Global research integrity statement calls for fairness and equity
The Cape Town Statement was published by the World Conferences on Research Integrity (WCRI) last Friday 24 March 2023. A commentary by the authors appeared in Nature on the same day.
The statement differs from other research integrity guidelines and tools in recognising that unfair and inequitable practices can harm the integrity of all research, across all disciplines and contexts. “We hope that by doing so, this statement will strengthen the call to recognise fairness and equity as an essential component of research,” the authors write.
It is a call to action that, it is hoped, will help turn the global conversation on inequity and unfairness in research, into changes in practice by all stakeholders, thereby tackling imbalances in global research collaborations that they argue “stem from a complex mix of racial discrimination, systemic bias and major disparities in funding and resources”.
Bioethicists and other research experts invested an extraordinary amount of consultation and effort in conceptualising and drafting the statement. It flowed from the seventh World Conference on Research Integrity held in Cape Town in South Africa in May 2022, under the theme “Fostering Research Integrity in an Unequal World”.
The statement is drawn from discussions that involved some 300 people from 50 countries, including 16 African countries and five in Latin America. In all, discussions held before, during and after the Cape Town conference took 18 months.
The proposals are grouped around values identified at important at the seventh WCRI. “These values include diversity, inclusivity, mutual respect, shared accountability, indigenous knowledge recognition and epistemic justice (ensuring that the value of knowledge is not based on biases related to gender, race, ethnicity, culture, socio-economic status etcetera),” the statement says.
The World Conferences on Research Integrity kicked off in Lisbon in 2007 and are held every two to three years, with the aim of fostering the exchange of information and discussion about the responsible conduct of research.
Some of the previous conferences have forged guidelines – the Singapore and Montreal statements, the Amsterdam Agenda and the Hong Kong Principles. A driving force behind WCRI and chair of its foundation is Lex Bouter, professor emeritus of methodology and integrity at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Amsterdam University Medical Centres.
The authors of the Cape Town Statement are: Lyn Horn of the University of Cape Town; Sandra Alba of KIT Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam; Gowri Gopalakrishna of Maastricht University; Sabine Kleinert of The Lancet; Francis Kombe of the African Research Integrity Network; James V Lavery of Emory University in the United States; and Retha G Visagie of the University of South Africa, on behalf of the statement working group.
They say in the Nature article that the WCRI gatherings have “helped to establish an academic field focused on research integrity”. The meetings typically concentrated on issues such as research misconduct, data collection, analysis, authorship and publication, and the importance of reproducibility.
The significant step taken in Cape Town was adding “the myriad ways in which research programmes and practices disadvantage those living in low- and middle-income countries to the suite of issues that threaten the integrity of science”.
The Cape Town Statement
Participants at the seventh WCRI, says the statement, “recognised that unfair and inequitable research practices remain prevalent at all stages of research from proposal development to funding application, data collection, analysis, sharing and access, reporting and translation”.
“These practices can impact the integrity of research in many ways, including skewing research priorities and agendas with research questions that are irrelevant for local needs, power imbalances that undermine fair recognition of knowledge contributions within collaborations, including unfair acknowledgement of contributions to published work, lack of diversity and inclusivity in collaborations, and unfair data management practices that disadvantage researchers in low resource environments.
“Furthermore,” the statement continues, “a drive towards open science as a pillar of research integrity fails to recognise the financial burden placed on under-resourced researchers and institutions, and the reality that highly trained and well-resourced researchers in high-income countries may disproportionately benefit from re-analysing openly shared data by low- and middle-income countries’ researchers.”
Where applicable, research should be translatable into locally relevant and locally owned and accessible interventions or policies. There is a need for research integrity education and other initiatives to support researchers in planning, conducting and disseminating research.
The 20 recommendations are grouped into five areas: diversity and inclusivity as a pathway to fair practice and attribution; fair practice from conception to implementation; mutual respect as a pathway to trust; shared accountability; and indigenous knowledge recognition and epistemic justice.
There are four recommendations for ‘diversity and inclusivity’, including that researchers should recognise the value of and strive to collaborate with other researchers from different disciplinary, geographical, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Research institutions should support and promote diversity and inclusivity in research, and funders from high-income countries should avoid ‘helicopter research’. The Nature article states: “Funders can do this by including diversity stipulations in their calls for grant applicants, but also by funding local researchers directly.”
