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Gauteng Community of Practice for Research Ethics and Integrity launched

- Wits University

Wits is amongst the universities in Gauteng to establish this voluntary body, a platform to address common problems in the research ethics and integrity sphere.

South African universities are producing growing quantities of discovery, applied, and innovative research, which increasingly impacts society and humanity. Universities have a public interest obligation to significantly sharpen their focus on research ethics and integrity. 

Thus, Gauteng universities in association with the Southern African Research & Innovation Management Association (SARIMA) and the Department of Trade and Innovation (DTI) have launched a Community of Practice (CoP) for Research Ethics and Integrity.

Wits University, the University of South Africa (UNISA), the DSI and SARIMA collaborated to launch the Gauteng CoP, which aims to strengthen the capacity of the province’s universities to embed ethical and integrity practices amongst researchers.

“Society depends on researchers to produce credible, responsible and rigorous research and the new Community of Practice will contribute to this by providing much-needed support to the research administrators and managers who work with research ethics and integrity matters,” says Eleni Flack-Davison, Legal Advisor, Research Compliance Manager and Head: Office of Research Integrity in the Research Office at Wits University. “The Community of Practice will also serve as a platform to collectively voice any concerns about government policy on research ethics and integrity,”

Membership of the Gauteng Community of Practice (CoP) is open to all university research administrators and managers, as well as to Chairs and members of research ethics and integrity committees.

Some of the issues the CoP aims to address include:

  • Plagiarism
  • Falsification
  • fabrication of research
  • questionable research practices such as ghost authorship and honorary authorship
  • research projects conducted without ethical clearance
  • Text-recycling, also known as self-plagiarism.

The Gauteng CoP virtual launch on Thursday, 10 September 2020, brought together the research ethics and management community from institutions across the country.

Through online presentations, research administrators and managers, as well as academics, pooled resources towards promoting international and local best practice in the field. [Click to listen to and see the seven launch presentations].

An ethical compass

Ames Dhai, Visiting Professor in the School of Clinical Medicine at Wits, specialist ethicist in the Office of the President, and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council, opened proceedings at the Gauteng CoP virtual launch.

In her presentation, Ethics and Regulations in the Context of the Covid-19 Pandemic: Towards a Community of Practice for Research Ethics and Integrity Administrators and Managers in Gauteng, Dhai alluded to the need for “an ethical compass to chart a course during pandemics”, given that pandemics are increasing in frequency and that Covid-19 is not the first pandemic, nor will it be the last. The ethical compass is based on three values, said Dhai, as per the Belmont Report of 1979

  1. Reduce suffering
  2. Fairness
  3. Equal respect 

It’s important to ask whose needs are being met and to identify who defined these needs, and to be inclusive and transparent – which the South African government has lacked in handling the pandemic, says Dhai. 

“Ethics must inform regulation”, she said, and outlined the regulatory environment, which includes the Health Professions Council of SA operating in accordance with the National Health Act (NHA), and the Bill of Rights, which govern people. Dhai indicated that a Regulatory Ethics Committee (REC) should establish procedures for expedited review, for example, for vaccine development, (the definition of the NHA, no. 61 of 2003 allows for expedited review), as “overly restrictive” RECs could inhibit drug development. However, processes must not occur rapidly, she cautioned.

Research Ethics in Support of the Covid-19 Pandemic (RESCOP) aims to ensure the application of ethics when a patient dies and has not provided delayed consent. Dhai referred to an article she co-authored and published in the Journal of Bioethics and Law in July 2020, titled:  Consent in health research with incapacitated adults in a time of pandemic: The National Health Research Ethics Council needs to urgently reassess its guideline. RESCOP supports rapid review, said Dhai, but only if “reciprocal recognition” exists and participants’ rights are adhered to and global best practices followed. 

The Gauteng Community of Practice

Eleni Flack-Davison, Research Compliance Manager Wits; Retha Visagie, Research Integrity Manager at UNISA; Sidney Engelbrecht, Research Ethics Manager at UCT; and Tanya Coetze of SU presented Establishing a Community of Practice in Research Ethics and Integrity: Gauteng Region.

They outlined the visions, principles and missions of the Gauteng CoP and the framework for its operation. They highlighted the benefits of membership, which include:

  • Creating a support network for members
  • Accelerating professional development and capability across different universities
  • Breaking down organizational silos
  • Sharing knowledge and building better practice

Membership is open to research professionals, administrators and administrative assistants (i.e., Individuals sharing similar interests - the support system behind RECs and Integrity Offices). Email to join.

Harry Maishe Bopape, Director: Research Support at UNISA and a key partner of the Gauteng CoP, presented on Research ethics and integrity management: Why does it matter? Bopape said research ethics and integrity is globally a “strategic priority” and that “trust is at the heart of the research process”. “Lack of ethics undermines the knowledge base,” he said. 

Lessons from the Western Cape CoP 

The Gauteng CoP for Research Ethics and Integrity is the second such community in South Africa to have the backing of SARIMA and the DSI, after the Western Cape CoP. Sidney Engelbrecht, Research Ethics Manager at UCT and a SARIMA committee members presented the findings of a survey SARIMA conducted, Gauging the need for research ethics training in South African Developing Countries –A SARIMA Initiative. This research will be published in a journal article.

He shared his Reflections on the Establishment of Research Ethics and Integrity CoPs and said collaboration is key and interaction with peers is essential. He stressed that professional development is crucial for future research professionals to become facilitators of research and the need to create and enabling environment.

Reflections from Stellenbosch

Maléne Fouché Director: Research Integrity and National Grants Division for Research Development at Stellenbosch University (SU) presented on Building a professional ethics team: Reflections from Stellenbosch University. She profiled an ethics administrator as having a heart, an interest in research ethics, and an eternal students. Fouché said SU will host the 7th World Conference on Research Integrity in Cape Town on 29 May to 1 June 2022. Wits Research Director, Dr Robin Drennan, and Flack-Davison are special advisors to this conference’s Local Organising Committee. 

Towards professional development in research ethics and integrity

Therina Theron, SARIMA president and Senior Director: Research and Innovation, Stellenbosch University presented a Strategic Perspective on Research Ethics and Integrity in the context of Developing Professionals. She outlined the importance of research and innovation (R&I) management in research institutions and the importance of research integrity throughout the process.

Theron said there is a tension in universities between supporting both researchers and institutions, and this tension is most apparent in ethics committees. Knowing the internal research management landscape is critical, she said. She likened a university to a tree that must produce fruit – rooted in funding and great minds, the tree produces publications and branches into social impact. The role of the research manager is critical to “enrich the soil”. Theron referenced her article published in Nature in 2018: Discovery relies on strong support staff – a lack of trained administrators is holding African scientists back. 

Theron invited the research community to use the SARIMA offering to advance research management and innovation, particularly in Africa. “This Community of Practice is part of this agenda,” she concluded, adding that SU now offers the first postgraduate Diploma in Research Management and Administration.