The benefits and challenges of international research collaboration

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Working with international colleagues can provide new insights and even a career boost, but it takes patience and planning.

Academic research is becoming ever more international. Whether it is to gain access to specialized equipment, develop new ideas or tap into new sources of funding, researchers are reaching out to their colleagues around the world, and their work is better for it.

“For me, it’s transparent that science is an international, global endeavour,” says Alejandro Adem, a mathematician at the University of British Columbia and chief executive officer of the non-profit research and training organization Mitacs. “Ideas transcend borders, no country controls the marketplace of ideas.”

For some fields of research, such as particle physics, working internationally is not a choice but a “way of life,” says Michael Roney, a professor of physics at the University of Victoria and director of its Institute of Particle Physics. Projects in particle physics often require huge, expensive infrastructure that no single country can afford on its own – not everybody can have their own Large Hadron Collider. “We need to collaborate to afford the science,” says Dr. Roney.

That means the field has developed a unique culture of collaboration, with researchers following their interests all over the world. Dr. Roney has worked extensively at the European Organization for Nuclear Research , known as CERN, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in the United States and the KEK laboratory in Japan. This leads to “an extremely fertile cross-pollination of ideas,” he says. “New ideas come when you interact with people from diverse backgrounds. You think about things in a different way and suddenly see connections you never thought of before.”

Lori Beaman, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change at the University of Ottawa, says her experiences working with international colleagues has provided her with an invaluable depth of perspective. In her studies of the decline of Christianity in North America, for example, she has found that many churches are closing and selling off their buildings. But, when working with colleagues in Sweden, she learned that in Scandinavia the state provides support to churches even when attendance is declining, so the buildings themselves remain.

“You might assume we were all handling an issue in the same way, but that’s not the case at all,” she says. “We live in a global world, we want to be able to think more broadly. We can’t do that without international collaboration.”

For Heather Aldersey, a researcher in rehabilitation therapy at Queen’s University who works on disability inclusion in the developing world, having international partners is vital to ensuring that her research translates into real actions to build capacity in the overseas communities where she works – for example, a recent project to develop a new occupational therapy program in Ethiopia. Without leadership and direction from her Ethiopian colleagues at the University of Gondar to ensure the research is used effectively on the ground, there would be little point in the work. “There has to be active buy-in and collaboration with the people affected by our research,” she says. “We have stellar partners who understand the community.”

International collaborations, and especially working abroad, can also provide a real career boost. Vincent Larivière, who holds the Canada Research Chair on the Transformations of Scholarly Communication at Université de Montréal, has found that academic mobility, whether it is having a second affiliation in another country or moving permanently abroad, is associated with work that has higher scientific impact as measured by citation rates. “Research by internationally mobile academics is more visible and more cited,” he says. “This correlates with what we know about the importance of international collaboration.”

Dr. Larivière’s study of the benefits of mobility, published in the influential journal Nature , is a case in point. It was one of the projects he worked on while a visiting professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands and involved researchers from Europe, the United States and Canada. “The project became an example of what we were studying,” he says.

Finding collaborators is an organic process, says Dr. Beaman. The timing needs to be right and an opportunity to work together might not present itself for years. Three years ago, for example, she met a Finnish academic after a conference in the Netherlands when they took the same train to the airport. They kept in touch and now that researcher will be a visiting scholar at U of Ottawa next year. Another colleague from Brazil will be visiting at the same time. Dr. Beaman says she’s excited about the possibilities for collaboration that could arise. “It’s an interesting configuration of people. I don’t know what will come of it,” she says.

The digital age is making international collaboration even easier. “I have international collaborators I’ve never met,” says Dr. Larivière. “Someone can just send an email to share ideas and data, and we can write a paper without ever having to meet each other in person.”

But international work has its share of challenges. Some are minor inconveniences that are easy to adjust to, while others can turn the project into a difficult grind.

Sometimes it can be something as simple as getting used to the work culture in another country. In Canada, Dr. Larivière was used to having access to his office around the clock and organizing his work schedule as he wanted. In the Netherlands, however, the university closes at 7 p.m. “I needed to adapt and change my working schedule,” he says.

Since the working language of science around the world tends to be English, Canadian academics don’t usually have too many problems with communication. “Luckily for us, the lingua franca is English,” says Dr. Roney.

But there can still be occasional hiccups with colleagues from countries where English isn’t a common second language. When visiting a collaborator’s lab in Brazil, Dr. Beaman says some in the group were able to provide an ad-hoc translation that worked fine. “It was very collegial, collaborative, lots of humour and people willing to go the extra mile to make sure that everybody understood what everybody else’s ideas were,” she says.

It’s important to keep in mind that international projects tend to move more slowly than usual. “Researchers often don’t realize how long it can take,” says Jennifer Morawiecki, international research manager in the office of research services at Dalhousie University. “They need to prepare for the long haul.”

Having collaborators scattered across the globe can make it tricky to set up meetings when dealing with multiple time zones. Researchers have to get used to having conference calls at odd times of the day. Even so, “some meetings it’s just not feasible to attend in person or remotely,” says Dr. Beaman.

This gets my vote for Best Poster here at #INORMS2018 . Mad props to my counterparts at @unimelb and @karolinskainst . Love it! — Jennifer Morawiecki (@jmorawiecki) June 6, 2018

Arranging visas and permits for international work can also slow down the process, especially when working in the developing world. And funding timelines and application procedures don’t always align well, so getting agencies in different countries to work together can be slow and cumbersome. “Research administration [in other countries] is not always as well-developed as it is in Canada,” says Dr. Morawiecki. “The processes can run the gamut from wildly complicated to disturbingly simple.”

