‘Helicopter research’ criticized at Cape Town conference | Science

When researchers from rich countries engage in “helicopter research” — thoughtless field research in poorer countries that extracts data without respectful collaboration — they violate the integrity of research and pose a moral problem, say participants at the World Conference on Integrity in Health. Research, carried out in Cape Town. , South Africa. Scientists, ethicists and others at the meeting hope their new framework will elevate the issue and help spur 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 equitable research partnerships. Consensus events at the conference compiled ideas that will feed into the eventual communiqué, which a team of contributors plans to submit to an academic journal.

Researchers in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) often feel they are “not adequately appreciated” when they partner with researchers from wealthier countries, said Francis Kombe, co-chair of the African Research Integrity Network and contributor to the statement. the conference. Local experts are often not listed as authors, cannot access the data they have collected, and are not empowered to direct research towards local priorities, studies on the subject have found.

This “scientific colonialism” uses the same tactics that colonialism has historically had, Sue Harrison, vice dean 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 at LMICs without the publications, patents and skills of their richer colleagues.

The numerous existing statements and guidelines on helicopter research tend to focus on what individuals and small groups can do to make collaboration fairer, Kombe said. The Cape Town Declaration will instead 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, she says. They can also set expectations of authorship and access to equal data, for example. It is difficult for individual researchers in less powerful countries to address these problems, even when they maintain 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 that helicopter research in his field could lead to the illegal acquisition of specimens. The declaration will put pressure on “main players”, such as universities and museums, who “do not want to be linked to bad practices”.

The field of research integrity has historically not focused on equity, says James Lavery, a bioethicist at Emory University and contributor to the statement. Instead, “the entire space has been completely dominated by the US regulatory approach,” which means focusing on fraud, plagiarism and human protections — a view he calls “excruciatingly narrow.” More recently, those in the field have broadened their focus to issues such as harassment and authorship. Now, equity comes to the fore.

In a reference document outlining what the Cape Town Declaration should achieve, the authors argue that inequality can affect the quality of research. Without local experience, they say, the research may not address the most important questions. Instruments that are not adapted to local cultures can result in poor data. And ethical issues of credit and access may not be addressed.

This year’s African location for the World Conference on Research Integrity appears to have spurred a wave of focus on the problem, says Lisa Rasmussen, a research ethicist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. The impact of the statement will be difficult to track, she says, but it could lead to incremental changes.

Pathak is hopeful that the statement can have an effect, though he is not the first to articulate these issues. “Maybe it’s not new. But maybe we need to say that another time.”

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