When researchers from rich countries engage in “helicopter research” – thoughtless field research in poorer countries that extracts data without respectful collaboration – they violate the integrity of research and pose a moral problem, say participants at the Global Research Integrity Conference held last week in Cape Town, South Africa. Scientists, ethicists and others at the meeting hope their new framework will raise the issue and help spur systemic solutions, rather than leaving the task of building equitable collaborations to individual researchers.
The conference saw the launch of the “Cape Town Declaration” on equitable research partnerships. Consensus-building events at the conference compiled insights that will feed into the eventual statement, which a team of collaborators plans to submit to an academic journal.
Researchers from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) often feel they are “not valued enough” when they partner with researchers from wealthier countries, said Francis Kombe, co-chair of the African Research Integrity Network and statement contributor. the conference. Local experts too often aren’t listed as authors, can’t access the data they’ve collected, and lack the power to steer research towards local priorities, studies on the issue have found.
Such “scientific colonialism” uses the same tactics colonialism has historically, said Sue Harrison, deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalization at the University of Cape Town, at the event. It extracts data instead of raw materials – and undermines and underfunds local infrastructure and skills. This leaves LMIC researchers without the publications, patents and skills of their wealthier counterparts.
The many existing statements and guidelines on helicopter research tend to focus on what individuals and small groups can do to make collaboration more equitable, Kombe said. Rather, the Cape Town declaration will offer a guide on how institutions, including universities, funders and journals, can make a difference.
Donors are key, says Minal Pathak, a climate researcher at the University of Ahmedabad. They often require researchers from wealthier countries to partner with a local institution, but that’s not enough, she says. They could also define expectations around equal copyright and access to data, for example. It is difficult for individual researchers in less powerful countries to address these issues, even when they have friendly relations with collaborators: “I am among the most privileged in my country, and yet I feel that way.”
“Now is a good time to talk about it,” says Juan Carlos Cisneros, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí, who says helicopter research in his area could lead to the illegal acquisition of specimens. The statement will put pressure on “major players”, such as universities and museums, who “do not want to be tied to bad practices”.
The field of research integrity has not historically focused on fairness, says James Lavery, a bioethicist at Emory University and contributor to the statement. Instead, “the whole space has been completely dominated by the US regulatory approach”, meaning a focus on fraud, plagiarism and the protection of human subjects – a view he calls “excruciatingly narrow”. More recently, those working in the field have broadened their focus to issues such as bullying and paternity. From now on, equity comes first.
In a background paper outlining what the Cape Town Declaration should accomplish, the authors argue that inequality can impact the quality of research. Without local expertise, they say, the research might not answer the most important questions. Instruments that are not adapted to local cultures can result in poor quality data. And ethical questions of credit and access may remain unanswered.
This year’s African venue for the Global Research Integrity Conference appears to have spurred a wave of focus on the problem, says Lisa Rasmussen, a research ethicist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The declaration’s impact will be difficult to track, she said, but it could lead to incremental changes.
Pathak hopes the statement will have an effect, although he is not the first to articulate these issues. “Maybe it’s not new. But maybe we should say it another time. »