Go back

Ending scientific colonialism will make research more effective


Upcoming conference will lay foundations for equitable collaboration between north and south, says Lyn Horn

Research collaborations between partners from both the Global North and South are becoming increasingly common. This is for good reason: many of the world’s most wicked problems are concentrated in the Global South, including higher disease burdens, issues of poverty and inequality, and the impact of climate change.

This is a step in the right direction. Research proposals, however, are often put together with short timelines and under high pressure. A funder may demand a partner in the Global South, usually the country where the research is to be undertaken, and a quick Google will bring up a few options of researchers who hurriedly agree, unable to turn down the funding opportunities being dangled in front of them.

This process can leave researchers in the Global South with no input into the research agenda, or the other research processes taking place in their countries and communities. Such unequal partnerships with the Global North can result in local researchers being excluded from the intellectual processes, relegated to a role of data collector, and sometimes even refused access to data collected in their own communities.

Good ethics, good research

Researchers from the Global South are increasingly speaking out against this scientific colonialism, as it is sometimes called. There have been several initiatives seeking to highlight the problem and develop codes of conduct to stop it, notably the Research Fairness Initiative by the Council on Health Research for Development.

The issue will also be front and centre at the 7th World Conference on Research Integrity, taking place from 29 May to 1 June in Cape Town, South Africa. The conference, whose theme is Fostering Research Integrity in an Unequal World, will seek to address questionable research practices in global partnerships through a planned Cape Town Statement on Diversity, Equity and Fairness in Research Contexts. It will be a hybrid event combining online and onsite participation; early bird registration closes on 15 March.

Amid the many ethical reasons for ending exploitative research collaborations, the practical benefits of true partnership are often overlooked. Collaborations that bring together participants with a variety of backgrounds, knowledge and insights make for better research outcomes.

A homogeneous group of researchers, with the same background and experience, will bring the same blind spots and biases to their work. This is likely to lead to weaker research outcomes. A truly diverse collaboration, in contrast, that includes researchers and stakeholders from the communities set to benefit from the research, will come at a research problem from a range of angles, minimising blind spots and biases.

Equal from the start

Of course, nobody sets out to build an unequal partnership and disempower their research partners. So, the burning question becomes, how do we build truly equal global partnerships to tackle the grand challenge problems of our time?

One answer to this question is that global collaborative research will be more powerful and have greater impact if all parties work together from the conception of a project. This should include a strong lead from researchers active in the community under study.

Such an approach helps the partners to build a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. While this may take longer—and may even make it more difficult to win funding—it will ensure that the right research questions are tackled, rather than just the easy or fashionable ones.

This is arguably only a first step towards building equitable partnerships. Other structural issues, such as where funders are based, problems around funding of indirect costs in Global South institutions, and questions around data ownership and storage are all important. But a collaboration built on genuine trust and respect and a common interest in a greater good has a much better chance of reaching the gold standard of truly equitable and diverse partnership with research outcomes that positively impact communities.

Without the participation of researchers and other stakeholders from developing countries, who have first-hand insight and understanding of these problems, we can never hope to find lasting sustainable solutions. This is why the UN Sustainable Development Goals include partnerships, and why funders often want to see partnerships that include institutions from both the Global North and South.

But unless we undertake research collaborations consciously, taking a step back to reassess our practices, we risk falling into old patterns that reinforce global inequalities and lead to poorer research outcomes. The Cape Town meeting will be an opportunity to highlight and debate what equitable research looks like and hopefully come up with some answers.

Lyn Horn is head of the office of research integrity at the University of Cape Town and a member of the programme committee of the 7th World Congress on Research Integrity

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version also appeared in Research Europe