Ethical dimensions of transdisciplinary research

Transdisciplinary research is challenging since it involves many different stakeholder groups, which might have completely different interests in the research. These stakeholder groups may have different values, and power inequities may exist among the groups. Working across power imbalances and with different actor groups, that may be vulnerable, requires close attention to ethical aspects.

Do no harm

Even when co-creation of knowledge focuses on research priorities of the population, there may still be harmful effects for the community or for powerless minorities. Requesting that research collaborations and partners reflect not only on the potential benefits in terms of the research topic but also on potential negative impact can help avoid harmful consequences. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, you can access ‘Improving impacts of research partnerships’ – where you can find a link for free download of this book.

Focus on priorities of partner country / stakeholders

Focusing on the explicit national or regional priorities of partner countries increases the potential for equality in research partnerships and research involving various stakeholder groups. This should happen from research preparation, to conduct, to sharing of benefits.

Addressing the extent to which the research or innovation being undertaken is relevant to local communities can increase the chance of translating important issues into sustainable solutions.

Stakeholders concerned by the research have to influence studies or research programs at the earliest possible stage and at stages where it most impacts their own ability to learn, contribute, or participate. If you would like to explore the topic further, we invite you to investigate the 11 principles (Principles 1 & 2) and the 7 key questions (Questions 2, 3, 4 & 6) and watch videos 1 and 2 by the Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries (KFPE).

Focus on skills, share responsibilities

Deciding on each partner’s aims, methods, goals, and plans for participating in specific research collaborations at an early stage of the partnership is crucial to achieving mutual understanding on roles, responsibilities, and contributions of individuals and institutions involved. It increases a sense of ownership and commitment resulting in an increased performance. Any partnership depends on each partner’s contribution and skills. It is advisable to clarify and assign the responsibilities of partners (see also KFPE Guidelines Principles 2, 3, 4 & 5; Questions 5 & 6).

Capacity building, strengthen missing capacities at all levels

Successful collaborations are also dependent on the institutional / organisational ability to manage all the processes surrounding research, like project management, financial management, contracting, and contract negotiations. Therefore, institutions in the role of ‘lead partner’ (and funding agencies) have a special responsibility to assess key management competencies of partners and to provide appropriate supporting actions where needed throughout the research process (see KFPE Principles 6 & 11; Questions 5, 6 & 7). Capacity strengthening and capacity development are long-term processes that are key to sustainable knowledge production. The challenge lies in translating individually held capacities into sustainable, institutional capacities. In addition, the capacities of different stakeholder groups must also be strengthened to develop partnerships on more equal footing (see also this video).

Benefit sharing

It is challenging to iron out disparities between partners with regard to academic status and decision power, and also towards and among different stakeholder groups. Therefore, it is essential to create transparency in financial matters and to assess profits and merits of research activities in advance on a fair allocation to all partners, including authorship, publication, data management, data analysis, patent rights etc (Memorandum of Understanding).

Responsibilities for funders

Funding organisations have a lot of power to steer research programmes, and they have a responsibility towards the weaker partner. Therefore, KFPE and United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) organised a workshop to address such questions. Some important elements, which came out of this workshop are:

Engaging stakeholders from the Global South in the development of a North-South research programme is important to ensure that the programmes address the priorities of developing countries. Funders should engage stakeholders from the Global South more effectively in various ways. The workshop highlighted the need to:

  • Embed equitable partnership principles throughout the funding cycle
  • Empower researchers to engage in equitable partnerships and
  • Design research programmes with impact in mind

In addition, it gives advice on how funders could engage more on various levels to make N-S research programs more equitable and more effective. Read more about this topic here.

How did you deal with ethical aspects in your projects? What aspects were especially important for you? What additional aspects would you recommend including?

Maybe you could find a friend, co-worker or peer in your institution to whom you can explain the complex ethical dimensions of TDR. Explaining a topic to others can often help to better understand it.

Author: Dr. Jon-Andri Lys

Further reading:

COHRED provides specific expertise in contract negotiation and contracting through its Fair Research Contracting group and via the Research Fair Initiative you can find many additional and helpful resources.