Politics can also intrude. Sometimes the security or political situation will change, which may shift a government’s funding priorities or even make it too dangerous to continue the project. Even in developed countries, politics can get in the way – the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union has disrupted academia in the country , potentially making European collaborations more difficult.

Researchers will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the biggest challenge when it comes to international research is getting the money to do it. In a 2014 survey by Universities Canada on internationalization, 83 percent of universities cited the lack of research funding opportunities as the most significant barrier to international collaboration. “There are few dedicated funding mechanisms for international collaboration in Canada,” says Dr. Morawiecki. “There used to be more, but a lot have been cut in the past five to eight years.”

That means researchers sometimes have to get creative when it comes to finding funding. Many of the projects that Dr. Aldersey at Queen’s is involved with are funded by international development bodies, who are often more interested in concrete interventions than research questions. Her Ethiopia project, for example, funded by the Mastercard Foundation, was focused on scholarships and talent development, bringing Ethiopian students to Canada to study occupational therapy. She therefore had to find ways to embed research questions in the project both to evaluate it in a meaningful way and to add to the scientific body of knowledge.

One way she found to do this was to include a study of the current situation in Ethiopia. “When developing the first occupational therapy project in a country, we need to first know what OT looks like there now,” she says. “We look for multiple ways to benefit from one experience.”

For most researchers, international collaborations will involve trying to cobble together funding from multiple sources, as each member of the team applies independently to their home country’s funder in the hope that it all comes together at the right time. But it doesn’t always work. “If the pieces don’t all come together, the project can fall apart,” says U of Ottawa’s Dr. Beaman.

The research councils are trying to make it easier by working with their counterparts overseas to support cross-border research projects, says Brent Herbert-Copley, executive vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. SSHRC is a member of the Trans-Atlantic Platform , or TAP, a collection of 18 social science funders from 12 countries in North America, South America and Europe that are working to align policies and offer funding to improve international links. “We’re trying to make it easier for collaboration to take place,” says Dr. Herbert-Copley.

TAP grew out of a European Union-funded initiative called Digging into Data , which supported data-intensive social science research collaborations between North America and Europe. The platform is now preparing to offer its second joint call for proposals, on the theme of social innovation. The call will offer a single application process for international teams, but funding for each collaborator will come from their own national funder. Dr. Herbert-Copley says TAP is a work in progress, but he says he’s excited about where it is heading. “It’s a learning curve, the TAP is the first time we’ve taken the time to work out how agencies could collaborate,” he says. “It will get easier the second and third times around.”

Canada’s research councils are also members of the Global Research Council , an organization that brings together the heads of national research councils from around the world to facilitate interaction and share best practices. Mario Pinto, who until recently was president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, just completed a term as chairman of the organization. (Dr. Pinto stepped down as head of NSERC in September, after he was interviewed for this article.) He says that while the GRC does not fund research directly, it can help funders from different countries put together joint calls when the resources are available.

Canada’s funding agencies are consulting now on how to use the new $275-million Tri-Council Research Fund , announced in the 2018 federal budget to support international, interdisciplinary and high-risk research. Dr. Pinto says the GRC will provide useful contacts when setting up international projects. “The advantage of the GRC is that we have good relationships, so it is easy to forge partnerships,” he says.

Europe’s massive, multi-year research funding program Horizon 2020 , with a budget of €80 billion ($122 billion CAD), is a tempting target for researchers looking for international partners. “Our motto is ‘open to the world,’” says Viktoria Bodnarova, who runs the North American EURAXESS office in Washington, D.C. “We welcome international collaboration and we’re trying our best to attract international collaborators.”

The complex bureaucracy and red tape surrounding the program can be a deterrent, but the EU does provide guidance on how to get involved through its network of EURAXESS offices. Ms. Bodnarova says there are two main ways for Canadian researchers to work with their European colleagues through Horizon 2020.

The first is to join one of the consortia that compete for the large, collaborative grants. But that requires the researcher’s institution to be a partner in the project, and Canadian participants may still have to bring their own funding to the group. The other way is to apply for one of the individual grants, either through the Marie Curie fellowships or the European Research Council . These allow foreign researchers to pursue a project in any scientific field at a host institution in a European country, and Canadians have been remarkably successful at obtaining them, says Ms. Bodnarova.

For students, Mitacs offers a mobility program that allows graduate students to move between Canada and other countries for short periods. Dr. Adem says these visits can help build relationships between labs. “In a world of global mobility, it’s important for collaborators in different countries to have students going between them,” he says. “Students are agents for change and can teach the professors new techniques.” Dr. Adem says he hopes Mitacs will be able to expand some of its international mobility programs to include faculty as well.

For any researcher considering working internationally, the first stop should be their university’s research office, counsels Dalhousie’s Dr. Morawiecki. Most offices offer a free orientation on international research and will reach out to early career researchers to make sure that they’re aware of the opportunities available. “We want you to come talk to us,” she says.

While the challenges of international work can seem daunting, the rewards make it all worthwhile, says Dr. Morawiecki. And research offices, she says, are there to make the process as easy as possible. “It’s something researchers naturally want to do, but it takes time and effort,” she says. “You have to hustle a bit more to be successful.”

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Thank you for this article. In particular, We found the points raised regarding the benefits and challenges of engaging in international research collaboration to be very helpful. The “fertile cross-pollination of ideas” is truly a unique quality of the culture of international collaboration and can serve as a significant resource to producing a more valid evidence base for our scientific community. In our recently published paper (Guler et al., 2018), we developed a case study focused on the facilitators and barriers to team performance within the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Field Studies Coordination Group. We found similar findings regarding the complexity of global mental health collaboration.

