4 May 2022

Decolonising research: How can we ensure research is ethical?

Brooke Research Advisor Ruth Jobling discusses the importance of ethics and context when conducting research around the world.

When conducting research, it’s important we acknowledge that ethics and context will vary between countries, as well as socio-economic and cultural norms. For example, many communities Brooke works with have low levels of literacy and lack awareness of research as a concept. In this scenario, it is therefore essential that we dedicate more time and resources to fill the knowledge gap and ensure participants can make a genuinely informed choice about whether to participate or not.

Brooke recently teamed up with the Royal Veterinary College to explore the concept of research ethics. We wanted to understand what our researchers across Africa, Asia and Central America believe are the most important ethical concerns that they have when conducting research in their particular context. The purpose of the research was to reflect on what we are doing now and how we might improve to continue upholding our commitment to ethical research.

In part the findings were not unexpected, the researchers highlighted aspects of research ethics that have been central to Brooke’s approach: Means of gaining and recording informed consent that are appropriate to local customs; ensuring that the welfare of any animals present while owners take part in surveys/interviews/focus group discussions is upheld; ensuring sensitive topics are addressed with care and anonymity is preserved and; ensuring transparency in all aspects of the research (e.g. in explaining the purpose, the methods and integrity of the conclusions). Yet, some of the findings shone a light on other issues and questioned whether our current level of transparency is enough.

The research findings indicated that in order for INGO research to be ethical it should acknowledge issues that communities prioritise. On the surface it may seem that working equid welfare is often not a priority, particularly when issues around human health, environmental shocks and/or livelihoods may be more pressing. Applying a One Health or One Welfare lens when developing research may help to position the research question within the shared environment of the community’s priorities, in turn assisting any research to be planned in a way that enables it to have greater relevance and possibly greater impact. Brooke researchers considered representation of local voices in ethical review as critical to ethical research. Including local voices in ethical review was considered important to ensure that an understanding of the context is imbedded into all stages in the research process, and as an important step in further decentralising the research process and better inclusion of local expertise.

All of these findings very much resonate with the wider movement for equitable research, including decolonising science. These movements highlight that much more can be done to centre the communities and the expertise of local researchers. Our research further signifies the moral responsibility for equitable partnerships.

A number of resources set out guides to achieving equitable research. For example, the work of the Rethinking Research Collaborative and the UKCRD Guidance for Safeguarding in International Development Research and the SOAS Decolonising Research Initiative. Despite fantastic resources, the journey to truly equitable research can sometimes feel overwhelming. This research indicated things that Brooke can change today that will make an immediate difference while we continue on the journey. Those things are:

  1. Making a more detailed plan on how we engage communities before, during and after research projects.
  2. Including the perspectives of local actors in the ethical review process.  
  3. Questioning how our research priorities interact with communities' priorities.

You can find out more about Brooke’s project with the Royal Veterinary College in our latest Research Review, here.