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Inequality in collaborations is a matter of scientific integrity, says World Conference

Event in Cape Town, South Africa, addresses the need to expand the concept of research responsibility

Marcus Deusdedit

Around 700 scientists, academic managers, and students from across the globe were present both virtually and physically in Cape Town, South Africa, between May 29 and June 1 to discuss advances related to ethics and responsibility in research, and witnessed the extent to which this field of knowledge has been expanding into new topics and gaining breadth. The main theme of the 7th World Conference on Research Integrity, the first to be held in Africa, was the importance of promoting fairer, more respectful, and more diverse international collaborations. The premise is that these partnerships are unequal and frequently unfavorable towards poor countries.

The backdrop is a positive phenomenon: growth, from the end of the 1990s, in the number of international consortia and initiatives realizing collaborations between nations from the Northern Hemisphere, where the majority of rich countries are concentrated, and the Southern Hemisphere. Data presented at the conference showed that 90% of funding in global collaborations comes from high-income nations, which generally has an impact on power relations. The middle- and low-income countries, desperate for international funding, sometimes embrace agendas that do not necessarily represent their most pressing research interests.

It is true that asymmetries can be found even in partnerships between countries of similar income, but the conference concentrated its focus on cases that evolve into clear situations of misconduct, in which scientists from poor nations are deprived of recognition for their work in the collaborations or local communities stop receiving benefits generated by the knowledge they helped produce. One example of ethical deviation discussed at the event is so-called “helicopter research.” This is when scientists from rich countries visit poor countries to get information that interests them—such as human samples for clinical studies, specimens for biological research, or fossil material for archaeological and paleontological studies—and then “up and leave,” without establishing respectful collaborations with local colleagues, often preventing them from coauthoring publications and patents. In the opening of the conference, Sue Harrison, vice dean of the University of Cape Town (UCT), classified this behavior as “scientific colonialism” for appropriating data without contributing towards local infrastructure development and the training of human resources. “Such practices can cause more damage to the credibility of science than more blatant forms of misconduct,” adds Precious Moloi-Motsepe, doctor, businesswoman, philanthropist, and dean of UCT since 2019.

A possible case of “helicopter research” was pointed out in a UCT study that last year analyzed 94 articles about Covid-19 in Africa published in 10 medical journals. Published in the journal BMJ Global Health, the work stated that 66.1% of the authors of these papers did not work in the continent and one of every five articles did not have even a single African author. Editors showed what they are doing to tackle the issue. Sabine Kleinert, executive editor of the medical journal The Lancet and one of the cochairs of the conference, affirmed having rejected articles with African data that did not mention the participation of local collaborators in at least the data collection. In her opinion, the failure to recognize work done by others amounts to a violation of integrity. “It is unacceptable,” she says.

There are not many studies in the academic literature about equity in partnerships. One of them, published in 2020 in the journal PLOS ONE by researchers from Australia and South Africa, interviewed a group of 15 scientists of different nationalities involved in an international health collaboration, the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) Consortium, which seeks to map characteristics of cells in healthy individuals that represent global diversity. A recurring problem relates to the unequal division of the work. In general, researchers from poor countries do not participate in the design of investigative projects and are only charged with collecting raw data. They also suffer from other subtle limitations, such as meeting tight deadlines for submitting their contribution.

The study proposed some solutions to the problem. One of which is to encourage changes to the rules established by universities so their researchers can join collaborations: the institutions must demand that their professors comply with equitable practices. Another point relates to the funding of scientists from poor countries in international consortia. In general, the large funding agencies make fewer resources available than is necessary to enable the participation of these partners, while universities from poor countries struggle to estimate their costs and set feasible budgets.

A study about equity, published in 2018 in the journal Annals of Global Health by researchers from Kenya, Canada, Tanzania, and South Africa, analyzed the results of 125 international partnerships signed by four universities from East Africa. Forty-two percent of the experiences were considered of little value, the majority due to having a short duration, limited scale, and little impact on local training and capacity building. One in every four partnerships was considered as high value. One of the cases mentioned started in 1988 and was created by leaders from the schools of medicine at the University of Indiana, USA, and Moi University in Kenya, and involves studies about global health and the training of professionals until today. More than 1,000 doctors from Indiana have done internships in Kenya, while 400 Kenyans have supplemented their training in US institutions.

Funding is reflected in the power relations in scientific collaborations.

The concern with inequality is not exclusive to African countries. In Brazil, FAPESP requires that partnerships with foreign institutions are led by one researcher from São Paulo and one from abroad, with equal conditions. Last year, the Wellcome Trust, from the UK, launched their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategy, aligning itself with a consortium of scientific companies and institutions called the Edis Group, whose targets include “increasing the diversity of people involved in the research cycle” and expanding inclusion to “combat the inequalities in health and improve the quality of research.” The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is reevaluating its global partnerships. An independent review conducted last year cited unfair practices and even racism directed at students and collaborators. Patricia Henley, head of research governance and integrity at the institute, told the journal Nature that the school is discussing new parameters for relationships with poor nations. She criticizes the funders from developed nations imposing that their researchers lead the collaborations. “Why does everything need to be so focused on institutes from the North?” questioned Henley.

