Unfortunately, there are many types of exploitative research practices. "Helicopter research" is when high-income researchers or those who are otherwise privileged conduct research in lower-income settings. This may include studies with historically marginalized groups or communities. These research are conducted without the involvement of local researchers or communities in the design, publication, and conceptualization of the research. "Ethics Dumping" is when similarly wealthy researchers export unsavory or unpleasant experiments and studies to lower income or less-privileged settings with less oversight or different ethical standards.
These behaviors are unacceptable. These behaviours are also harmful for research. Research is often denied critical context and expertise. Unfortunately, for centuries exploitative practices have been a way that researchers around the globe conducted research in the global south. Even though the south has increased its ability to conduct its own research, some elements of these practices still persist.
Nature Portfolio has introduced a new approach to improve inclusion and ethics in its journals (including Nature, and all Nature Portfolio journals). This move is made as journals struggle with similar issues, and as the Seventh World Conference on Research Integrity in Cape Town, South Africa prepares to publish an appeal for action on these issues.
There are many examples of research that is still uneven across different fields. A sample of African studies on various infectious diseases was subject to an analysis1. It found that less than half of the studies had African authors as their first or last authors. A second report2 found that only two-thirds (33%) of the high-impact geoscience articles about Africa were written by African authors.
Authors from the global north contributed nearly three quarters of all papers published between 1990-1999 in top 20 international journals in development research.
Researchers in Africa released guidelines in 2018 on how to protect data and samples from the global south. However, it is necessary to change centuries of bad practices by working together across the research community.
The Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings is a European Union-funded project that promotes inclusion and ethics in Nature. It was also developed by TRUST, a European Union-funded research ethics project, and the San Code of Research Ethics which was developed by San Indigenous people in Southern Africa.
Nature's new guidelines will encourage its journal editors, authors, and reviewers, to use the Global Code to guide their research development, conduct, review, and communicate. We want authors to be open about ethics and inclusion. We are asking authors to use Nature's editorial policy checklist to include an optional disclosure statement about inclusion and ethics. This can be shared with reviewers, and then published in the final paper. The editors can request authors to submit a statement at their discretion.
We have created questions based on key elements of the Global Code to assist authors in creating such statements. These questions include: Did the research design and execution involve local scientists? Is the research relevant locally? Is there a plan to share the results of the research? Did the research meet the highest standards in areas where environmental protection or animal welfare laws were less strict than those of the local area?
To improve the quality and justice of citations, we encourage authors to cite relevant regional and local research. A study4 published in May found that scientific papers written by researchers from the United States, China, and the United Kingdom are more likely than similar papers from other countries.
Nature's new approach to peer review also seeks to ensure that communities and regions are represented in the process.
We don't have all the answers and we still need to work out all the nuances. It might be worthwhile to search for local contributors when researchers use publicly available secondary data5. This will add cultural context and help to appreciate local impacts.
These issues are not being addressed by nature alone. PLOS, an open-access publisher, announced last year a policy to combat helicopter research. A group of researchers, including editors of Anesthesia and BMJ Global Health, proposed6 that journals ask authors from studies in low- or middle-income countries to provide statements explaining how equity was promoted in their work. This year's World Conference on Research Integrity will likely highlight inequity in research collaborations and unfair practices as part of research integrity.
All stakeholders, funders, institutions and publishers, as well as researchers, need to think about how they can collaborate to end exclusionary systemic legacies.