Collaborating across cultures
BY THOMAS EISSENBERG, PHD
One reason to collaborate across cultures is that many global problems — environmental degradation, disease,
conflict and inequity — cannot be addressed comprehensively
without global partnerships.
Yet crafting empirically based solutions with colleagues
around the world involves ethical issues that extend beyond
those typically considered by an Institutional Review Board
(IRB). That is, rewarding and successful cross-cultural
collaboration demands that partners re-dedicate themselves
to basic ethical principles that involve interactions with
research participants and also interactions among researchers
Drawing from my own and others’ experience (Emanuel et
al., 2004; SCRPDC, 1998), I argue that an emphasis on respect,
beneficence and justice can help researchers build successful
collaborations that lead to lasting solutions.
How does respect for persons inform cross-cultural
A key feature of respect for others involves recognizing and
protecting autonomy: the capability to consider and act on
personal goals ( The Belmont Report, 1979). Researchers working
across cultures need to recognize and protect their own and
their partners’ “cultural autonomy,” or their societal goals,
knowledge and values.
For example, when planning an IRB protocol for a project,
one partner may expect that a signed informed consent
document will be obtained. Written informed consent protects
individual autonomy in some cultures, but providing a
signature may not be appropriate in others. This divergence
provides an opportunity for research partners to talk about
ways to ensure that local norms as well as basic ethical
principles are expressed and preserved. They can then work
toward solutions that preserve cultural autonomy, including
seeking IRB approval for a consent process in which the
requirement for a signature is waived.
Another example involves working on a grant proposal,
How does beneficence inform cross-cultural
where all collaborators should have equal opportunity to
contribute meaningfully to content and should also have an
equitable share of the resulting funds and workload. At every
stage, partners need to be able to interject their societal goals,
knowledge and values into the project, contributing their
own cultural perspectives throughout and with a priority on
ensuring the cultural autonomy of the site where the research
will be conducted. The earlier in the process such autonomy
is recognized, the better. I have been at both ends of the
spectrum on this point — regrettably in one case failing to
share in the grant-writing and in others sharing responsibility
equitably. The projects in which cultural autonomy was
recognized and preserved led to better science, more lasting
research capacity and stronger cultural bridges.
A key feature of the principle of beneficence involves
maximizing possible benefits and minimizing harms ( The
Belmont Report, 1979). The concept of a risk/benefit ratio
is especially applicable to collaborations where one culture
is associated with the “capital” necessary for research (for
example, the funding source) while another culture is associated
with the “raw materials” for research (such as participants, staff,
With respect to risk, the funding partners have a valued
investment of time and money at stake, while partners
supplying the “materials” may have at stake the well-being of
participants, the reputation that scientific research holds in their
community, and their own personal and professional status.
These partners may be particularly interested in ensuring that
research results are applied locally, so that potential community
benefits help offset potential risks.
One example involves research conducted at the Syrian
Center for Tobacco Studies, where all partners were interested
in learning more about the prevalence and health effects of local
tobacco use methods and also were committed to developing
culturally relevant treatment programs for use in the region.
More generally, some partners may want to move a research
project forward now and worry about practical applications
later, while others — especially those who work in a context
I urge you to collaborate with researchers from other cultures, too.