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13 May 2019
Researchers have a responsibility towards society

(Published - 13 May 2019)

Engaged scholarship is governed by two key values, namely social justice and citizenship. Within these values researchers are expected to focus on individual and social well-being as we address community needs. Engaged scholarship thus speaks to the value of the research to the participants, holds social change and advocacy as a central notion, and also speaks to the contextual relevance of research.

Tackling the complex challenges of society required to bring about change requires an understanding that there are different views and perspectives to assessing the challenge. Interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research allows for people from different disciplines to think together and learn from each other as they address the complex needs of society.

Knowledge exchange or knowledge transfer is a key aspect of any academic research, but central to this is research integrity which plays a major role in the significance and the impact research has on the communities and societies we hope to influence. The process does not only focus on the conducting of the research, but should also focus on how we report the findings of the research.

In the drive to conduct research and in the quest for academic freedom, are we compromising on research integrity? Yes, as researchers we are allowed to ask questions that we may not like or always agree with. However, should all questions be asked? Does it do more harm than good? When conducting research we should ask ourselves: what is the significance of the research? What does the study do to improve our understanding to change or promote a concept or idea in a particular field of research?

If we continue to consider the concept of engaged scholarship, then we are also compelled to ensure that it is achieved through demonstrating clear methodological decisions that include conceptual clarity, methodological rigour and coherence, ethical accountability, social responsibility and knowledge translation.

A key aspect we have to bear in mind is that research can perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination, and how we present the information is integral to this. The article, “Age and education related effects on cognitive functioning in Coloured South African women”, has generated lots of debate. And the question being asked is, why?

Many questions have been raised about the scientific merit of the article in terms of methodological coherence as it relates to sampling, population size, generalisability and statistical methods used. For example, the use of parametric statistics on data from a non-probability sample is not within the conventions of quantitative analyses. The lack of tentativeness that should accompany the resulting interpretations is lacking and raises concerns at an individual, discipline and institutional level that place us at risk for reputational harm.

In addition, the lack of engagement - with discrepancies in findings - has also been raised. Once again, the issue of research integrity and lack of scholarly engagement is raised as it is believed that researchers have a societal duty or social responsibility to report research accurately and without bias. The influence of the information reported about communities on communities should not be underestimated.

Speaking as a coloured woman who has achieved both personally and professionally, the researchers should consider the responses from the targeted population. Why have some of us achieved despite the challenges faced by coloured women? We do not want to dispute the fact that women face challenges, but have the researchers considered why many people succeed despite the odds, instead of only reporting on the negative?

The racial signifier is a complex term. It does not suffice to say that the participants self-identified as “coloured”. This is a marginalised identity with many complex variations of identity by self or other. “Coloured” does not constitute a homogenous group, and failure to manage any designated group – especially those with marginalised identities – is an error.

Has the research created more harm than good? The work seems to be a single narrative, and thus, what is the social responsibility of the researchers to respond in a culturally sensitive manner to the population?

Within engaged scholarship it extends to the impact the research will have on the lives of others. The unintended risks of using findings like these to further entrench racial stereotypes is very real. As engaged scholars we need to carefully consider our role and what we aim to achieve. Research is not an end in itself resulting in a subsidy-bearing output, but knowledge that is socially responsive and contextually sensitive. We need to ask what the real significance of this research is and how it promotes a culture of engagement and social advancement.

Lastly, engaged scholars consider carefully how the findings of research must be translated for consumption on various platforms. The opportunity arises for opening up space for critical debate about research integrity and the harms that can stem from it if it is undermined.

Professor Jose Frantz is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation at the University of the Western Cape.