Statement offers hope for fairer treatment of researchers

The African research community is looking forward to a fairer, equitable, inclusive and diverse collaborative research environment in the future – one of the major benefits that come with the publication of the Cape Town Statement on Fostering Research Integrity through Fairness and Equity.

The statement could usher in a new era in which opportunities, resources and decisions are not made available on the basis of one’s economic power or privileges, but where they are shared equitably, regardless of one’s race, colour, gender, social or cultural affiliation, experts say.

They anticipate that the document will provide impetus towards the attainment of fair partnerships in the future, and act as both a tool and a resource that African researchers can use when embarking on future collaborations.

Some of the 20 recommendations in the document could also be useful when trying to resolve contentious issues that may arise in existing collaborations, and help guide actors (including funders, publishers, and journals) when tackling disputes, they observe.

Efforts should be deliberate

“This can only happen, however, where there is an honest appreciation of economic, social and capacity barriers, and where there are intentional and deliberate efforts to address those barriers rather than to perpetuate them,” said Francis Kombe, CEO of the African ethics organisation EthiXpert.

“The rich must extend a hand of support to deliberately empower the poorer regions of the world through shared decision-making, co-creation, shared learning, servant responsible leadership and mutual respect, all of which are underscored in the Cape Town statement,” said Kombe, who is one of the authors of the document.

Like all ethical guiding principles, the statement and the guidelines published are ethically and morally binding, meaning that all researchers, scholars, academicians, research institutions, donors and publishers have a moral and ethical obligation to uphold and respect the recommendations, he told University World News.

Despite not being legally binding like the Singapore and the Montreal statements before it, the Cape Town Statement serves to strengthen the ability to hold researchers and others such as donors more accountable.

In addition, the statements serve as calls for action, asking stakeholders to clearly understand and uphold their moral obligations.

More actions to realise statement coming

“Research integrity demands that everybody does the right thing, every time, regardless of who is watching. With the statement providing the benchmarks for best practice for responsible conduct of research, I believe it will serve as the seed for the moral intuition needed to make everyone question their actions critically to the benefit of everybody in the society,” Kombe said.

There are no plans to get stakeholders to officially ratify, endorse or abide by the statement. However, the World Conferences on Research Integrity, under whose auspices the document was published, is set to hold the 8th World Conference on Research Integrity in Athens, Greece, in June 2024, where more actions to actualise the statement will be deliberated, he disclosed.

He noted: “As is usually the norm, those who participated in the development of the statement will most likely converge and agree on the way forward in disseminating the statement. Any requirement for institutions to officially ratify and endorse the statement will be made in consultation with the board of management of the World Conferences on Research Integrity Foundation and the working group.”

Published on 24 March, following deliberations of the 7th World Conference on Research Integrity held in Cape Town in May 2022, the statement acknowledges that researchers and institutions from wealthier countries often reap greater benefits from collaborations compared with their colleagues from poor countries.

This involves the number of papers published, authorship, career growth, deciding priorities for research, and even the ownership of samples and data.

African researchers are not ‘add-ons’

“This statement entails 20 recommendations drawn from discussions involving around 300 people from an estimated 50 countries, including 16 African nations and five South American ones. The discussions were held over 18 months – before, during and after the Cape Town,” according to the statement.

Among other aspects, the guidelines require researchers to recognise the value of collaborating with colleagues from different disciplinary, geographical, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and strive to achieve diversity when doing research in “contexts and environments that are different from their own”.

According to Dr Lyn Horn, the lead author, the statement will have a positive influence on many aspects of the research life cycle and sensitise all stakeholders to the issues that African and other lower- and medium-income country (LMIC) researchers and stakeholders face.

The recommendations in the document highlight areas where change needs to happen so that African researchers can increasingly be seen as equal or lead partners, rather than as ‘add-ons’, merely included to “meet some requirements”, she told University World News.

The statement, she said, is a guideline that the authors hope will be taken seriously. “We hope that the statement will act as a strong motivator for researchers to make the choices that support fairness, equity and diversity in research contexts,” she said, adding that acting as a responsible researcher within a research integrity framework requires researchers to make choices that uphold integrity.

Gender should receive attention

While the statement is good and elaborate, capturing most of the concerns that researchers in Africa and in LMIC countries have, it neglects aspects of respecting “African values” with regard to gender balance in research funding, veteran researcher Professor Anthony Kibe of Kenya’s Egerton University said.

“The requirements on gender, normally proposed by Western donors and forced in current research funding arrangements, demands 30% to 50% women participation. This, however, is causing strain on young families that are nurturing children below 16 years old,” he said. Many women researchers in Africa with young families opted out of research projects that demand many hours of their time, making it hard for proposals to be funded for lack of gender equity, Kibe said.

Issues such as equity in terms of donor funding for proposals by researchers from LMIC, which are “often a fraction of” that given to their Western world counterparts, need to be addressed, he said.

“There is the issue of local versus international rates that constrain local researchers in executing collaborative research. For example, when it comes to transportation and living quarters, we use local transport and live in low-cost facilities while the international researchers are paid hefty daily subsistence allowances that enable them to live in three- or four-star hotels while travelling in luxury vehicles. These should now be addressed,” he added.

The input of local researchers is often not acknowledged. Their names are excluded in final reports, despite having provided information and data for surveys.

Unfair practices ruled out

“The statement ought to correct such unfair practices and should be shared widely with all universities and research organisations, while some of its excerpts should be embedded in calls for proposals as requirements when writing and implementing projects,” Kibe recommended.

According to Brenda Odera of the Strathmore University’s institutional scientific and ethics committee in Kenya, there is a need to have an “African statement” moving forward to incorporate the diverse African cultures and perspectives. The statement should have addressed additional issues, including incentives such as promotions, for researchers who consistently uphold high standards of integrity.

Universities and other research institutions need to establish an integrity unit that should be charged with the task of implementing some of the things outlined in the statement’s guidelines, she recommended.

This news report was updated on 7 May.