Research Fairness Initiative: Improving partnerships through transparency


by Kirsty Klipp

I began an internship with the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) fresh out of my first year of a coursework Master’s degree in South Africa. My internship was focused on the Research Fairness Initiative (RFI), and its implementation in 2017. Coming from a university where resources are scarce but funding demands are high, the initiative really spoke to me on a personal level.

I found the RFI so interesting because for the first time, it seemed like a concrete way to start working toward improving the benefits of research partnerships for low and middle income country institutions like my own university, where researchers might feel like they have to “take what they can get” without asking questions or raising concerns when they might not fully agree with the way high-income partners want to do things.

A big portion of my internship involved me digging into the depths of various organizational and institutional websites to find out what kinds of practices and policies existed in terms of partnerships in research. While doing this research I was struck by how many articles I found that highlighted the importance of change – showing that this is a big issue.

There are some great guidelines out there, such as the KFPE’s Guide for Transboundary Research Partnerships and CCGHR Principles for Global Health Research, which both propose principles to promote fairness. All of the documentation that I found is compiled on our Evidence Base webpage. For each of the fairness indicators, you can access a comprehensive list of resources that highlight best practices in equitable research collaborations – and some discuss counter-examples we should also learn from.

Action plan and fairness indicators

While all of these articles give good advice and guidelines, they stop short of actually providing a concrete way for institutions to make sure they engage in fair and equitable partnership practices. Where can they start and what should they look for? How can they identify which aspects call for improvement? The short answer is that they need an action plan. The RFI provides a systematic way of looking at what is going on in institutions, finding gaps, and then deciding on how to move forward.

The RFI is a system that works on 3 domains covering the full research partnership cycle. All are equally important; it would be short-sighted to only focus on research implementation without considering all of the aspects that come before and after (e.g. relevance and impact or intellectual property rights). We ask questions about what is currently done, what evidence/documentation outlines this, and what can be done to make improvements in the next two years. This makes the RFI improvement focused, rather than it being a score-card.

Toward a global learning platform

Over time the RFI will come to provide a global learning platform where we can begin to see what the best practices are, and where there may be gaps at the institutional, national and global levels. We have just received our first RFI report from the World Health Organisation’s Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR), and we hope that this will spur on other institutions who have shown an interest in the RFI to come on board. The TDR report is useful because it shows that while the program currently performs well on many of the indicators, there are several areas where practices will be reviewed for future improvement as a result of the RFI process. Dr John Reeder, Executive Director at WHO/TDR has found the process rewarding and encourages others to consider reviewing their own practices under this framework. This goes to show that RFI reporting is useful even for those who are already leaders in research, not only institutions in developing countries.

There have been many articles written on the topic of research fairness, and I strongly encourage any student who is interested in global research of any form to consider learning more about it. Remember (at the risk of sounding cliché):

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Kirsty currently works for COHRED as the RFI Implementation Manager, and is completing an MA Psychology (Research) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Feel free to email her at if you have any questions.