If interested in reading:

Thank you for your insightful work.

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1. introduction: rising research collaboration in global science, 2. characterizing international research collaborations: benefits, motivations, and challenges, 3. autoethnographic case study: objects, methods, and data sources, 4. case study of an irc project in the sociology of science, 5. reflections on the benefits, motivations, and challenges of irc, 6. discussion and conclusion, acknowledgements.

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Benefits, Motivations, and Challenges of International Collaborative Research: A Sociology of Science Case Study

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Jennifer Dusdal, Justin J W Powell, Benefits, Motivations, and Challenges of International Collaborative Research: A Sociology of Science Case Study, Science and Public Policy , Volume 48, Issue 2, April 2021, Pages 235–245,

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Contemporary science is marked by expanding and diverse forms of teamwork. Collaboration across organizational and cultural boundaries extends the possibilities of discovery. International collaborative research projects often provide findings beyond what one team could achieve alone. Motivated to maintain existing relationships and grow their scientific network, researchers increasingly collaborate, despite often unrecognized or underappreciated costs, since such projects are challenging to manage and carry out. Rarely studied in-depth and longitudinally, the perspectives of scientific team members are crucial to better understand the dynamics of durable collaboration networks. Thus, this retrospective case study of a sociology of science project applies the novel method of autoethnography to examine teamwork benefits, motivations, and challenges. Key challenges found include spatial distance and differences of culture, language, and career stage. This study, spanning North America, Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, focused on collaborators’ characteristics and evolving perceptions of team dynamics over a decade.

Contemporary science is marked by expanding and diverse forms of teamwork. Collaborations across organizational, disciplinary, and cultural boundaries extend the possibilities of discovery, despite often unrecognized or underappreciated costs (see Hicks and Katz 1996 ; Leahey 2016 ). Currently, competition on multiple levels transforms universities ( Musselin 2018 ) as individual and collective actors are simultaneously embedded in diverse nested and interdependent competitions ( Krücken 2019 ). This is mediated through formal evaluations, performance measures, and continuously generated comparative indicators that increasingly target collaboration ( Powell 2020 ). To succeed in this learning race to achieve new knowledge, participation in networks and interorganizational linkages, with continuous communication and collaborations of different sorts, will be crucial to success ( Powell 1998 ). Yet both collaborative and internationally comparative research projects are more complex; with the principles of ideal research designs more difficult to achieve—and such teamwork demanding ( Kosmützky 2018 ; Wöhlert 2020 ). Data from different national contexts must be gathered and compared, taking into account that team members in research projects may have contrasting cultural and disciplinary backgrounds; furthermore, they work within specific organizational conditions for conducting research ( Dusdal et al. 2019 ). While most research projects are not explicitly comparative, considering collaborative research’s exponential growth since the mid-1990s ( Powell et al. 2017a ), more attention is now devoted to (international) research collaborations (e.g. Hicks and Katz 1996 ; Shrum et al. 2007 ; Anderson and Steneck 2011 ; Jeong et al. 2014 ; Jeong and Choi 2015 ; Ulnicane 2015 ; Edelenbos et al. 2017;  , Wagner 2018 ). The meanings of international collaboration ( Bozeman et al. 2013 : 2ff) extend beyond the foundational definition: ‘working together of individuals to achieve a common goal of producing new scientific knowledge’ ( Katz and Martin 1997 : 7). As just one of myriad collaboration outcomes, coauthored publications, visible and measurable, have become the standard, though conservative, indicator of increasing research collaboration.

Several waves of studies on international research collaborations (IRC) have focused on drivers, patterns, effects, networks, and measurement. In case studies of ‘big science’ collaborations, Shrum et al. (2007) emphasize technology, data, organization, and trust. Kwiek (2020) shows that IRCs are a powerful stratifying force that distinguishes locally-oriented from internationally-oriented researchers in terms of their coauthorships and scientific productivity. Chen et al. (2019) identify key topics for future IRC research: to compare IRC properties and variance; to investigate networks; and to develop measures to assess costs and benefits. Despite the continued exponential rise of collaboration across the sciences, IRCs that extend beyond the usual timeframe of a project have rarely been studied in-depth to understand evolving researcher interactions and relationships ( Ulnicane 2015 ). Indeed, long-term relationships between collaborators and internal, team-level factors remain the ‘black-box of collaboration study’ ( Jeong and Choi 2015 : 460). Examining such factors, Bozeman et al. (2016 : 226) interviewed dozens of researchers to develop a ‘subjectivist conception of collaboration effectiveness’ to uncover collaboration dynamics relating to field/discipline, collaborator characteristics, and team management. Similarly, we also follow Kollasch’s (2012 : 173) call to examine hierarchical and horizontal relations to understand the ties that bind together international teams. Empirical studies on communication within intercultural research teams and impact on research processes themselves are also rare ( Kaden 2009 ; Wöhlert 2020 ). Notable exceptions include the laboratory studies by Latour and Woolgar (1979) and Knorr-Cetina (1981) , yet these classics illuminated laboratories in STEM fields, closed environments in which collaboration challenges across great distances or in different organizational contexts were not central.

