ACU launches toolkit for equitable research partnerships

The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) has launched what it believes to be the first equitable partnerships toolkit to encourage fairer North-South and South-South research relationships and turn fine words about equity in research collaboration into action.

The association is the oldest international university network with 500 member institutions in 50 countries and includes universities in some of the richest and poorest nations in the world linked by a common language and cultural and historical connections.

The ACU Equitable Research Partnerships Toolkit has six sections providing advice and guidance to both researchers and other stakeholders in the planning, implementing, disseminating and sustaining of equitable research partnerships.

Dr Joanna Newman, chief executive and secretary-general of the ACU, told the online launch on 25 April 2023 that the toolkit had been planned since before the COVID-19 pandemic and the eventual design and content were the result of input from over 100 ACU members and stakeholders, half of whom were based in sub-Saharan Africa.

Power imbalances

It will help turn fine words about equity in research collaboration into deeds and tackle some of the power imbalances, including supporting work around equitable partnerships being developed by the ACU with the African Research Universities Alliance and UK Research and Innovation, and help to strengthen UK-Africa research partnership, said Newman.

She told researchers from a wide cross-section of institutions attending the launch that “research partnerships are needed to support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals” and that contributions from universities were essential to achieve all of the 17 SDG targets.

“Our toolkit has been tailor-made to support equity for universities and builds on the growing body of guidelines and principles calling for increased equity in partnerships, such as the Cape Town Statement on Fostering Research Integrity through Fairness and Equity, but which to date have provided little advice and guidance on how to translate these principles into action.

“The toolkit has a special focus on North-South partnerships, but many of the tools are relevant for other relationship where there are potential inequities between research partners, such as multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, public-private collaboration or South-South partnerships,” said Newman.

She said the tools could be easily adapted to examine equity in terms of characteristics such as gender or race and help university managers and others seeking to create outputs to support claims of equity in funding applications or progress reports.

Step-by-step instructions

The 20 tools provide step-by-step instructions, explained Dr Michelle Brear, creator of the toolkit, who stressed the importance of focusing on equity at the planning stage in any partnership between researchers from higher income institutions and those from lower and middle income countries.

She took participants attending the launch through the six sections of the toolkit.

The first section focuses on building understanding and awareness and suggests partners think about equity, as well as the research problem and approach, right at the start and accept there are different ways of thinking about equity.

It recommends encouraging dialogue about what equity would look like against 10 critical areas: capacity building, authorship, data ownership, local health priorities, research agreement, trust, acknowledging inequalities, recognition of stakeholders, communication and funding, using the World Café method to create a more relaxed setting.

The aim is to get each participant to think and speak from the perspective of other stakeholders, rather than their own perspective.

Beyond obvious candidates

Section two focuses on stakeholder identification and analysis and recommends thinking beyond obvious candidates to include candidates for equity, or for other reasons.

“While involving influential stakeholders might be necessary to ensure the project succeeds, facilitating the participation of stakeholders who have little influence, but will still be impacted by research, might be necessary to ensure the activities of the research partnership are equitable,” says the toolkit, which provides a downloadable template to assist this process.

The third section says research is increasingly expected to have a social impact and lead to practical changes – and achieving this in global North and South partnerships is an important part of equity, especially in using research results to influence policy and programmes designed to benefit communities in the global South.

It suggests that topics and questions to explore should include who is participating in the study design as well as co-authorship of research outputs, public and policy engagement activities, grant writing, postgraduate student teaching and supervision, as well as sharing benefits resulting from research and conference attendance.

Boundary judgements

The fourth section on designing and implementing a research study looks at boundary judgements or assumptions and offers an “emancipatory boundary critique tool” aimed at promoting reflective and dialogical practices between partners to determine what is considered relevant to the study of an issue, and what should be included in the definition of the problem at hand.

The fifth section on monitoring and evaluation says researchers working in partnerships need to consciously develop and incorporate mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the partnership process and its outcomes, and the equity of these, and provides a tool for co-developing a theory of equity-related change which involves partners working together to identify the overarching equity related goal or impact they wish to achieve.

Finally, there is a checklist tool to assess the extent to which research conducted in a partnership has acted, or will act, in accordance with the TRUST (2018) global code of conduct for research in resource-poor settings.

Changes in practice

Dr Therina Theron, senior director of research and innovation at Stellenbosch University, South Africa and co-chair of the ACU Supporting Research Community Steering Committee, told the launch event: “The global conversation on inequity and unfairness in research partnerships has gained significant traction in recent years, with increasing calls to action to implement changes in practice.

“Equitable partnerships are an indispensable component of fair and just scientific research that benefits populations globally, as so eloquently stated by the recently issued Cape Town Statement on fostering research integrity through the promotion of fairness, equity, and diversity.

“The ACU Equitable Research Partnerships Toolkit is an incredibly timely response to this global call to action – it will raise awareness around the damage done to scientific integrity through inequitable research partnerships, allow for reflection, and offer practical interventions to help ensure equity. It represents an extremely valuable tool to all stakeholders involved in the facilitation of research partnerships.”

She said that while researchers in lower and middle income countries can benefit from the resources available in the higher income countries to build their research capacities, they often have access to data that is inaccessible in higher income countries and that equitable research partnerships can have real impact and build scientific careers in the process.

Theron added that “while there are significant mutual benefits there are also grave concerns about the extent to which these collaborations promote equality and fairness and in some incidences these collaborations have been labelled as new colonialism and [are] potentially undermining equity.”

Walking the walk

She said the World Conferences on Research Integrity and its Cape Town Statement published last month highlighted the damage that can be done by inequitable research partnerships and “now we are moving forward from talking the talk to walking the walk with the ACU toolkit”.

Beate Knight, head of programmes at the ACU, told University World News the toolkit had been created following extensive consultation and discussion with ACU members.

“Supporting equitable partnerships between our 500+ strong global network of members is at the heart of our mission and fundamental to the ACU’s strategy. We believe that it is essential for universities to be at the forefront of action and research combating entrenched inequalities.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at