• Research affects policy and thus our daily lives directly and indirectly
• When compromised, it can gravely affect our integrity, environments and even existence
This week, Kenyatta University used grounds of gross research misconduct to resolutely revoke a PhD degree that had been awarded in 2018 to one of its students. The press reported that the affected student had irresponsibly and unethically presented research findings obtained from the work of a student from another institution across the continent.
In fact, the same research had been the basis of an award in another country already. This case of serious plagiarism has brought to the fore the centrality of research ethics in our national discourse. What role does it play in preparing our researchers and research students at postgraduate levels especially?
Early this month, a group of scholars drawn from across East Africa met in Karatina University for a four-day academic conference on Research Ethics.
The conference was held from September 3-5 at the main campus of the university in Nyeri county by the slopes of Mount Kenya. It brought together a team of about 30 scholars, led by Dr Kellen Kiambati, an internationally acclaimed don and researcher from Karatina University.
The event was sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), whose regional office is based in Nairobi but services Tanzania and Uganda, too.
The main agenda was to brainstorm on ethics and integrity in the research work being done in higher education contexts regionally, and to come up with a programmatic approach.
This is a topic that has not received considerable focus in local and regional knowledge communities, in spite of the important place it occupies globally.
Ethics in research deals mainly with the frameworks for the conduct of research that is accountable, reliable, valid and transparent. Research ethics is a sector that should be at the epicentre of all activities of knowledge production, consumption and transactions, especially at the tertiary levels of learning and teaching.
The scholars who met in Karatina were keen on finding a structure that was sustainable for the education of our local researchers on this angle of research responsibility and transparency. It is for this reason that the conference took the form of a multipliers lounge or think tank. The idea was to come up with a core team that could be trained and later train others who could then cascade the same to their networks and institutions.
The core team was made up of experts drawn from various disciplines, such as economics, engineering, medical sciences, chemistry, commerce, theology, performing arts, literature, linguistics, nutrition and agriculture.
The experts were staff who taught aspects of research methods and are researchers in their own right at various echelons of teaching institutions, such as Kenyatta University, MMUST, SEKU, Kibabii University, Karatina University, Moi University and University of Eldoret (all from Kenya).
Others were drawn from universities from Uganda, such as Makerere University, Lira University, Kyambogo University, Mbarara University, Gulu University and Islamic University of Mbale.
The Tanzanian institutions included University of Dodoma, Mzumbe University, Ardhi University and Arusha Technical College.
They called for the need for universities of the region to ensure high ethical standards to offer meaningful and sustainable inputs to national development and policymaking bodies.
It was noted that one of the limitations of academic conferences is their discriminative angle. They do not at times bring on board other practitioners and decision-makers, whose work or offices or institutions are stakeholders in the research environment where universities operate.
To remedy the situation, the Karatina summit agreed that there be a second phase after the delegates had returned to their various institutions and held local research ethics training and coaching events.
The second phase will then occur in December and will be a moment for taking stock of the results of the first phase and its subsequent replicated trainings across the region. This second phase may bring on board the other stakeholders, including those from government and other relevant institutions.
The overall goal is to work towards the establishment of Research Ethics committees at various levels, locally, nationally, regionally and institutionally. Such committees can serve many functions but primarily will protect the integrity of research processes and ensure that our research meets global standards of excellence and transparency.
Research is not an island. It affects policy and thereby affects our daily lives directly and indirectly. When it is compromised, it can lead to grave consequences that touch on all aspects of our integrity, environments and even existence.
Speaking to the Star, Dr Kiambati, at the end of the event, said, “The aim of this Ethics in Social Science Research regional summit is to build in phases capacity for select East Africa Social Science Researchers, who in turn will become multipliers in their respective institutions.” She believes that such an endeavour can help against cases like the one from Kenyatta University that was swiftly and commendably resolved.
Indeed, universities and other knowledge bodies need to accord more attention to the subject of ethics in research. This will help to enhance the institutionalisation of research ethics culture in East Africa’s universities through capacity building.
It can lead to the establishment of sustainable partnerships at national/regional levels for advancing research ethics in social science research. Ultimately, such concerted efforts can facilitate the creation of research ethics communities of practice in East African Universities.
Such initiatives will contribute towards the curbing of the worrying trend in our higher education sector, exemplified by the case of research misconduct reported above that has captured the national limelight and can be avoided.
Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University