When researchers in rich countries engage in “helicopter research” – reckless field research in poorer countries that extracts data without respectful cooperation – they violate research integrity and pose a moral problem, World Conference participants say on integrity research last week, held in Cape Town, South Africa. Scientists, ethics experts and other attendees at the meeting hope their new framing will elevate the problem and help stimulate systemic solutions, rather than leaving the task of building fair collaborations to individual researchers.
The conference saw the launch of the “Cape Town Declaration” on fair research partnerships. Consensus gathering events at the conference gathered ideas that will fuel the final statement, which a team of contributors plans to submit to an academic journal.
Researchers in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) often feel “not adequately appreciated” when collaborating with researchers from richer countries, said Francis Kombe, co-chair of the African Research Integrity Network and contributor to the conference statement. Local experts too often aren’t listed as authors, can’t access the data they’ve collected, and don’t have the power to target research towards local priorities, studies on the matter found.
Such “scientific colonialism” uses the same tactics as colonialism historically, Sue Harrison, vice chancellor for research and internationalization at the University of Cape Town, said at the event. It extracts data rather than raw materials and undermines and underfunds local infrastructure and skills. This leaves researchers in LMICs without the publications, patents and expertise of their richer counterparts.
The numerous existing statements and guidelines on helicopter research tend to focus on what individuals and small groups can do to make collaboration more equitable, Kombe said. The Cape Town Declaration, on the other hand, will offer guidance on how institutions, including universities, funders and journals, can make a difference.
Funders are key, says Minal Pathak, a climate researcher at Ahmedabad University. They often require researchers from wealthier nations to partner with a local institution, but that’s not enough, he says. They could also set expectations for equal authorship and access to data, for example. It is difficult for individual researchers in less powerful countries to tackle these problems, even when they have friendly relations with collaborators: “I am among the most privileged in my country, and yet I feel that way.”
“This is the right time to talk about it,” says Juan Carlos Cisneros, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí, who says helicopter research in his field may lead to the illegal acquisition of specimens. The statement will put pressure on “major players”, such as universities and museums, who “do not want to be linked to bad practices”.
The field of research integrity has not historically focused on equity, says James Lavery, an Emory University bioethicist and contributor to the statement. Instead, “the whole space has been completely dominated by the US regulatory approach,” which has meant focusing on fraud, plagiarism and the protection of human subjects, a view he calls “terribly narrow”. More recently, industry practitioners have expanded their focus on issues such as harassment and paternity. Now, equity is coming to the fore.
In a background paper outlining what the Cape Town Declaration is expected to achieve, the authors argue that inequity can affect the quality of research. Without local expertise, they say, research may not address the most important questions. Tools that don’t fit local cultures can produce poor data. And the ethical issues of credit and access may not be addressed.
This year’s African venue for the World Conference on Research Integrity appears to have sparked a wave of attention on the issue, says Lisa Rasmussen, a research ethics at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The impact of the statement will be difficult to track, she says, but it may require incremental change.
Pathak hopes the claim will have an effect, even if he’s not the first to articulate these issues. “Maybe it’s not new. But maybe we have to say it another time. “