Päivi Lindfors

Towards a responsible and reciprocal global research partnership

19 Oct 2022

High-quality science and progress in science are based on mutual trust between scientists, as well as the society’s trust in science. By supporting the ethical nature of research, the research community and scientific community help safeguard the credibility of research data. New ethical guidelines are being prepared to support Global North-South research cooperation and academic partnerships.

The scientific community is committed to strengthening scientific, technological and innovation cooperation between the North and the South, through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, several national initiatives in Finland aim at increasing cooperation with southern partners in higher education and research. However, North-South power relations create challenges for achieving a balanced partnership.

At its best, cooperation between researchers from the South and the North benefits both parties and helps find solutions to challenges that affect humanity as a whole. At worst, cooperation leads to the export of unethical research practices to countries where regulation is poorer or inadequate. In addition, cooperation may, at its most problematic level, lead to scientific colonialism, in which northern researchers arrive to extract data from the south, with their completed research questions, without considering local information needs or expertise. At the same time, researchers in the Global South may come to realise that, although they have been key players in the early stages of the work, especially in data collection and field work, they are forgotten in the analysis and publication phase of the data, or they do not receive proper recognition of their work input.

There are several reasons behind inequalities in research partnerships, but one obvious reason is the imbalance between financial and human resources. The underlying factors behind this inequality are how financial and human resources are managed and how the resources are divided between the partners. Lower middle-income countries invest considerably less in research and development, and also have much fewer researchers compared to high-income countries. These dynamics, in turn, affect the extent to which southern partners can influence research priorities, partnership conditions and how research data and results are used to promote local development.

New ethical guidelines prepared to support global research cooperation

Research cooperation with the Global South involves a number of ethical issues, such as the ownership of material and results, responsible fieldwork and the processing of sensitive topics. For example, one key question is, how should the ethical guidelines of partner countries be considered in the research? How to ensure fair access for all to the data produced by the project, and how to prevent the misuse of research results for harmful purposes when investigating sensitive subjects or dual-use items? And how to address human rights and academic freedom concerns?

The Finnish research community, including the Academy of Finland, is committed to the guidelines of the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity (TENK) on Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR). However, these guidelines do not directly address specific issues related to cooperation with the Global South. The theme of the Ethics Day held last March was the international dimensions of research ethics and global responsibility. At the event, the Finnish University Partnership for International Development UniPID and TENK launched a cooperation project to create ethical guidelines for research and academic partnerships in the Global South. The guidelines are intended to complement the current research ethics guidelines of TENK, with a view to providing researchers with practical tools for creating responsible and reciprocal partnerships. Stakeholder meetings and a survey are also planned to support the preparation of the guidelines. The survey is used to collect information on good practices, aimed at preventing ethical problems in global cooperation and addressing them.

Research funders need to support good research ethics practices and fairness in global research cooperation

Responsible research has several international guidelines, such as the ALLEA (All European Academies) European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity guidelines and the TRUST Global Code of Conduct, published in 2018. The purpose of the latter guidelines is to ensure that researchers conduct research in keeping with the same ethical principles, both in their home country and abroad. The Academy of Finland requires that projects funded by it comply with the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity in international cooperation.

At the turn of May and June, the international World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) was held for the first time in Cape Town, Africa. The conference presented the planned Cape Town Statement project, the aim of which is to expand the perspective of ethical guidelines and to encourage also the parties supporting research, such as research funders and publication forums, to take responsibility for research ethics issues. The statement should be completed in the following year.

The main focus of ethical guidelines is on individual researchers and research institutes. However, inequalities related to research cooperation are more guided by systems than by individuals. Funders and other organisations supporting the research have the opportunity and obligation to ensure that equality and fairness issues are comprehensively considered. The funders may also oblige the researchers they fund to follow the practices. For this reason, it is important that the Academy of Finland and other research funders support good practices, such as the introduction of the ethical guidelines for research and cooperation in the Global South. Hopefully, the research community engaged in global cooperation will also actively participate in working on the guidelines through the survey and stakeholder meetings!

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