Distrust in Research Is Making It More Reliable

Knowledge-based public policy

Is the climate getting warmer? What kinds of food should we consume? What constitutes good healthcare? These questions are of high importance and have high political relevance. To answer such questions, one needs knowledge. Due to the complexity of the topics, producing this knowledge requires a systematic and collaborative effort.

Fortunately, we have such a system: we call it research.

Unfortunately, the public’s trust in research is not high enough to systematically ensure knowledge based public policy. Measures to change this, and to secure trust in research, are currently being enacted throughout the world, and these measures are changing the way researchers work.

Public trust in research

According to Pew Research Center, 76% of Americans have either a fair amount or a great deal of trust in researchers when it comes to whether researchers work towards the public interest (pewinternet.org). Even though the number could be higher, 76% is not catastrophic. (In comparison, the news media is at 38% and elected officials as low as 27%.)

However, when the respondents are asked about specific topics, like climate change and the safety of genetically modified food, trust declines. About a third of the respondents in the same survey believe that researchers have a poor understanding of these topics. Also, around 10% of the respondents believed that researchers do not understand the effects of the MMR-vaccine well.

For a researcher, these are high numbers, and probably the reason why politicians like Donald Trump can get away with supporting anti-vaccine activists, and accusing researchers of fabricating the climate crisis. Getting a third of the population to vote for you is usually sufficient to win the American presidential election.*

Why do people distrust research?

There are many possible explanations for why people distrust research. Most of the time, it is more important for people to be accepted by their social group than it is to be independent, rational and research-based (Greene 2009). If most of your friends believe that genetically enhanced food is dangerous, and discuss this topic often, you might have to pay a high price for disagreeing. Your friendships could deteriorate, and you might feel excluded when your friends discuss this topic.

Another issue is the fact that researchers sometimes cut corners and cheat. The research community is increasingly realizing that it is important to take an active role in securing public trust. As researchers, it is vital that we make sure our research is trustworthy.

Before the 80s, accusations of research misconduct were mostly unheard of. Since then, there has been an increasing consciousness around the fact that researchers sometimes cheat. They falsify and fabricate data, and they steal each other’s work. They also engage in all sorts of questionable grey area research practices. According to one meta-analysis, 2% of researchers admit to having committed serious misconduct in their research, while 33.7% admit to other questionable research practices (Fanelli 2009). As this behavior is self-reported, the numbers are probably even higher.

Ensuring trustworthiness

The realization that researchers are not as virtuous as once believed has led to the introduction of measures intended to secure the integrity of research. Supra-national institutions are enacting codes of conduct and principles for responsible research (see for example the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity by ALLEA). On the national level, institutions like universities, governmental agencies, and certain academic disciplines are also introducing such codes.

There has also been an increased focus on the working condition and incentives of researchers. The publish-or-perish aspect of the life of a researcher is getting much of the blame for misconduct among researchers.

Some, like the European Union, promote openness as part of the solution to the integrity issues in research. By making data and research results openly available, researchers can check each other’s work more easily. This makes the research in question more credible, as it makes it more difficult to get away with cheating. Making research available in this way is also supposed to promote collaboration and efficiency. It makes it easier for researchers to work on the same problems as other researchers, and it makes it unnecessary for multiple researchers to collect the same data individually.

Open to the world

Open science is not only an internal effort, where researchers are open towards each other. Openness towards the world is also a part of it, for example under terms such as responsible research and innovation (RRI) and public engagement.

As we have seen, people do not blindly accept scientific and technical progress (Macnaghten & Chilvers 2014). Instrumental value is not sufficient when it comes to securing the public’s trust. People are not radical techno-optimists; they also care about whether or not researchers have the right intentions, they care about the trustworthiness of those involved in research, they care about the pace of technological development, and they care about the effects of technology on social justice. Knowledge about these factors is ordinarily inaccessible to the public.

In RRI and public engagement, one attempts to bridge the gap between researchers and the public. By giving the public opportunities to discuss technological progress with researchers, many of the worries a person might have when it comes to technological developments can be addressed. People will get insight into how research works, and what kind of people are involved. People will also be able to raise ethical concerns and tell researchers about their needs and expectations.

Researchers can then address these ethical concerns, and adjust the technological development to better meet the needs of the public. In this way, new technologies and research will be better received when introduced into society. Involving ordinary people in research also increases the cost of choosing irrationality as a means to keep one’s place in a social group. When one gives input to researchers, one gets a stake in the results, which increases the cost of distrust.