Besides the ethical dilemmas involved, inequality can compromise the quality of research. The Cape Town Declaration on Research Integrity, to be published at the end of the year based on discussions developed in two major plenary sessions at the conference, will propose that the understanding of scientists from low- and middle-income countries about local culture is essential for properly analyzing data collected in their territories. The document will also defend that unfair practices in collaborations are matters of integrity and define principles and values to promote the joint construction of research agendas, as well as fairer forms of funding production, analysis, and data management.

James Lavery, a bioethics specialist at Emory University in Atlanta, USA, who helped create the reference document for the declaration, told the journal Science that the debate about integrity has been slow to look at the issue of equity. “For a long time, the space was dominated by the US regulatory approach,” he said, referring to the focus on plagiarism, fraud, and ethics in experiments with human beings. Sonia Vasconcelos, Brazilian researcher from the Leopoldo de Meis Institute for Medical Biochemistry of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), who cochaired the fourth edition of the conference held in 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, has witnessed the evolution of this debate. She remembers that in the first conference, held in 2007 in Lisbon, the scientific community was still not very supportive and was trying to understand the implications of the growth in the number and size of ethical deviation cases. “There was a concern mostly in terms of understanding the size of the problem and how it was distributed throughout the various countries and areas of knowledge, and also of developing a transparent system that would adequately address misconduct cases, in order to avoid confidence in science being badly affected,” she recalls. There was greater emphasis on the responsibilities of individuals and the research environment—influenced by growing pressure for productivity in highly competitive scenarios.

The next meeting, held in 2010 in Singapore, produced a clear and articulated declaration, despite still being extremely concerned about individual behaviors. “At that time, research integrity principles were proposed that would be shared among communities of different countries, as well as responsibilities, pointing out how universities, funding agencies, and scientific societies should respond to allegations of misconduct and other practices considered irresponsible.” Vasconcelos notes that in 2013, in Montreal, Canada, the conference drew attention to ethical conflicts in collaborative research networks, for example, those related to unequal access to resources and equipment and to the existence of different notions of intellectual property protection. In Rio de Janeiro, in 2015, there was an advance in terms of discussing the importance of the role of education and training programs in order to promote an institutional culture of integrity (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 233).

In Amsterdam, Holland, in 2017, scientific reproducibility was one of the hot topics. At that time, concerns were intensifying about a crisis of confidence in research results that were not repeated in subsequent works, especially in biomedical areas. “The Dutch have a very strong integrity network and they impressed on the event the need to create mechanisms to improve reliability in science.” Finally, in Hong Kong in 2019, the debate centered around the reward system for researchers promoting scientific integrity. The result was a declaration that criticized the exaggerated emphasis on quantitative indicators for evaluating academic production. The document also proposed to recognize and reward those who adopted the so-called open science principles, an environment marked by a dynamic of vigorous collaboration, with open access to knowledge and extensive sharing of data.

Themes from previous conferences were naturally also present in hundreds of studies presented in Cape Town. Brazilian researchers addressed varied subjects, such as an initiative to reproduce data from biomedical studies and the development of online courses on integrity for scientific editors. Some topics had important developments. The challenges of open science were addressed from a critical perspective—from the difficulties faced by researchers in environments with few resources to participate in partnerships that require data management and storage training and infrastructure. Another issue was the advance of the open-access movement of scientific publications that, especially in Europe, has been disseminating a model that transfers publication costs from the readers to the researchers and funding agencies, which is prohibitive for poor countries.

Epidemiologist Wongani Nyangulu, from the School of Medicine of the University of Malawi, received the award for best oral presentation in which he proposed a series of actions to strengthen the position of researchers from poor countries in international collaborations, such as the creation of integrity offices in institutions and agencies to monitor the partnerships.

Another recognized work was the presentation of the Research Integrity Training Program curriculum, created by the universities of New York and Ghana, in the USA and Africa, respectively. Funded by Fogarty International Center, linked to the US National Institutes of Health, the program seeks to train specialists in Ghana with expertise in research ethics, integrity, and governance, with the aim of leading international teams and developing institutional policies in the country. The meeting in Cape Town also marked the consolidation of the African Network of Research Integrity, a partnership to promote ethical practices involving universities throughout the continent. Researchers from developing nations are keen to demonstrate what they are doing to accompany advances and concepts in scientific integrity and are bringing new questions to the table.

Research integrity with rapid results

In June, the Global Research Council, an entity that unites more than 60 public research-funding agencies from all continents, approved a document in a meeting in Panama City about research integrity and ethics in collaborative environments that require rapid results, such as those involving studies about Covid-19 and global climate change. One of the highlights of the declaration was the need to establish criteria for evaluating the merits of projects that allow for transparent and speedy analyses, compatible with the need to obtain fast responses. Another topic relates to the use of strategies for reducing conflicts in scientific collaborations, as they tend to be bigger and more tense in situations that demand prompt responses.

The text further stresses the importance that funding agencies and institutions provide training related to responsible behavior with the creation of specific modules and content for research contexts such as a health crisis. “Supporting researchers in the conception, execution, and publication of research results, and guaranteeing a culture of integrity is essential for preserving public confidence in science,” says Euclides de Mesquita Neto, assistant coordinator in Special Programs and Research Collaboration at FAPESP and executive secretary of the GRC.