Because researchers face multiple challenges when they work together, explicit reflection of such processes is necessary—especially as the majority of research in many disciplines is now collaboratively conducted and publications coauthored. The emerging field of ‘science of team science’ focuses on micro-level studies of research teams and their interactions (see, e.g. Tartas and Muller Mirza 2007 ; Fiore 2008 ; Slipersæter and Aksnes 2008 ; Thomas et al. 2009 ; Brewster et al. 2011 ; Falk-Krzesinski et al. 2011 ; Esser and Hanitzsch 2012 ; Brew et al. 2013 ; Hoffman et al. 2014 ; Sugden and Punch 2014 ). Studies mainly focus on natural sciences, life sciences, and engineering (see Wagner 2005 ; Gardner et al. 2012 ; Gray et al. 2012 ; Wang et al. 2014 ; Zhai et al. 2014 ; Zdravkovic et al. 2016 ), far less on social sciences and humanities. Specificities of IRC in these other fields remain underexplored ( Reichmann 2013 ; for reviews, see Kosmützky 2018 ; Wöhlert 2020 ). Such research must also reflect specific methodological complications and the social complexity of diverse research teams conducting international and intercultural work, studied thoroughly neither in higher education research nor in sociology of science ( Kosmützky 2017 : 77ff.). This reflects the limited internationalization of social sciences ( Kurzman 2017 ; Stevens et al. 2018 ). Case studies of team processes are relatively rare (but see Kumar 1985 ; Moody 2004 ; Hanges et al. 2005 ; Albert et al. 2015 ; Levitt 2015 ; Okamoto 2015 ). Longitudinal studies are even more unusual (but see Ulnicane 2015 on cases in nanoscience and technology).

To understand varying benefits, motivations, and challenges of IRC, it is essential to analyze evolving relationships of involved scientists and organizations ( Wöhlert 2020 ). Thus, we carried out a case study of teamwork within a highly international, multicultural research team in the sociology of science. This autoethnographic case study emphasizes cultural differences, including intercultural communication. Documentary analysis, several rounds of interviews, and a retrospective survey provide reflections and insights on the aspects of teamwork and divisions of labor among team members at different career stages working in universities in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. The study longitudinally explored benefits, motivations, and challenges that researchers from diverse cultures and at different career stages experienced within an international collaborative research team.

Next, we outline known benefits, motivations, and challenges of IRC. Then, we present our retrospective autoethnographic analysis of team dynamics in this case study and its implications. Finally, we discuss how science policymakers could better support IRCs as the increasingly crucial mode of producing new scientific knowledge.

International research collaborations have increased in volume and importance, responding to higher education expansion and the advancement of knowledge as well as the increasing professionalization and specialization of science. Further factors include rising investments, easier access to (financial) resources, an association with the scientific elite, mutual intellectual or social influences, increased scientific productivity, easier and less expensive communication, and exchange programs ( Luukkonen et al. 1992 ; Dusdal et al. 2019 ). Although it is far from simple and takes innumerable forms, collaboration has become taken-for-granted. Collaborative networks and relationships between organizations and researchers are difficult to study, especially given their complexity and the primacy accorded individual scientists. Conventionally, collaboration has been measured through coauthored publications because such outputs are readily accessible, whereas the dynamics and subjective experiences of collaboration remain largely hidden (but see Shrum et al. 2007 ).

Scientific collaborations—with the goal to achieve new scientific knowledge that cannot be generated by one researcher alone ( Katz and Martin 1997 ; Bozeman et al. 2013 )—often begin informally, establishing trust between researchers meeting in face-to-face situations ( Jeong et al. 2014 ). Long-standing collaborations reflect helpful ‘collaboration management strategies’ and good ‘work-style fit’ ( Bozeman et al. 2016 : 232) along with shared understandings of disciplinary norms. Depending on the field and team constellations, collaborations may be driven by ideas, questions, and theories; equipment and resources; or data ( Wagner 2005 ).

As scientists increasingly work in teams, they need to meet, understand, cooperate, and collaborate—doing so for myriad reasons ( Beaver 2001 ). In some fields, research has become so complex that individual scientists cannot achieve meaningful results without collaborating—the so-called collaboration imperative ( Bozeman and Boardman 2014 : 1). Shared infrastructure also facilitates collaboration. Today’s modal paper in the natural and social sciences represents the work of multiple researchers, often working in different organizational and cultural contexts. This collective shift toward teamwork ( Adams 2013 ; Fortunato et al. 2018 ), and the implied division of labor and specialization, extends from fundamental research to the applied world of patents ( Wuchty et al. 2007 ; Mosbah-Natanson and Gingras 2013 ).#

Collaboration occurs on multiple levels that need to be distinguished ( Kosmützky 2017 : 54ff.). As intrinsically social processes that are difficult to define and operationalize, collaboration takes on many forms; few are explicit: providing infrastructure and services, managing the division of labor or transmitting know-how ( Jeong et al. 2014 : 521f.). In combination with scientific motives, social purposes, even friendship, are often mentioned. Agreeing on research aims, distributing tasks fairly, and maintaining communication are key components of successful long-term collaborations ( Melin 2000 ; Ulnicane 2015 ). Further, to maintain and renew long-term (international) collaborations, it is important to include younger researchers and others with new ideas and relevant skills.

2.1 Determinants of successful international research collaboration

Individuals’ knowledge, experience, and reputation are crucial in producing and publishing scientific knowledge, with the career stage crucial for successfully carrying out diverse roles within IRCs ( Bozeman et al. 2016 : 233). Senior scientists tend to have larger networks and access to resources. They have established their reputations and mentored younger scholars ( Jeong and Choi 2015 ). Long-term collaborations may remain creative and productive long-term due to understanding different work commitments, crediting contributions correctly, and negotiating conflicts ( Bozeman et al. 2016 : 237). Existing relationships, repeated interactions, and intellectual synergies provide the basis for durable collaboration networks ( Ulnicane 2015 : 433f). Our case study demonstrates this.