Never waste a good crisis

In sum, the measures mentioned in this post are changing research. What constitutes good and responsible research, and what it means to have integrity as a researcher, is being standardized and formalized in as rules and ethical codes. Systematic efforts, like RRI and public engagement, are promoted as means for securing trust in research, bringing the public and research closer together. Open-access ideals are also making research more open internally so that the internal self-regulating mechanism of research are enhanced.

While researchers may worry about low public trust, research misconduct and low scientific standards as revealed in methodological crises like the replication crisis, these worries are leading to better research. As they say, one should never waste a good crisis, and in this case, the crisis is leading to better, more open and more responsible results.


* The last time 2/3 of the American electorate voted was in 1908. The last 50 years, turnout has mostly stayed below 60%, and it has never exceeded 62,5% (electproject.org).


Fanelli, D. 2009. “How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data.” PloS one. 4 (5). e5738.

Greene, J. 2014. Moral tribes: emotion, reason and the gap between us and them. Atlantic Books Ltd.





Macnaghten, P. & Chilvers, J. 2014. “The future of science governance: publics, policies, practices.” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy. 32 (3). 530-548.


Knut Jørgen Vie is a PhD student at the Work Research Institute (AFI) at OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University (formerly Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences), and part of the PRINTEGER-project. 

Photo: Ainar Miyata-Sturm

Conference on the Theory and Practice of Informed Consent

Hi all,

Here comes some exciting news:

Next month (June 8th and 9th) there will be a conference on the Theory and Practice of Informed Consent at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences.

Many international researchers will hold talks, and judging by the abstracts they have sent in it looks like we are set for a stimulating and perhaps provocative couple of days.

If you are impatient and want to see the whole program for the conference, full abstracts etc. you can click here. Otherwise, read on for a brief digest of what we have in store.

Medical ethics

The medical context is often central when talking about informed consent. Since this one of my main research interests, I am happy to say that this will be the case at the conference as well.

Louis Charland (University of Western Ontario) will talk about how the psychological disorder Anorexia Nervosa could show us how too much concern for autonomy could be dangerous to certain vulnerable subjects.

Then Hallvard Lillehammer (Birkbeck, University of London) will perhaps strike a similar note when he asks whether the legitimizing power of consent always should be traced back to respect for autonomy.

Approaching the topic from a legal perspective, Henriette Sindig Aasen (University of Bergen) will look at the challenging case of childrens’ right to participate in medical decisions.

Research ethics

The first area where informed consent became a formal standard is research ethics following the Nuremberg Code, which was established as part of the judgment in the trial of the Nazi doctors in 1948.

In this light, Steven Edwards (Swansea University) will talk about how a weak version of the Humanity Formula of Kant’s Categorical Imperative (roughly: “don’t use people merely as means, but always also as ends in themselves”) is useful for thinking about consent in research ethics.

From the home field, Edmund Henden (Oslo and Akershus University College) and Kristine Bærøe (University of Bergen) will talk about whether addicts can give valid informed consent to participating in trials were they will be offered the drugs they are addicted to.

Neil Manson (Lancaster University) considers the proposal that biobanks should offer participants the opportunity to chose their own consent frameworks, and promises to argue against a practice of such “meta-consent”.

Professions and proffesional codes

The conferencewill not only be about informed consent: the second day will focus more on professional ethics in general.

Tor Halvorsen (University of Bergen) will  give a talk on the new ethical Challenges facing professionals given the new set of goals set by the UN to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all within a sustainable development agenda.

Finally, there will be a number of parallell sessions arranged by Profesjonsetisk nettverk (Network for Professional Ethics). The topic for these sessions will be Profession, Professionalization and Codes of Ethics, and there is an open call for papers which you might be interested in responding to, thought the deadline for submitting an abstract is Wednesday next week.

What’s not to like?

The conference is a part of the research project Autonomy and Manipulation: Enhancing Consent in the Health Care Context at SPS and is arranged in cooperation with Profesjonsetisk Nettverk. Here is the link to the full program again. If you have any questions, feel free to send me an email.

Oh, and you can let us know you’re coming by clicking attend on the facebook event we have created.

Or not—you’re welcome anyway.


I hope to see you there!