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UK Funding Agency Apologizes for Role in Researchfish Controversy

Researchfish is a platform commonly used to track the status of grants and the impacts of research. When academics were critical of the company online, Researchfish shared these comments with the largest funding agency in the UK, and the scientists’ comments were sometimes shared with their employers.

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Natalia Mesa

Natalia Mesa is an intern at The Scientist. She has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Washington and a bachelor’s in biological sciences from Cornell University.

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Apr 20, 2022

ABOVE: © iStock.com, Wachiwit

The funding agency UK Research and Innovation has apologized to academics after admitting that it encouraged the research tracking company Researchfish to report critical comments made by academics regarding Researchfish’s software to UKRI. The agency, in turn, shared some of these comments with the academics’ employers. 

In early March of this year, Researchfish, a company that helps universities and funders measure research impact, began tweeting at multiple researchers that it was sharing their complaints about the service with funding agencies. Many of those targeted by Researchfish had criticized the platform on Twitter for being cumbersome and time-consuming, reports Chemistry World. In response, the company tweeted to several scholars, stating that “we understand that you’re not keen on reporting on your funding through Researchfish but this seems quite harsh and inappropriate. We have shared our concerns with your funder.” Hundreds of academics took to Twitter to express their outrage, accusing Researchfish of cyberbullying and using its Twitter platform in a threatening manner, reports Research Professional News.

Andre Cobb, an organic chemist at King’s College London, tells Chemistry World that he is appalled by Researchfish’s tweets. “This response—automated or not—is clearly intended to stop such criticism by using the implication that funding or future funding might be put into peril.”

In its statement, UKRI admitted that it had previously agreed that Researchfish should flag “abusive, threatening, or offensive tweets” from users, but denied that withholding funding had ever been the intention, noting that the policy “was intended to protect colleagues who were impacted by abuse. At no point was this ever intended, or used, to affect current or future grants from UKRI.” In total, six tweets from academic researchers have been flagged by Researchfish since 2018, and of those, three were passed on to the academics’ employers by UKRI, reports Times Higher Education.

Following the responses from Researchfish sent publicly on Twitter, some researchers deleted their tweets and apologized for what they said, according to Times Higher Education. Research Professional News reports that other academics were outraged at what they felt was a heavy-handed response by the company to mild criticism or mockery.

Critics have also been quick to note the privacy implications, asking how the organization was able to contact funders, with some commenters claiming it would be a breach of the researchers’ privacy to do so, reports Times Higher Education. 

“This is not an OK way to interact with academics, many of whom you ask to do hours of additional labor compiling data for you,” Amy Mason, a research associate at the University of Cambridge's School of Clinical Medicine, tells Times Higher Education, referring to the data academics must aggregate to put on Researchfish

In its apology, UKRI—the largest funding agency in the UK, disbursing £8 billion (nearly US$10.5 billion) annually—agreed to suspend the policy of having Researchfish report critical tweets: “We have stopped this approach with immediate effect and recognise that it was the wrong thing to do.” Instead, any future reporting of abusive tweets on the part of academics will be done through Twitter’s reporting function. “We understand that this has raised questions about personal data. We take data very seriously. Our assessment of the data protection considerations is ongoing and is expected to be concluded shortly.” 

Researchfish also issued an apology on March 20, saying it was “truly sorry” for the tweets that triggered the controversy.