This blog post draws its inspiration from extensive experience in collaborative research. It begins with an analysis of the benefits of the knowledge production process and the challenges of collaborative research in order to understand the behaviour and interests of different stakeholders. My main argument is that the determination of certain actors to get their hands on funds intended for research and on academic publications are the key drivers of the ethical abuses observed in collaborative research.
For nearly eight years, initially as an individual researcher and later as a research team manager, I worked with doctoral students seeking access to their research fields; consultants working for international organisations; regional or local organisations subcontracted by donor agencies; professors or those involved in international networks and consortia, etc. What all these research partners have in common is that they rely on research assistants, but each on the basis of specific contracts of collaboration. Doctoral students, for example, usually don’t offer contracts to their assistants because they lack the necessary resources and thus can only offer minimal compensation. International consultants usually act as “researcher-bosses”: they follow the rules of the funding schemes imposed by those paying them and offer standard contracts that are more or less “attractive”. NGOs in most cases have a lot of resources but tend to be ideologically driven and translate these “values” into their professional interactions. And finally, university professors are usually open and cooperative, but are also bound by the research funders and their logics.
Collaborative research is committed to a division of labour. To summarise, two different blocks emerge from the power relationships that characterise the production of knowledge. The first block includes (i) the “donor” who provides the research funding and determines the conditions on how to get access to it and what should be the deliverables and their format; (ii) universities and/or researchers from the Global North; and, increasingly, (iii) NGOs involved in action research in support of their interventions. The second block, which is more heterogenous, is composed of (i) researchers employed by universities and aspiring to academic careers; (ii) “jobber researchers”, who do research mainly as a means of survival; and (iii) private or university-affiliated research institutions. The role of this block is generally limited to the execution of research activities, imposed by and based on the instructions from researchers or donors in the first block.
The actors in the first block have access to research funding and usually have full control over the research process. They determine the code of conduct and the terms of reference and try to ensure that a minimum of the research objectives is appropriated by recruited research assistants through short-term training programmes. The second block is composed of “academic proletarians”. Abandoned by their governments, which should in principle fund their research, they lack laboratories, research budgets, or easy access to the knowledge industry. They only have their brains and skills to offer to potential research partners. Their role is mainly limited to the mobilisation of their know-how and social capital in order to get access to the field and collect data.
A “Southern coordinator” is usually the one facilitating the connection between the two blocks and is in regular contact with both the research donor or leader in the North and research assistants based in the South. This “coordinator” may be an individual or a local organisation acting as a mediator between the two blocks. While such division of labour may appear innocuous, it’s generally based on a certain businessisation of research that is crossing ethical margins. The Southern coordinator is a facilitator and ‒ sometimes ‒ a local lead of the research. Having often assumed these roles, I have come to realise that it’s not always a comfortable position to be in. For example, the Southern coordinator has to deal single-handedly with unexpected situations that aren’t covered by the research budget and may obstruct the whole process. As research leader, the coordinator is considered one of the “Northern commissioners” of the project because he or she is very demanding when it comes to research deliverables, while at the same time not in a capacity to meet certain of the Southern assistants’ requirements with respect to their security, compensation, and academic ambitions. In short, the Southern coordinator is alone in finding a way out of a number of constraints and dilemmas and ensuring success in producing the expected results. Yet at what cost?
In addition to academic dividends, each partner enjoys a number of financial benefits from this process. But for all these benefits, it’s the “partners” of the first block who determine the conditions of collaboration and the principles of division. During my eight years of experience, very few of them shared information about the budgets as approved by the donors. A portion of these budgets is allocated to the “Southern coordinator”, who has to report expenses according to the formats imposed by the research donors that often aren’t adapted to the realities of the field. Consequently, next to the fixed and formal standards, an alternative set of norms of practice develops that is in sharp contrast to ethical guidelines. So in practice two different budgets often coexist, the one agreed to with the donor (with which the financial report has to be aligned) and another, much more “flexible” and more practical one which takes into account the “realities of the field” to which “internal accounting” has to accommodate.
At the same time, this lack of financial transparency – in addition to the lack of structural budgets for local research entities – often leads to informal practices and forms of corruption to extract personal benefits from the research project. On the one hand, the local subcontracting institutions often take more than 20% of the budget for what are described as “lodging and administrative costs”, despite the fact that no lodging has been paid for and “administrative costs” aren’t clearly specified. On the other hand, the same subcontractors often feel forced to informally redistribute a portion of the funds received to whoever provided them with opportunity to conduct the research. This businessisation of research has become a standardised practice with the involvement of international NGOs in academic research. These INGOs invest huge resources (such as lucrative fees, field work costs, per diems, facilitation fees, etc.). Consequently, all the actors involved in the research process want to have a share of the benefits (locally called “research indicators”). A researcher working for a local organisation put it this way: “Our organisation is often co-opted (by intermediaries) for surveys in conflict-affected areas. But the selection of the people who do the field work is not done at random. They must be in a position to give ‘indicators’ [the financial compensation for having obtained the project] to the programme officer of the intermediary organisation.” In other words, part of the salary being paid to research assistants returns to those who recruited them.
For nearly three years, people have been speaking out in certain university communities in the North, denouncing practices that are in conflict with ethical standards guiding the research process. These concerns have been raised at several levels but have not yet elicited the desired changes. In fact, all collaborative research policies and practices need to be reconsidered. While it’s obvious that each partner involved has a role to play in the research cycle, it’s the donor who has decisive control. It’s the donor who provides the resources, so it’s the donor’s responsibility to adapt the rules of the game and make these fair to every participant in the research process. Bridging the gap between the rational and emotional aspects of research, between formal and practical norms, and between ethical and instrumental standards is just a first step. Partners in research, among whom donors are at the front of the chain, should realign their policies with respect to how collaborative research projects are conducted. Encouraging a real participatory approach in any research consortium is a necessary avenue that needs further exploration.
Godefroid Muzalia is professor at the dept. of History and Social Sciences and directs the Groupe d’Etudes sur les Conflits et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH), at the Institut Supérieur Pédagogique de Bukavu