Research Culture at Oxford: improving research practices and supporting research careers

Oxford has appointed three University-level leadership roles to drive improvements in research culture. Our Academic Leads in this area — David Gavaghan (left), Susanna-Assunta Sansone (middle) and Laura Fortunato (right) discuss their plans to work with the community and with the sector to create an environment that benefits all Oxford researchers.


David Gavaghan, Susanna-Assunta Sansone and Laura Fortunato


Oxford is a world-leading University in terms of its research output, but we probably cannot generally say that we have a similar reputation for our research culture. National and international reports highlight that researchers globally operate within a system in which what is beneficial for research (e.g. collaboration, openness and sharing, rigour) can sometimes diverge from what is good for a research career (e.g. individualism, speed). Oxford is no exception. 

We have been appointed to University-level leadership roles to begin to address some of the underlying issues; as part of the newly launched Research Culture programme supported by a dedicated team. Our goal is to ensure that Oxford researchers are fully supported to do their work to the best of their ability. Examples of a healthy research culture exist, both at Oxford and beyond, and they should be recognised, rewarded and spread more widely.

Our approach

The approach we are taking is three-pronged. First, we have chosen a focus for our work that starts with what we value — rigorous research that recognises the contributions of different backgrounds and skills, and that supports colleagues on their chosen career path. Research benefits from varied contributions: different types of output (including data and software), inputs from all members of the research community (e.g. research software engineers, technicians and research support staff) and from different types of activity (such as leadership, mentoring and supervision). Second, to ensure that these values do not remain just words, they will be reinforced by an aligned set of policies, communications, training, and incentives. Third, we know that some problems cannot be solved by Oxford working in isolation (the most obvious and pressing example being precarity of contracts), and we will work closely with universities, funders, societies and publishers using our voice to encourage conversations about necessary changes. 

Whilst the changes we seek must necessarily be affected by individuals and departments, relevant principles, policies and infrastructure are best delivered at institutional level, from where we can also participate in national and international discussions. 

As leads, we collaborate across the Collegiate University, working with the core supporting services (Research Services, the Researcher Hub and the Bodleian Libraries), academic divisional colleagues and grassroots initiatives such as the Research Culture Community of Practice, with the aim of addressing priorities that are relevant to all disciplines, even if to different degrees.

Progress so far

This approach has already allowed us to make some initial progress which includes: the establishment of the Researcher Hub; a common cross-divisional representational structure for all contract research staff; the development of a three-year action plan to support the Researcher Development Concordat; a review of research practice training; joining the UK Reproducibility Network; initiation of projects on narrative CVs; reviewing REF 2021 environment templates for good practice; and engaging with external groups to revise research assessment and to review sector concordats. 

We know that many of you already embrace many of these new practices – our responsibility is ensure that they become the new norm so that no one pays a 'career tax' for following rigorous, open and inclusive approaches. Like many others, we came into research to make a difference, only to find a growing disconnect between our values and the incentives that apply to ourselves and to the those around us, including students. Our vision is not a utopia; just look at the example of collaborative, rigorous, and open sharing of COVID-19 research. The success of our work will depend on the support and involvement of colleagues from all parts of the Collegiate University and from all levels of seniority and staff groups.

If you would like to get involved now, then please get in touch via the Research Strategy and Policy Unit.