New ethics toolkit for Global Challenges Research

Today’s blog is a guest post by Dr Clara Calia, Deputy Director of Research Ethics & Integrity in the School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh, and introduces a new ethics toolkit for Global Challenges Research.

Working with more than 200 researchers from around the world, my team has developed a unique toolkit to help those involved in global research reflect on ethical challenges and solutions.

You can view the toolkit here

About the toolkit

We designed this toolkit to help researchers think about the many ethical issues that can exist throughout the lifecycle of a global project – from idea and proposal development, to data collection and analysis, through to dissemination and impact. It was developed with researchers from more 30 countries, six continents, and over 60 disciplines and is intended to be a springboard to identifying ethical solutions and ethical action.

Why we developed the toolkit

Over the past 20 years, the complexity and global impact of problems facing disadvantaged communities around the world has resulted in increasing collaboration across countries and sectors, and between scientists, practitioners and service providers. This move toward global partnerships between developed and developing countries poses unique challenges in identifying and resolving issues of research ethics and integrity.

The availability of large international development research funds, such as the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), has further increased the appetite for researchers to move into this space. Recognising that this change in research focus required a change in attitude towards ethics, myself and a team of researchers at the University* worked with Edinburgh Research Office to design a project to address this.

Initially, we completed a literature review to explore the ethical challenges in global research. We reviewed 2,272 papers and analysed 65 in depth. The process highlighted the many ethical conflicts experienced in global collaborative research. These largely related to different cultural approaches, differing ethics regulations across countries, and dynamics of power among collaborating countries that reflected neo-colonial practices in research.

These findings reflected our own experiences and we decided to bring researchers together to examine these challenges (and solutions) in more detail. From preliminary conversations, a vibrant discussion began with colleagues around the globe and we committed to sharing these ideas through a free-access toolkit for researchers, research teams and research institutions.  Instead of offering rigid standards, researchers told us they wanted a guided opportunity to reflect on ethical dilemmas, and consider context-responsive solutions. To ensure the toolkit was representative, we decided to work collaboratively in a bottom-up approach.

The enthusiasm and input from our partners led to five workshops in Edinburgh, 17 roundtables of experts in other countries, and the creation of a 40-page toolkit reflecting these conversations. It was quickly fed back to us that a more accessible version would be appreciated, so we created a website breaking down the content of the document and a pocket guide pdf version. To make the toolkit accessible to all researchers, we’ve produced the pocket guide in 10 languages (with more on the way!).

The main ideas in the toolkit

The main ideas captured in our workshops and reflected in the toolkit are:

  1. The research journey: Our colleagues made clear that ethics must be present throughout the research journey (beyond the simple application to the ethics committee). Ethics is a central ingredient of global research, from the planning of the idea and the formation of the team, through data collection and analysis of results, to the application of results and to the research impact and legacy.
  2. Ethical challenges are multidimensional and complex but we can better understand this complexity by considering four different perspectives Place, People, Principles and Precedents:
    • Place reminds us to consider ethical challenges in context – for example considering the impact of cultural and language differences between the research team and the participating communities;
    • People are a core element of understanding ethical challenges. Human relationships involving participants, communities, research team members etc. are essential in shaping ethical solutions;
    • Principles provide us with a worldview and sound values to influence decision making during the research process, especially where we are confronted with unprecedented challenges;
    • Precedents help us to understand the way in which the previous research and regulations can guide solutions.

The “4Ps” provide a multidimensional perspective for reflection and allow us to identify where strong solutions can be found. To help researchers use this reflective process when analysing complex problems, we created a template to work on real cases that follow this logic.

Collaboration is key

One of the things that makes us proud of the toolkit is that it was a truly collaborative endeavour. The toolkit represents the voices of our global colleagues and, in doing so, brings together knowledge and expertise that captures the realities and challenges of research across jurisdictions and in complex contexts.

Research must always be carried out in accordance with international ethical standards and the regulations of each country. However, often these regulations do not cover the kinds of complex challenges that we face in the field. The toolkit offers a complementary, self-driven, opportunity for researchers and research teams to consider and analyse ethical challenges as they come across them during their research journey. The researchers who contributed to this toolkit believe that this view complements that of traditional ethics guidelines and regulations.

Planning for the future

We are just starting Phase II of this project, which is all about translating the toolkit into practice by engaging researchers, funders, ethics committees and NGOs with its content and values. Our global research network has conveyed a desire for more translational tools to assist researchers and institutions to integrate the framework into daily business and so we’ll be working with our partners to achieve this.

We are aware that this model will be incomplete and needs to be under continuous review. We are more than happy to receive suggestions. Our email is ethicalglobalresearch@ed.ac.uk .

The toolkit is available at: www.ethical-global-research.ed.ac.uk .

The research team*

The research team included Professor Liz Grant (Director Global Health Academy, University of Edinburgh), Professor Corinne Reid (Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, Victoria University), Dr Cristóbal Guerra (Universidad Santo Tomás, Chile) and Matilda Anderson (University of Edinburgh).

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