Trials and tribulations: A technician tests Covid-19 antibody neutralisation at the African Health Research Institute in Durban. Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Respected global medical journal The Lancet will continue to reject papers with data from Africa that fail to acknowledge African collaborators, in the interest of building African research and of promoting integrity, equity and fairness in research collaboration, according to senior executive editor Sabine Kleinert.
The journal made the decision after coming across manuscripts submitted by researchers from outside Africa and with data collected from the continent, but with no mention or acknowledgement of a single African collaborator, she told the 7th World Conference on Research Integrity held in Cape Town from 29 May to 1 June.
“We are now rejecting such papers because when you bring us such a paper you probably had a local researcher collecting data for you or you ‘helicoptered’ to Africa, but you chose not to recognise them, which is not acceptable.”
Kleinert — one of the cochairs of the conference hosted by the University of Cape Town — noted that failure to disclose or appreciate work done by others amounted to a breach of integrity, something that every publisher had a duty to look out for.
She was responding to a question during a session titled the Implementation of the Hong Kong Principles in an African Context. The Hong Kong principles for assessing researchers were formulated and endorsed at the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity held in June 2019 in Hong Kong. Their purpose is to help research institutions that adopt them to minimise questionable research practices.
Quality, equity and diversity
The Lancet, said Kleinert, was strictly focused on the quality of work done when assessing manuscripts but recognised that equity and diversity plays a role when it comes to research conducted in different regions of the world.
The publisher recognised that pricing can be prohibitive, and is a major factor in considering the choice of a publisher for many researchers from low- and middle-income countries. It is for this reason that The Lancet now charges different prices for different regions.
The Hong Kong principles on research integrity were important to academia in addressing difficulties regarding academic awards, the assessment of research and the ethical conduct of research. They emphasise the importance of research integrity as a measure in rating universities, said Kleinert.
In addition, they address a range of issues including career progression, research funding and the questions of quality over quantity, team versus individual and long-term versus short-term effects of research. Overall, the framework was meant to “foster research integrity and improve its conduct”.
Ntobeko Ntusi, chair of medicine in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town, said Africa was loudly crying for equitable collaborations between African researchers and those from outside the continent for there to be a semblance of responsible conduct of research.
African science, he observed, faced many difficulties including inadequate funding, poor infrastructure, a shortage of supervisors in universities and limited mentorship. To tackle these problems, it was necessary to strengthen and streamline research administration, funding and regulatory bodies.
“We also need to build institutional research networks and create more partnerships between universities to allow them to leverage available resources,” Ntusi said.
Examples of such networks and partnerships include organisations such as the African Research Universities Alliance, which has fostered collaborative research between member institutions across the continent.
Through such networks it was possible to start programmes on research integrity and set up disciplinary societies such as the Ethics Institute of South Africa.
Ntusi said the time had come to alter the reward system in universities with regard to academic progression, to ensure that the system valued quality right through supervision, mentorship, scholarship, research culture and “academic citizenship”.
He made a case for open science, noting that it could play a role in entrenching ethical research conduct by making data freely available to researchers.
“Africa needs a lot of support for open science by providing necessary infrastructure, skills and money,” he argued. “Open access is costly but it is what Africa needs.”
Many African researchers required support in the form of discipline-specific training, in the use of public databases and in research methodologies. These, he observed, would contribute to entrenching ethical research conduct and to building a culture of integrity.
Above all, individual commitment to research integrity was necessary and institutions and countries needed to sign the Hong Kong principles, the Leiden manifesto for research metrics and the Declaration on Research Assessment.
He said the role of institutions in enforcing integrity would be enhanced if universities adhered to the Declaration on Research Assessment and Hong Kong principles on assessing research, because the two emphasised fairness and rewarded excellence.
This article was first published in University World News.