Dr. Nadia A. Sam-Agudu writes on how you can provide value and quality to international research collaborations, demonstrate your knowledge as an active participant, and make sure you are fully recognized for your contributions.
This blogpost was partly inspired by a recent story in Retraction Watch, where Global North researchers published findings from a measles study conducted in Nigeria. Nigerian personnel were notably absent from both the author list and acknowledgements, and appropriate local ethical approval was also not documented. The paper was eventually retracted from PLOS One.
Dr. Sam-Agudu is a pediatrician and clinician-scientist with expertise in infectious diseases and implementation research in resource-limited settings. She focuses on health interventions for the prevention and control of HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis among African children. Dr. Sam-Agudu is also committed to skill-building and high-level competency for research among locally-based African scientists. She is a member of the Nigeria Implementation Science Alliance (NISA) and leads the Central and West Africa Implementation Science Alliance (CAWISA).
Calls to decolonize global health have recently intensified. These calls demand for equitable representation of the Global South in global health, and for valuing and documenting its contributions in generating research evidence. While the Global North needs to re-evaluate and drastically change its approach to North-South collaborations, the Global South should also push for and actively make changes to achieve more equitable partnerships. I have been a participant on both sides of these partnerships, and the following tips are based on my professional knowledge and experience.
- If you're not actively involved in research, continuously educate yourself, whether you were formally trained or not. Elevate your knowledge and skills and find local researchers to learn from. One reason why Global South personnel are often excluded from, or are undervalued in collaborations is the assumption (sometimes true) that they are not up to par.
- Don't sign up as a collaborator and/or data provider for a research project without reading and understanding the proposed or approved study protocol.
- You can provide exceptional value as a local collaborator if you can navigate the ethical approvals process. Ask about ethical approvals and assist in applications for local ethical review. This can often be a huge hassle and protracted process for your prospective collaborators, especially for large, multisite studies. Institutional Review Board approvals are also needed for waivers of ethical oversight.
- Don’t wait for an opportunity to collaborate on a project before getting or updating your ethics training. Get your Good Clinical Practice and/or Human Subject Research certificates as soon as possible and maintain your certification. Additional certification may be required depending on the project and/or country. Two of the most popular resources (the CITI Program and TRREE) are free for most people. I personally will not hire any research staff until they have completed or updated their ethics certification.
- Once you decide to collaborate, do so with integrity and steer clear of scientific misconduct. Enough said.
- Provide input to project planning, implementation and/or reporting. Demonstrate your scientific and local contextual knowledge. Whether you are paid or not, don't be a passive participant. Make your presence count.
- Ask about your role in project abstracts and manuscripts up-front. Depending on your role, you and/or representatives from your organization may co-author every paper, some papers, or just one. However, make sure you ask, and when the abstract or paper is being developed, find out how the order of authors is determined. Collaborators in the Global South often miss out on co-authorship because they did not ask or were not invited by the (usually Global North) team leadership to contribute.
- When invited to co-author, make a meaningful contribution. It is disappointing to see Global South collaborators invited to co-author papers and contribute little to nothing to the final product. We need to change this. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and other professional entities provide basic guidance. Research teams often have their own internal authorship rules that are adapted from these basics. If you can't or won't fulfil authorship criteria, you may get a named acknowledgement with your permission. Whether or not you're named, ensure your local organization’s participation and contribution (if any) is acknowledged.
- Commit to the collective effort to end helicopter-type research. The Global South should actively participate in authorship of work that they contribute to. We should not be included in projects as tokens, nor should we be gifted authorships. We should not be unjustifiably excluded from publications either.
- Lastly, collaborations are key to accelerating a research career; it is unlikely for a researcher to achieve maximum potential without collaborations. My simple recipe for collaborations:
- Be responsive - especially to email communications;
- Give value. Make contributions so impactful and memorable that collaborators will want to work with you again and again;
- Be fairly pleasant to work with. Nobody likes working with difficult people.
Scientific authorship is the best documentation of your research contributions and expertise. It is where the crux of scientific career advancement lies. Taken alone, paid contracts or associations with collaborative projects will contribute relatively little to your career profile. So, go and make your mark, and get published.
Dr. Nadia A. Sam-Agudu (MD, CTropMed)
- Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics and Institute of Human Virology, University of Maryland School of Medicine;
- Senior Technical Advisor, Pediatric and Adolescent HIV and Research Scientist, International Research Center of Excellence, Institute of Human Virology Nigeria, Abuja, Nigeria.
- Senior Lecturer, Department of Paediatrics, University of Cape Coast School of Medical Sciences, Cape Coast, Ghana.