2.2 Benefits of international research collaboration

As most collaborations begin informally and grow gradually, analyses must attend to social and cultural aspects as well as constraining and enabling factors within different science systems and research organizations—and on the team level ( Leahey 2016 ). Collaboration has many consequences; the results are mixed ( Beaver 2013 ). Some conclude that the proportion of high-quality papers increases with more authors per paper ( Lawani 1986 ). Fanelli and Larivière (2016) argue that while total published papers have increased, individual publication rates, based on the number of first-author papers, or by measuring publications fractionally, have not. IRCs are associated with higher-quality research than national collaborations; internationally coauthored papers tend to have greater research impact ( Rigby and Edler 2005 ; Levitt and Thewall 2010 ; Adams 2013 ). Thus, the numerous benefits of collaborative work justify IRC ( Rigby 2009 ). Many of these benefits were, ultimately, confirmed in our case study.

2.3 Motivations of international research collaboration

Researchers obviously collaborate for innumerable reasons (see Beaver 2001 , 2013 : 50f.; Sonnenwald 2007 ). Motivations include research organization and researcher reputation, higher visibility, opportunities for multidisciplinary research, access to research funds, and mentoring of younger researchers. Development of new methods and sharing knowledge, equipment, laboratories, or (big science) infrastructures, including data, encourage researchers to collaborate, in the process extending their networks. More personal reasons include friendships with chosen colleagues, intrinsic motivation, or the ambition to maximize personal scientific output (see Conchi and Michels 2014 ). In this case study, we analyze which of these motivations were central.

2.4 Challenges of international research collaboration

International and culturally diverse research projects provide valuable opportunities to advance scientific knowledge production, yet also imply challenges, risks, and drawbacks ( Kosmützky 2018 ). The advantage of joining forces and finding synergies of expertise incorporates the risk of invisibility of single researchers within the larger team. Particularly, younger researchers’ contributions may be subsumed. Principal investigators may not be involved in the day-to-day research because their main responsibility is to compete for funding and manage teams. Likewise, IRCs are time-consuming, requiring administration, coordination, and continuous exchange among teams ( Beaver 2013 : 53) as well as intercultural and interpersonal agreements on goals. Tasks must be distributed and responsibilities fulfilled, individually or in constellations ( Easterby-Smith and Malina 1999 ). Handling communication challenges, especially when scientists work in different locations over long time periods, demands clear communication styles to create understanding, trust, and sensitivity; advanced social planning; and functioning technological supports ( Livingston 2003 ). In particular, ‘spatially dispersed scientific collaborations’ demand substantial coordination to effectively bring ideas and expertise together ( Cummings and Kiesler 2005 : 704). Melkers and Kiopa (2010) identify the research gaps of social interactions and researcher engagement in IRCs. Thus, our retrospective case study gathers autoethnographic insights from team members.

IRCs, especially on team level, can be analyzed, categorized, and explored in different ways ( Beaver 2013 : 45ff). Less often studied, spatially distributed teams must deal with multiple methodological and sociocultural complexities that differentiate them from local teams ( Kosmützky 2017 ). To address this research gap, we explore the potential of autoethnography, as this newer approach has been applied to facilitate explicit reflection of research processes. We chose this method to retrospectively guide research and provide insights into the evolving experiences and perspectives of IRC team members. This enables the reconstruction of the discontinuous, sometimes disorganized , work within a multicultural team across four continents. Over a decade, the team constituted itself, carried out research together, and published findings that any one regional team could not have accomplished alone. This approach encourages reflexivity about experiences and valorizes personal narratives—to make sense of the meanings that we researchers retrospectively ascribe to extensive collaboration processes across different stages of career development. While not generalizable, this retrospective, self-reflexive autoethnography synthesizes lessons learned and risks in carrying out IRCs, focusing on team dynamics.

Autoethnography, as a research method, uses researchers’ own experiences in describing and evaluating beliefs, practices, and experiences in particular contexts; it recognizes and values researchers’ social embeddedness. More than a method, it not only describes research processes but simultaneously serves as the product of research ( Ellis et al. 2010 ; Adams et al. 2015 : 21ff). In contrast to claims that research should be neutral, impersonal, and objective ( Delamont 2009 ), autoethnography acknowledges and uncovers often hidden but important drivers of social research, namely subjectivity and personal connections. Such relationships are difficult to observe with standard methods in science of science, such as scientometrics, which measure only the most visible results of collaboration. Methodologically, autoethnography combines content analysis of documents with interviews to support retrospection ( Ellis et al. 2010 ). Personal experiences are connected with the current state of research ( Ronai 1992 ). These generative benefits are balanced by challenges, including lack of theorizing, self-centeredness or insufficient self-criticism, and too few observations ( Ellis et al. 2010 ).

To avoid these pitfalls, alongside our reflections and evaluation of the project collaborations, the study was conceptualized as an analysis using multiple methods to gather data longitudinally. Conducted by two members of the Europe-based subteam over a four-year period, the study includes (1) document analysis, (2) guided autoethnographic interviews, and (3) a retrospective survey of project researchers and managers eight years after project start. Exploring the use of this newer approach in this research field helps us to uncover aspects of IRCs often unobserved when conducting standard expert interviews or participant observations of a ‘foreign’ research team.

The decision to study our own research collaboration was taken after the project officially ended; follow-up projects were in the planning stages. In-depth interviews were carried out with a small number of team members (four) from different status groups (principal investigator, project manager, doctoral student) and cultural backgrounds (North America, Europe, East Asia) in person or virtually. In 2016, document-based sources, including official project documentation, research and administrative notes, official communications with the funding agency and partner universities spanning the Northern hemisphere, and innumerable project and personal e-mails were collected, sorted, and selected. Most materials were collected from project folders stored for joint use. Furthermore, we retrieved dozens of communications from our own e-mail archives.

