Universities paying more attention to benefits of international research
New SOPs and guidance needed
Universities and colleges that once thought international research was beyond their reach increasingly are looking for and finding ways to conduct research overseas, some experts say.
One reason for this is that the number of international students studying in the United States has increased in recent years. According to the Open Doors report, published in late 2012 by the Institute of International Education, total international student enrollment in the U.S. increased 6% in the 2011-2012 school year, reaching a record high of 746,495 international students.
According to the Open Doors report, China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada are the top five places of origin among U.S. international students.
"We have had a large influx of foreign students from all over, including students from Saudi Arabia and Nepal," says Richard L. Sneed, PhD, director of the office of research compliance at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.
"Since these students found us, we’re encouraging our researchers to do research in these countries to help bridge the divide between us and to continue to build the relationship that we’ve established," Sneed says.
"The idea is to not just do research and bring it back here," Sneed adds. "It’s to try to do something that will have a local benefit for the people there who are giving their time."
One of the first steps to increasing the list of international studies is to create new guidance and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for international research.
The University of Central Oklahoma has a short form and checklist for international research. Sneed created the form and checklist after working on the institution’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) and discovering that there were no international forms, he says.
"I looked at what was available at universities around the country, and I was surprised at how all over the map they were: Some had no international forms at all, and some had 10-page forms," Sneed recalls. "I took certain elements that I thought should be on the form and made a new one."
Sneed created the international research checklist for investigators. The checklist differentiates between local context and consent issues. (See sample of University of Central Oklahoma’s international form and checklist, page 125.)
"This is to raise investigators’ awareness," Sneed says.
At Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick, the recent heightened interest in international research is partly due to the university’s push toward global affairs and global education, says Michelle Watkinson, IRB administrator.
The university has students and faculty from 115 countries, she notes.
"The university’s theme is Jersey roots, global reach,’" she says. "International students take their training at Rutgers back to their local communities."
Initiated about six years ago, the global focus led the Rutgers IRB to create new international research guidelines and information, and it’s helped make international research go through the IRB process much more smoothly, Watkinson says.
Having these guidelines benefits researchers and the IRB by creating a more effective and efficient way to evaluate international studies, she notes.
"Why spend months reviewing research protocols when you can tell people up front, If you’re going to do research in another country, then here’s the information we need, and here’s what is expected of you,’" Watkinson says.
Most universities realize that they have faculty from other countries, and so they will harmonize the way education is provided, Watkinson says.
"They want to serve the local community and study the impact to local communities," she adds. "Some people that do research here will go back to their own countries when they earn their degrees, and they’ll provide training to their local communities," Watkinson explains.
Institutions expanding their research portfolio to include international sites need to educate researchers and IRBs about handling local requirements and standards.
"The vast majority of our work at FHI 360 is international research, and we have learned that we need to have a lot of respect to what local customs are," says Kathleen MacQueen, PhD, MPH, senior social scientist in social and behavioral health sciences at FHI 360 in Durham, NC. MacQueen has spoken at national conferences about international research, and FHI 360 conducts many studies in international settings.
"We defer to the local standard without disregarding the U.S. requirements," MacQueen explains. "We try to be sensitive to the local context and interpretation of how these regulations are implemented."
IRBs might view researchers as ambassadors to a foreign culture, Sneed suggests.
"They should be considerate and appropriate with people who are giving them their time and realize that many of these cultures have sensitivities that we would find bewildering," he adds.
The U.S.-based IRB might need to have a dialogue with the chair of the internationally based IRB, she adds. (See story with tips on handling challenges with international research on this page.)
"Building positive relationships with the international IRB is important," MacQueen says.
International research can be expensive, but with the increase in foreign students and faculty, even a small research institution might find creative ways to venture into research overseas, Sneed says.
"We might not be able to afford to send researchers overseas, but we have a faculty that is international, and they have their own connections in their own countries and can do research there," Sneed says.
For example, there was one researcher whose family owned a school in West Africa, and the researcher wanted to do a study about literacy among girls in that area, he says.
"There were issues of conflict of interest, and we had to deal with those," he adds.
But once those were resolved, it proved to be an affordable way to gain insight into female literacy in an international setting.
This type of research helps both the U.S. research institution and the local community, Sneed says.
"This gives researchers data they can work with and publish, but it could also have a benefit in the local community where it was derived," he says.
"International research gives us a way to widen our view and make the world smaller because people are people," Sneed adds.