When researchers from rich countries engage in “helicopter research” – reckless field research in poorer countries that extracts data without respectful cooperation – it undermines the integrity of research and is a moral issue, say participants in the World Conference on Integrity of Research. last week in Cape Town, South Africa. Scientists, ethicists and others at the meeting hope that their new layout will raise the issue and help stimulate systemic solutions, instead of leaving the task of building honest collaboration to individual researchers.
The Cape Town Declaration on Fair Research Partnerships was launched at the conference. Consensus-gathering events at the conference brought together ideas that will be included in a possible statement that a team of collaborators plans to present in an academic journal.
Researchers in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) often feel they are not “adequately evaluated” when partnering with researchers from richer countries, said Francis Combe, co-chair of the African Integrity Research Network and a contributor to the conference. Too often, local experts are not cited as authors, do not have access to the data they collect and do not have the power to direct research to local priorities, studies have found.
Such “scientific colonialism” uses the same tactics as historical colonialism, said Sue Harrison, vice rector for research and internationalization at the University of Cape Town. It extracts data instead of raw materials – and undermines and underfunds local infrastructure and skills. This leaves researchers at LMICs without the publications, patents and skills of their wealthier counterparts.
Numerous existing statements and guidelines on helicopter research tend to focus on what individuals and small groups can do to make cooperation more equitable, Combe said. Instead, the Cape Town Declaration will offer guidance on how institutions, including universities, funding organizations and magazines, can make a difference.
Funding is key, says Minal Patak, a climate researcher at the University of Ahmedabad. They often require researchers from richer nations to partner with a local institution, but that’s not enough, she said. They could also indicate expectations for equal authorship and access to data, for example. It is difficult for individual researchers in less powerful countries to deal with these problems, even when they have friendly relations with colleagues: “I am among the most privileged in my country, and yet I feel that way.”
“This is a good time to talk about it,” said Juan Carlos Cisneros, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí, who said helicopter research in his area could lead to illegal specimens. The statement will put pressure on “key players”, such as universities and museums, who “do not want to be associated with bad practices”.
The field of integrity of research has historically not focused on justice, said James Lowry, a bioethicist at Emory University and a contributor to the statement. Instead, “the whole space is completely dominated by the American regulatory approach,” which means it focuses on fraud, plagiarism, and the protection of human subjects, a view he calls “painfully narrow.” More recently, experts in this field have expanded their focus to issues such as harassment and authorship. Now justice comes to the fore.
In a key paper outlining what the Cape Town statement should achieve, the authors argue that inequality can affect the quality of research. Without local experience, they say, research may not address the most important issues. Tools that are not adapted to local cultures can lead to poor data. And the ethical issues of credit and access may go unnoticed.
This year’s African venue for the World Conference on the Integrity of Research seems to have sparked a wave of focus on the issue, said Lisa Rasmussen, a research ethics specialist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The impact of the statement will be difficult to track, she said, but could cause a gradual change.
Patak hopes the statement could have an effect, although it is not the first to formulate these problems. “It simply came to our notice then. But maybe we should say it another time. “