The study gathered interview extracts and voices from project members from all regional subteams. Guiding themes and topics included the following:

Motivation and experience: Why did you decide to join the research project? Please share your experiences.

Research and learning: What were your research goals and questions within the project? What did you learn?

International collaboration: How do you define ‘international collaboration’. What dis/advantages or costs and benefits did working in a highly international, diverse team have for you? Would you like to work in such a project again? Why (not)?

After transcription, results were synthesized, with key points illustrated below. To enable renewed reflections from team members’ evolving retrospective standpoints eight years after project begin, a follow-up survey on selected findings and focused on benefits, motivations, and challenges of IRC was conducted in August 2020. This included an extensive table of statements ranked by the participants (see Table 1 ). We sent the questionnaire to the whole team; five members responded. Thus, a majority of (former) team members participated in at least one phase of our autoethnographic study. Their responses manifest different perspectives and team-connectedness after the project’s official end. Half of the original team members, from different world regions and in different career stages, continue to actively collaborate and co-author papers.

Benefits, motivations, and challenges of international research collaborations.

Source : Authors’ representation.

We now turn to an overview of the project’s genesis, team size, duration, and budget; its members’ cultural diversity and career stages; patterns of mobility, distribution of labor, and leadership; and the team’s sociodemographic and academic characteristics. Then, we delve into the subjective meanings associated with this IRC, derived from team members’ perspectives.

First ideas about possible transatlantic research collaboration were explored in Summer 2010 by a small group of researchers—later project principal investigators (PIs)—after an international workshop on higher education (HE) in Germany. From two countries and of three generations, they had known each other for ten to twenty years and developed friendships. After another year informally discussing common research interests, more concrete project ideas emerged: to analyze (1) worldwide HE expansion, (2) its consequences for scientific research over the twentieth century, and (3) universities’ contributions to scientific discovery. These interests were then aligned to the explicit economy-centered interests of the funding agency’s call for proposals. A focus on scientific productivity emerged, with the explicit use of this language exemplifying ‘programmification’—the impact of funding agencies’ priorities on proposed research (see Zapp et al. 2018 ). A more detailed project proposal, written with a colleague who had direct contact with the funding agency, was submitted in December 2011. Half a year later, this ‘local’ PI received the five anonymous peer reviews and the first approval notification. On 15 May 2012, he informed his collaborators via e-mail across the time zones:

Hi Team: I just heard a few minutes ago that QNRF approved our application for funding. That’s about all I know at the moment. Stay tuned for more information in the coming weeks. In the meantime, congratulations on a job well done. Let the games begin…(PI 2).

In fact, the to-be-assembled project team would be built upon decades-old relationships, coupled with global recruitment of country experts and young researchers—through existing networks that reflect internationalization powered by doctoral education in research universities; in this case, an American public university with substantially international graduate student population ( Fernandez et al. 2020 ). Among the main purposes of collaboration is the division of labor ( Katz and Martin 1997 ). But as science has evolved and spread around the world, researchers are even more broadly scattered geographically than in earlier eras. Here, IRC networks served as a ‘vehicle for knowledge diffusion’ ( Jeong and Choi 2015 : 462), for access to funding, and for recruitment. Due to this projects’s spatial distribution of researchers across four continents, information exchange, discussion of research goals among subteams, division of labor, and task coordination were crucial (see Lewis et al. 2012 ). All team members were employed in universities of the Northern hemisphere, distributed across seven countries in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia.

4.1 Team size, budget, and project duration

The team size, budget, and project duration are interrelated, because substantial financial resources are necessary to enable project investigators to form and maintain IRC teams ( Jeong and Choi 2015 : 462). Larger teams may develop contemporary and popular ideas, but have short-lived impact, on average, yet this persists longer when younger researchers are well-integrated ( Wu et al. 2019 ). By contrast, smaller teams may positively irritate science and technology studies with more radical ideas and survive longer when they build a stable core of researchers that remain active ( Palla et al. 2007 ; Fortunato et al. 2018 ). Larger international teams support visibility and information exchange in various contexts, facilitating network growth ( Horta and Austin Lacy 2011 : 459f.). The team studied consisted of ten researchers (full professors, associate professors, doctoral students), one research director, one project manager, and numerous research assistants (in several countries).

Most members participated without their positions being (fully) project-funded; thus, co-financing by research universities was essential. The budget of about US$600,000 was used mainly to fund a project manager and research stays, travel, and data acquisition. Years later, residual overhead costs supported publishing results open access. Particularly, given the brief two-year official project duration, university co-sponsorship was substantial. Financially and in terms of team size, this project was relatively small for such a globe-spanning project compared with, for example, international projects funded by the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. While a no-cost six-month extension was granted, no publications based on the project’s big data and bibliometric analyses appeared during the grant period. In years since, research by various team members has appeared in book and article forms, in English and German, and won numerous awards. The project context also provided an important platform to present previously conducted research to gain visibility in other scientific communities.

4.2 Cultural and linguistic diversity and gender

The group’s national, cultural, and linguistic diversity was considerable: starting with the project’s lead PI in North America, four team members were US citizens. Three team members, representing Europe, came from Germany and Romania, and one each came from China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Day-to-day project management was organized in Qatar by a woman from Iran. With the on-going and increasingly rapid globalization of science, researchers seek opportunities outside their country of origin; unsurprisingly, country of origin and current location were often different ( Anderson and Steneck 2011 ). Indeed, most team members were officially employed and/or enrolled outside their country of origin. The most common languages spoken were English, the main project language, German, and Chinese (Mandarin).

