respondents use their research findings to improve their teaching: they revise the content,

provide relevant examples, introduce new disciplines in the curriculum of existing programmes (R1, R 9,

R10, R11).

Specific barriers relate to human resources as sources of inequality. Apart from the major

sources of inequality discussed so far, the respondents identified several other such sources they

encoutered in their research work: (1) human resources related barriers; (2) inappropriate communication

inside the university; (3) difficult access of junior researchers to academic institutions; (4) bias and

stereotypes; (5) research ethics and integrity; (6) researchers’ ideological affiliation.

In the absence of an institutional training framework, academics are responsible for developing

their research skills. Wider ranging initiatives are isolated and patchy. Researchers use the opportunities

they happen to identify and the connections they have, without receiving any financial support for

continuous learning (money for books, conference participation, publication) (R 2, R 3, R5, R6, R8, R10).

Several other respondents have mentioned their attempt to draft research articles following existing

models, in the absence of any form of training.

The absence of mentors and advisers to guide and inform the work of junior researchers (lecturers or

researchers from research institutes) generates inequality (R5, R6). Without receiving consistent initial

training, doctoral students work on their own most of the time and present the results to their supervisers.

Respondent 6 brought up the unethical practice of using students to perform certain activities related

to research projects: translation, drafting reference cards, data processing, student research. Such

contribution is required as a prerequisite of passing exams or getting high marks. Such practice is

unethical as students’ contribution is not acknowledged properly.

All respondents pointed out the absence of consistent links among university staff as members of

various departments do not know one another or their research work (R1, R6, R10, R11), citations are the

result of personal connections or service offers ( I will do it for you, I will cite your work and include you

in the board of my publication. I expect you to do the same for me).

Inequality is equally generated by means of accessing research networks. In most cases this is done

through personal relationships (R2, R5, R7, R11), or opportunities that may arise‚if somebody happens to

need us in their projects, R1). The problem is that such collaboration cannot be properly envisaged and

planned for.

Such fortuitous accessing of international research networks can lead to loss of motivation by those

interested (R1, R11). Networks are efficient when objectives and leadership roles are clear to all

participants (R3).

The majority of respondents believe that there is appropriate staffing of research activity in terms of

numbers and age categories primarily due to regulated access to higher education institutions. It is

difficult, though, for newcomers to acess academic institutions. Permanent contracts of existing staff do

not leave enough vacancies for new staff. Academic staff mobility is quite low in Romania compared to

other European universities. It is equally diffciult for those working temporarily abroad to return. The

respondent commented that the higher education system is closed and it allows only controlled access to

the clientelle” (R6). Respondent 6 also highlighted the low salaries of young researchers who should be at

the forefront of research’ and the consequences of poor payment in terms of such researchers taking on

various extra duties and jobs to increase their income. Such income is easier to obtain than research

income which is subject to many conditions (winning grants, the effort of conducting and finalising

projects, etc).

Although he respondents did not personally come across bias and stereotypes, they seem to exist and

have been indicated as sources of inequality. For example, researchers tend to believe that partnership

with ‚big names’ facilitates publication in high-profile journals (R1 about her own research results), or

that team publication is a strategy for pushing the barriers and getting published (R2). Another respondent

believes that such stereotypes do not generate unequal opportunities but „tend to block researchers’

creativity” (R6). There is bias related to researchers’ age. Young age (or perceptions of it) is associated

with lack of experience or of perseverence. (R2).

Unethical practice is to be found in research. Plagiarism and taking on someone else’s work

continues to be encountered, but ‚it tends to be committed only by those naive enough to believe it will

not be eventually revealed.’ As revealed by R6, students; work still goes unacknoledged by their teachers.

Superficial behaviour exists for researchers in a hurry to publish without sufficinet validation or

verification of their work. This usually happens under evaluation or promotion pressure (R6, R7).

Research evaluation is done according to quantitative rather than quality criteria. Those who spend

long time verifying their findings will publish less and will be evaluated with lower scores.’ Formal

compliance with criteria for publication in certain journals does not encourage caution and preocuupation

for quality.” (R6, R11).

Lack of blind review is a source of inequality because ‚in Romania it matters who you are’. The

practice of blind review will remove inequality. (R2).

Inequality could be sometimes generated by researchers’ ideological stance or beliefs. This

particular source of inequality was mentioned by biomedical researchers through informal accounts. They

mentioned the case of Paulescu, the Romanian researcher who did not receive a well-deserved Nobel

prize because of his antisemitic beliefs. Such claims are difficult to verify and they may be simple

idiosyncrasies.

Respondent 3 mentioned a situation whereby she withdrew from a research team because of beliefs

different from the other team members (she believes in the world creation while her collegues favoured

evolutionism and were interested in research on genetic modification in view of production increase and

improved economic performance). Respondent 6 noticed that such beliefs can generate inequality in

social and humanistic sciences where truth is usually a matter of consensus. Those who do not consent are

usually excluded through lack of financing (the example of east European researchers who were

discriminated against during Cold War with effects that are still visible).

6.Conclusions and recommendations

The hypothesis underpinning this study was confirmed and validated by the research findings.

Research work is accompanied by many sources of inequality perceived differently as regards their

effects and implications by the participants in the study.

A key theme arising from the findings refers to the need for universities to support development of

human resources involved in teaching and research, to stimulate their work so as research outcomes can

make a definite contribution to teaching and general socio-economic progress. Based on respondents’

suggestions and those in the literature, a set of recommendations for universities to work towards

diminishing the effects of inequality will be put forward.

There is clear need for training future researchers though developing students’ research abilities as

early as their undergraduate studies through: introduction of academic skills and research disciplines in

the curriculum, mentoring in research activities, and involvement in research projects. Such initiatives can

lead to the professional and personal development of graduates and to their increased interest in research

while longer term they can contribute to institutional development (research skills need time to develop,

R11).

Development of research management skills of junior researchers (applying for funding, managing

research projects and self-management) is equally needed and can be addressed through training and

involvement in research projects.

Continuous development of researchers/lecturers can be conducted through training in new research

methodologies/technologies (R10), participation in research networks (learning by doing, discipline-

specific networks to tackle research topics of current interest, interdisciplinary research teams (R1, R3,

R5, R7, R11). Such developments can usefully take place in combination with development of mentors

and doctoral supervisors mainly through involvement in international networks.

Interdepartmental and interdisciplinary links need to be strengthened through joint research

conferences and events. Overall, universities need to approach research honestly – they claim research is

important but do little to support it. (R1, R11).

It is the university responsibility to provide resources (properly equipped space, access to

information), to implement measures meant to encourage research (research as a strategic priority,

strengthening relations with the socio-economic environment who can implement research outputs,

financing of research, support for researcher participation at conferences, support for publication, a

reward system), to identify and support the efforts of cascading researchers, those who can generate

change in terms of research benefits and outputs (R11).

Apart from such administrative measures, a proactive attitude of each and every researcher is

required. Availability, the genuine desire to do research, perseverance in undertaking new initiatives

when old ones failed, permanent development (‚benchmarking yourself against other researchers , R11),

building relationships with other researchers, securing research funding and active participation in

conferences are characteristics of a dedicated researcher.

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Publisher

Future Academy

First Online

18.12.2019

Doi

10.15405/epsbs.2017.05.02.34

Online ISSN

2357-1330