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Renowned medical journal rejects papers excluding African researchers

“Helicopter research” occurs when researchers from high-income settings, or who are otherwise privileged, conduct studies in lower-income settings or with groups who are historically marginalised, with little or no involvement from those communities or local researchers in the conceptualisation, design, conduct or publication of the research.

“Ethics dumping” occurs when similarly privileged researchers export unethical or unpalatable experiments and studies to lower-income or less-privileged settings with different ethical standards or less oversight.

Such behaviours are wrong. They are also bad for research, which is denied crucial expertise and context. But for centuries, exploitative practices were, unfortunately, simply how researchers from around the world conducted studies in the global south. And even as the south’s capacity to do its own research has grown, elements of these practices continue.

At the 7th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI 2022) which took place in Cape Town from 29 May to 1 June, senior executive editor of The Lancet, Dr Sabine Kleinert, said the journal would 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.

Writing in University World News, Maina Waruru says 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.

Kleinert told delegates: “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.”

As one of the co-chairs of the conference, hosted by the University of Cape Town (UCT), Kleinert noted that failure to disclose or appreciate work done by others amounted to a breach of integrity, something every publisher had a duty to look out for.

She was responding to a question during a session on “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 play a role in research conducted around 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. For this reason The Lancet now charges different prices for different regions.

The Hong Kong Principles on research integrity were important to academia in addressing challenges around academic awards, the assessment of research and the ethical conduct of research. They emphasised the importance of research integrity as a measure in rating universities, said Kleinert.

In addition, they addressed issues including career progression, research funding and the questions of quality over quantity, team versus individual, and long-term versus short-term impacts of research. Overall, the framework was meant to “foster research integrity and improve its conduct”.

Professor Ntobeko Ntusi, chair of medicine in the Faculty of Health Sciences at UCT, said Africa was 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 faced many challenges “including inadequate funding, lack of requisite infrastructure, a shortage of supervisors in universities and a lack of mentorship”. To tackle these challenges, he said, 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.

Under such networks it was possible to engage institutions 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 the system valued quality right through supervision, mentorship, scholarship, research culture and "academic citizenship".

He made a case for open science, saying it could play a role in entrenching ethical research conduct by freely availing data 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 said, 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 on to the Hong Kong Principles, the Leiden Manifesto for Research Metrics and the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). The role of institutions in enforcing integrity would be greatly enhanced if universities adhered to the DORA and Hong Kong principles on assessing research, since the two emphasised fairness and rewarded excellence.

In a statement released on the second day of the conference, the Nature Portfolio announced that it was adopting a new approach to improving inclusion and ethics in its journals (including Nature and all Nature Portfolio journals). It said this came as other journals grapple with similar issues as debated and discussed at the conference.

Nature said there were numerous examples of the persistent imbalance in research across multiple fields. One analysis of a sample of studies conducted in Africa on a range of infectious diseases found that less than half had an African first or last author. Another report showed that two-thirds of high-impact geoscience articles on Africa had no African authors.

Even in development research, for which the focus is overwhelmingly on challenges facing the global south, authors from the global north wrote nearly three-quarters of papers published in the world’s top 20 development journals between 1990 and 2019.

Nature’s latest steps to improve inclusion and ethics are guided by the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings, developed by TRUST – a European Union-funded project on research ethics – and by the San Code of Research Ethics, developed by the San indigenous people. The group is encouraging its journals’ authors, editors and reviewers to consider the Global Code when developing, conducting, reviewing and communicating research, and to be transparent about inclusion and ethics.

Nature is not alone in tackling these issues. Last year, the open-access publisher PLOS announced a policy intended to combat helicopter research, and a group of researchers – including the editors of the journals Anesthesia and BMJ Global Health – proposed that journals ask authors of studies conducted in low- and middle-income countries to supply statements describing how equity was promoted in their work.

The over-riding message from this year’s World Conference on Research Integrity has called out inequity and unfair practices in research collaborations as a matter of research integrity.


University World News article – Renowned journal rejects papers that exclude African researchers (Open access)


Nature Journals article – Nature addresses helicopter research and ethics dumping (Open access)


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