Noteworthy, the ratio of female/male researchers was 1:10, whereas project support and research assistance were provided mainly by female team members. If research shows that female scientists have different communication and leadership styles ( Jeong and Choi 2015 ), in this team gender issues were never discussed explicitly.

4.3 Division of labor and career stage

Beyond gender, differences in career stage and power relations among researchers of various status and cultural backgrounds existed. Hierarchies affected communication—from knowledge exchange to critique—as well as expectations ( Roelcke 2010 ; Kosmützky 2018 ). While project leaders often lack professional training in managing international projects, learning their skills ‘on the job’ ( Hantrais 2009 ), this was not so here: the project and ‘Subteam North America’ were led by a renowned senior scientist from that region with long-standing contact to all network members. He selected most team members, many of whom he had trained, collaborated with, or hosted at his university. The core group of PIs, well-connected for over a decade, included a former doctoral student who acted as crucial local contact securing project funding; he led ‘Subteam Middle East’. This confirms that ‘established social capital’ is necessary to successfully recruit diverse researchers from abroad to collaborate ( Melkers and Kiopa 2010 : 391). The involved subteams and their relationships reflect the extensive social interactions necessary for successful collaboration. IRC teams are increasingly the norm, but building international, intergenerational networks that provide collaboration opportunities demand tenacity.

North America is a significant partner for IRCs because of its scientific outputs and central position in global science ( Luukkonen et al. 1992 ; Powell et al. 2017a ). Culturally diverse, ‘Subteam North America’ consisted of Americans and both professors and doctoral candidates from China, Korea, and Taiwan working together at a large US research university. This subteam prepared and maintained the huge volume of raw data—Web of Science Science Citation Index Expanded (SCIE)—purchased from Thomson Reuters (now: Clarivate Analytics).

This database was painstakingly recoded by ‘Subteam Europe’, evolving to ensure overall data quality and meet project goals. Contributing four European case studies, this subteam integrated several senior researchers and organized a concluding international conference panel, an important step toward an edited volume collecting all country case studies ( Powell et al. 2017a ). Cultural and linguistic diversity as well as recruitment of additional experts later on ensured that the country case studies of the key science-producing regions were contributed by authors able to review domestic literature and with extensive knowledge of HE and science systems.

‘Subteam Middle East’ provided project management infrastructure and hosted all team members during three workshops. These meetings were organized from and took place in Qatar, where the funding agency required two-thirds of the project budget to be spent. Coordination by the project managers was essential to realize project goals between these rare gatherings in person.

Team members from four East Asian countries delved into national case analysis, less so explicit comparative work. These members had genuine interests and expertise in big data, taking responsibility for substantial encoding, cleaning, and preparation of the dataset for common use, and the development of methods and tools for subsequent analyses. One Asian PI, trained in and a professor in North America, coauthored the analysis of his country of origin with external collaborators. An assistant professor based in another Asian country worked on his case study alone but compared journal coverage of Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science and Elsevier’s Scopus to capture differences in selectivity of the two leading bibliometric databases. Analysis of the third and fourth Asian countries was completed in dissertations by doctoral candidates in ‘Subteam North America’, who had intermittently joined ‘Subteam Middle East’ to work on the dataset. Post-project, they returned to their East Asian countries but completed their dissertations under supervision of the project’s lead PI in the US.

4.4 Mobility

Highly mobile, the project team consisted of members of different national origins, with half of the senior PIs and all doctoral candidates working in research universities in countries other than their country of origin. Various sub-teams collaborated on different aspects and in different phases, meeting in their university or region. Particularly, the doctoral candidates—whether Asian or European—were mobile regarding both their doctoral degree granting universities and in conducting data preparation and analysis in third countries. Only three face-to-face meetings of all members occurred during the project, due to physical distance and costs (coordination, travel).The kickoff meeting was held in February 2013 in Doha, Qatar, whose national research foundation (QNRF) funded the research. This was followed by a second meeting and international conference visit and presentation of first results in November 2013. Finally, a third meeting was conceived as a ‘data workshop’ in March 2014, designed for discussion of discovered historical trends and global findings—such as the exponential rise of (international) coauthorship. Most members attended and presented findings during an international conference in Washington, DC, in March 2015, to engage in cross-disciplinary dialogue, an important but rare opportunity to meet in person ( Melkers and Kiopa 2010 : 397f.). To tackle this challenge in practice, the team organized monthly virtual meetings and communicated continuously via e-mail. Reflecting on the project, members missed personal and on-site communication between subteams. Clarifying problems took much more time than if all researchers had been locally-based, for example writing innumerable e-mails to discuss an issue related to a STATA do-file, instead of walking down the hallway to immediately clarify face-to-face. Thus, research stays by all three doctoral candidates in other subteams were crucial.

4.5 Communication and language

Doing research and producing knowledge in the lingua franca are everyday activities globally, but working in multilingual teams results in communication challenges, especially when team members aspire to publish in (leading) peer-reviewed journals ( Wöhlert 2020 ). Although English was the common project language ( Pelikan 2015 ), only three team members were native speakers. This cultural diversity became particularly obvious when analyzing project documents. Most researchers used their first language for their own research notes, but shared documents and official communications, conference presentations, and publications were mainly written in global English. The team division of labor led to diverse languages being used. Wells (2013) argues that using English as the project language gives native speakers a great advantage to express themselves linguistically, culturally, and socially. Non-native speakers felt inhibited in team interactions (see Bagshaw et al. 2007 ), but even more so in drafting publications later, overcome only through considerable investments by the native speakers in writing and proofreading. Senior scholars’ openness and patience and inclusivity were crucial for project development and facilitating the publication of results in leading English-language journals.

