Global Responsibilities

I was a graduate student in the mid 1970s. In those days computers were large beasts that were festooned with blinking lights, that ate punched cards and spewed out answers on large sheets of paper. The internet was in its infancy. Travel was expensive and infrequent, and communication, which was by mail, meant that answers to letters typically took a month or so. Collaborations with colleagues outside one’s own institution was rare, usually happening only during sabbaticals or extended visits…

coverThe practice of scientific research has evolved radically in the past few decades, largely due to the effects of globalization. Dramatically improved communication and significantly enhanced computation have contributed greatly to making scientific research a global enterprise. Many more scientific papers in many more areas of science today tend to involve large numbers of authors, and as the problems addressed become more complex, these different authors tend to be from different disciplines, often from different institutions, and quite often from different countries.

 Even in my own research in the past decades, things have changed quite drastically. Between 2006 and 2015, I estimate that I have written papers with colleagues from over 40 different institutions in a dozen or so different countries. The average number of authors on my papers is about 3.5, and I have not even met about 25 of my co-authors. In the ten years between 1986 and 1995 by contrast, the average number of authors on my papers was 2.5, the total number of different institutions was about 15, my coauthors were from about 7 different countries and I had not met only three of them. (Not having met one’s coauthors being a strange way to characterize the globalization of research! Or its multidisciplinarity!)

 Such numbers are probably not atypical, and reflect the changes brought about not just by globalization and enhanced communication and mobility, but also by the realization of shared scientific goals and the advantages of collaborative research. Looking at the patterns of scientific publication over the past fifteen or more years, one can conservatively estimate that between 10 and 15% of the papers that are published by Indians is in collaboration with researchers based outside India. This estimate doubles when one adds all other countries, and if one were to restrict the count to the last decade, to high-impact journals, or to authors from the better known institutes in the country, the proportion of papers which result from international collaborations is even higher.

Trust is a crucial component in carrying out such collaborative research. One has to believe in the reliability of results communicated by one’s collaborators, some of who one may not have even met. And as is becoming painfully evident there are numerous ways in which the trust can be broken. Deliberately, as in the cases of fraud, but also inadvertently, when cultural cues are misread and the work (or other) ethics of different cultures clash. In this context, having a properly articulated code of conduct that is generally accepted is very valuable. A recent book Doing Global Science: A guide to responsible conduct in the global research enterprise tries to provide just that.

Doing Global Science is timely, and merits careful consideration of all, researchers and science administrators alike. IAP, the Inter-Academy Partnership, a global network of science academies, formed a committee that has authored the book. Professor Indira Nath of the AIIMS, from India and E.-L. Winnacker, President of the German Research Foundation were the co-chairs of the Committee on Research Integrity. They have a blogpost on the Science website, and a Commentary in the latest issue of Current Science.

 The book is short, but covers a range of issues that touch upon ethical matters that have surely confronted anyone who does research. The titles of some of the ten basic chapters are indicative: “Planning and Preparing for Research”, “Preventing the Misuse of Research and Technology”, “The Researcher’s Responsibilities to Society”, “Preventing and Addressing Irresponsible Practice”, “Aligning Incentives with Responsible Research” and  “Reporting Research Results”. What is most culturally sensitive is the presentation of case studies and scenarios (that seem all too familiar!) where the reader is encouraged to provide analysis and resolution.

As the blurb on the Princeton University Press website says, “The book places special emphasis on the international and highly networked environment in which modern research is done, presenting science as an enterprise that is being transformed by globalization, interdisciplinary research projects, team science, and information technologies.”

The book is not ponderous, nor is it particularly verbose, covering all that it has to say in something like 110 pages, give or take a few. The difficulty of finding a universally acceptable code of conduct that can be encapsulated in something like a scientist’s Hippocratic Oath is a very real one. Until such a code comes into being,  reading this book and internalizing the message will have to be a (not so poor) substitute.

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