Research integrity demands ethical community engagement

Academics and researchers from across Africa are calling for the involvement of local communities in the design, execution and implementation of research, saying that the voices of the people in such ventures were often silent, to the detriment of the research subjects.

While many communities hosted research missions from the continent and beyond, their role was often limited to being the subjects of studies, or to play auxiliary roles in these missions, excluding them from their benefits.

In future, communities should not participate in research that is not meant to solve their problems or improve their well-being, a symposium on ethics and integrity in research collaborations hosted on 1 September by the research integrity group EthiXPERT in Johannesburg, South Africa, heard. The event was hosted at the University of South Africa (UNISA).

“In most of the research work done in Africa, community voices are usually missing, which negates the principles of transparent and inclusive partnerships,” noted Dr Thomas Nyirenda, the manager of strategic partnerships and capacity development for the European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP).

Often, he noted, communities shared their knowledge and volunteered their time, yet the benefits of the findings from such ventures helped people elsewhere and outside Africa, mainly because the locals’ contribution was not appreciated as being that of contributing conceivers of the research projects.

Any initiative that did not engage communities from conception to execution and dissemination of findings should not be judged as transparent or inclusive, and should be seen as being in breach of the 2019 Hong Kong Principles for Assessing Researchers, he said.

The principles are meant to assess researchers for career advancement, but with a focus on behaviour that strengthens integrity.

“Good partnerships must have inclusive decision-making, create trust, apply findings, share results as well as profits with the people when they accrue, for communities to benefit from their input in studies,” he added.

Such collaborations should also guarantee that the people are not only not left out when results are finally disseminated as widely happens, but should also ensure that they are disseminated in a language that the communities understand, argued Dr Nyirenda, a keynote speaker at the event.

Research initiatives in the future should emulate the model used by EDCTP: whereby locals are part of any project, right from when calls are made to them when monitoring and evaluation is undertaken, creating much needed mutual trust through joint decision-making and the sharing of responsibilities.

Unequal collaborations

The time was overdue for research focused on Africa to be led by scientists in Africa and from the continent, even as collaborations between the North and the South witnessed accelerated growth over the past three decades, said Dr Retha Visagie, head of UNISA’s integrity office.

But, even as collaborations grew, the time had come for ‘indigenisation’ of knowledge and strict enforcement of ethical conduct for transparency’s sake, especially where researchers ‘helicoptered’ from abroad, the academic argued.

Indigenisation of knowledge, she noted, meant respecting and appreciating knowledge held by local people in their areas.

It is a concept that UNISA was taking seriously from an ethical perspective, in the interests of acknowledging communities’ contribution to knowledge production.

Collaborative efforts should address various challenges that are facing the countries involved, and no efforts should be spared to ensure that the research reaches the most in-need populations.

North-South relations have faced serious challenges over time, chief among them general inequity, the feeling of exploitation among African researchers and a lack of a voice in financial decisions where control of funding is in the hands of Western donors, she said.

“At times, challenges extend to interpersonal relations between researchers and grow to ‘othering’, which is alienation of knowledge systems that did not originate from the West,” she observed.

Other types of unfairness manifested themselves in the form of “citational injustice” in peer-reviewed journals, where local collaborators are not mentioned or acknowledged by the owners of a project, however critical their role had been.

Equitable partnerships, Visagie emphasised, should see all parties involved in the process of a project participate in decision-making, from researchers themselves, ethics committees, funders and universities as well as communities.

This way, she said, scientific leadership in low- and middle-income countries would stand a chance to grow, unlike in the past when decisions were made elsewhere and imposed on collaborators as inferior allies.

Overall, it was important that funders made it mandatory for project proponents to incorporate the code of conduct of research in poor economic settings, and strictly enforce it in the interests of fairness.

Key aspects of the indigenising of knowledge include, not just engagement of communities, but extended involvement of traditional “knowledge keepers” in consultations from the onset of a project to its end.

Research equity

It also respected the principle of reciprocity, whereby hosts benefit as much as the research conceivers, said Sidney Engelbrecht, senior research compliance specialist at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia.

Indigenisation, however, was different from decolonisation of knowledge, in that the latter acknowledged race, gender and spread of knowledge, while the former recognised the autonomy and sovereignty of indigenous communities.

Increasing accountability and transparency in the interests of equitable partnerships with regard to communities has been a challenge in the past, which calls for full compliance with different international protocols, including the Montreal Statement on Research Integrity in Cross-Boundary Research Collaborations.

According to EthiXPERT CEO Francis Kombe, one major element of unethical practices is undertaking research that has no relevance to the needs of society.

The responsibility of dealing with unfair partnerships rested with all key actors in knowledge production – right from funders, journals, printers and principal investigators, among others, he noted.

Barriers that perpetuate unfairness, therefore, involve dismantling deliberate efforts to maintain control over decision-making, practices that entrench inappropriate authorship as well as dealing with “structural imbalances” between the rich and the low-income countries, he added.

“Equity in research should mean access to the same opportunities. Partnerships that are rich in fairness appreciate diversity, inclusivity and equity,” he declared.

It was, therefore, important for policies and better regulations to be formulated where external funding of research is involved, to ensure that community engagement was guaranteed throughout the process.