Also, journals should question the excluding of local researchers from authorship. According to Nature: “Some are already taking steps in this direction. The Lancet has started rejecting papers that are submitted by researchers from outside Africa, with data collected from Africa, but with no mention or acknowledgement of a single African collaborator.”
Nature journals encourage authors to make disclosures on inclusion and ethics.
‘Fair practice’ has three recommendations, one being that all stakeholders should be aware of and strive to redress potential power imbalances in research collaborations. Funders should identify and adopt practices that support fairness and equity in collaborations.
Publishers and other stakeholders need to address barriers to ‘open science’ participation by researchers in low-resource settings. For example, the Nature commentary elaborates, the costs of publishing an article in gold open access journals – typically from US$500 to US$3,000 – are prohibitive for most researchers and institutions in poorer countries.
“The University of Cape Town, for example, which produces around 3,300 articles each year, has an annual budget of US$180,000 for article processing costs. This covers only about 120 articles per year.”
As a result, researchers in these countries often publish in subscription-based journals, which cannot be accessed by scientists working in similar contexts because their university libraries are unable to afford subscriptions to a wide range of journals. “All this makes it even harder for researchers to build on locally relevant science.”
There are four ‘mutual respect’ recommendations. For instance, research priority and agenda setting should include all research partners, and mechanisms should be identified for planning and budgeting that minimise power and opportunity imbalances. Full cost transparent budgeting is essential, as is fair data access, use, sharing and openness.
Shared accountability has six recommendations. For example, research fairness requires a commitment from all stakeholders to address deficiencies in research capacity and systems in low- and middle-income countries. Lower-income country governments need to recognise the value of funding research to support locally relevant priorities, and strive to reduce reliance on high-income country funders.
“Matched funding schemes could help, whereby governments commit to give institutions the same amount of funds as those obtained from other sources for nationally identified high-priority research,” says the Nature report.
Universities should prioritise the development of adequate support systems for researchers, including “research management capacity development and open access page costs where possible”, and should ensure that their researchers engage in fair practice.
High-income funders should incorporate some funding for local capacity development and support, and minimise the negative impacts of currency fluctuations.
Finally, there are three recommendations around indigenous knowledge recognition and epistemic justice. For instance, all stakeholders must ensure adequate recognition and respect of indigenous knowledge and avoid its exploitation and stigmatisation. Collaborations must be grounded on mutual trust and respect, and appropriate benefit-sharing and recognition.
Some conclusions and comments
The Cape Town Statement points out that it is not the first set of principles focusing on research fairness and equity, particularly in collaborations.
Others that informed discussions include Switzerland’s Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries (KFPE); the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings; and the BRIDGE guidelines – Bridging Research Integrity and Global Health Epidemiology.
Also, the Research Fairness Initiative assists research institutions and funders in evaluating their practices and identifying steps to improve fair and equitable research partnerships.
Stephane Berghmans, director of research and innovation for the European University Association (EUA), welcomed the statement. “It helps further raise awareness on the important issue of unfair and inequitable research practices. All stakeholders need to work on identifying implementation steps leading towards better practices,” he told University World News.
“That is why EUA, for example as part of its action plan on the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment, continues to advocate for such key initiatives to be global, to ensure fairness and equity in research and innovation by including low- and middle-income countries.”
The European Research Council, the Council of Canadian Academies and the Academy of Science of South Africa said were unable to comment in the time available.
A spokesperson for the Australian Research Council (ARC) told University World News: “The Cape Town Statement provides a useful template for those jurisdictions that, unlike Australia, do not already have in place research integrity requirements that address equitable research practices.”
The ARC said it is “committed to the highest standards of integrity in all aspects of research it supports” and pointed to the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, which “articulates the broad principles that characterise an honest, ethical and conscientious research culture. It outlines the expectations for the conduct of research in Australia or research conducted under the auspices of Australian institutions”.
Despite the existence in many research institutions and funders of research integrity codes and guidelines, reports of systemic bias and the contributions of researchers from low- and middle-income countries being sidelined continue.
In the Nature article, the authors provide an example from the COVID-19 pandemic. Among papers in the world’s top 10 medical and global health journals containing content related to Africa, published during the first nine months of 2020, 66% of authors were not from Africa. One in five articles had no author from Africa at all.
“Unfairness, inequity and a lack of diversity must no longer prevent the global research enterprise from maximising scientific integrity and from realising the ultimate societal value and benefits of research,” the authors write. Research should deliver accurate, replicable and unbiased results reported responsibly, with appropriate acknowledgement of all stakeholders.