Nevertheless, the team’s diverse cultural, disciplinary, and academic backgrounds resulted in communication problems, both in theoretical debates and in data analysis and interpretation. Analysis of team correspondence emphasized the importance of discussing and agreeing on definitions of key terms, debating theoretical approaches, and selecting methodologies—also to develop mutual understanding and trust, which is vital for successful IRCs ( Bracken and Oughton 2006 ). Because the project strove to combine quantitative and in-depth institutional analyses, increased attention to intercultural communication would have been crucial; these challenges were underestimated.

Although the project officially ended in June 2015, after a no-cost extension, and the final report was submitted in August 2015, the research team continued to collaborate. Since then, numerous publications by diverse team member constellations have appeared, including an edited volume of contributions from regional subteams ( Powell et al. 2017a ) that won several awards. That book’s introduction was jointly written by team members from different locations and career stages to frame the country case studies and synthesize global trends ( Powell et al. 2017b ). By the end of 2020, six peer-reviewed research articles in high-quality journals had appeared. A monograph (awarded a prestigious dissertation prize) appeared in German ( Dusdal 2018 ); another book (in English) is forthcoming ( Baker and Powell, forthcoming ). Three book chapters have been published (in English; two translated into Arabic), two encyclopedia entries, one commissioned report (available in English and French), one contribution to published conference proceedings, and six transfer publications (newspaper articles, interviews, radio, and electronic media such as podcasts). Currently, three additional journal articles using the project database are under review. The project’s three doctoral candidates successfully defended their dissertations (two in 2017, 2019). These outputs and a follow-up project build upon the team members’ joint efforts to construct one of the largest longitudinal bibliometric databases, covering about 90 million entries across a 111-year period. Having specified the project’s characteristics and dynamics, we next present reflections from the autoethnographic study on the team members’ perceived benefits, motivations, and challenges of IRC.

Turning to our autoethnography, we present empirical results based on reflections and insights on conducting research, the division of labor, and social relationships in a globe-spanning project. We discuss what autoethnography may contribute to our better understanding of diverse benefits, motivations, and challenges of IRC.

The study emphasized relationships between members of different cultural, disciplinary, and status backgrounds, uncovering how crucial were the established relationships—spanning three continents and multiple generations—among the project’s PIs.

International cooperation for me is when scholars from different national backgrounds focus on one big research topic and the collaboration, which means they really could help each other to figure it out (PhD 1). On the one hand, people would just say it’s people in different countries… But you’re [interviewer] sitting here, we’re both sitting here, are we internationally collaborating? Yes, but you could do your PhD here, you could be a professor here… what’s behind it is the universalization of education, in particular of universities (PI 1).

Particularly among scholars in different countries, collaboration leads to more influential, often-cited research ( Katz and Hicks 1997 ; Fortunato et al. 2018 ). This is a key argument for further globalizing the scientific enterprise and recognizing the brain circulation and intercultural teamwork that facilitates recognition and impact across scientific communities ( Sugimoto et al. 2017 ; Wagner and Jonkers 2017 ). For these team members, the benefits of IRC were clear: in-depth global trend analysis and comparison of different national case studies would not have been possible without the knowledge and methodological expertise of collaborators from different countries, at various career stages, and with diverse know-how. The team members learned from each other about historical contexts and the scope of longitudinal trends, broadening their knowledge about higher education and science systems worldwide.

Important meanings associated with IRC were (1) support to cross disciplinary boundaries, and (2) discussions of theoretical and methodological innovation. Reflection of different scientific cultures, strongly related to researcher socialization—in their disciplines, in particular methodologies, and in contrasting cultural contexts—is necessary to engage in dialogue.

‘Learning from each other’s experiences and competencies; it’s impossible to understand a foreign system just by reading articles about it’ (PhD 1).

This example shows the significance of and mutual dependence of researchers to broaden their (comparative) knowledge and expertise. Researchers from several countries collaborating impacts team communication. Diverse understandings of hierarchies and dealing with colleagues from different status groups and cultures had important consequences. For example, ‘…different norms how team members talk to each other’ and ‘no classic boss and student relationship, but in ‘our culture’ in [Asian country] they listen to the senior scholar. No equal conversations’ (PhD 2). Furthermore, different conceptions of theoretical approaches and expertise in data coding and interpretation were among the challenges the team faced.

In addition to general reasons motivating collaboration ( Beaver 2001 , 2013 ; Sonnenwald 2007 ), team members identified numerous specific motivations: learning new methods; research topic relevance; pressure to acquire third-party funding; time to do multidisciplinary work; understanding other higher education and science systems; friendship; and the potential to advance theoretical thinking and methodological expertise. As one PhD student reported:

‘I really enjoy the time with my team because some scholars share their skills’ ; ‘I decided to participate based on these two incentives: I mean, the first is that the topic is relevant to my research… and the second is it may be interesting to work in another country’ ; ‘the topic could fit into my future career, I decided to join’ (PhD 2).

Another stated that ‘after the seminar, [PI 1] asked me to write a proposal with him’ (PhD 1).

Two additional motivations evident in the interviews were the pressure to acquire research grants and third-party funding: money (laughter)’ (PI 1). Available time to participate was essential:‘ I had heard about [the project] and the international collaboration stuff and on his team of grad students I was the only one who was doing higher education research who had time’ (PhD 1).

Further motivations included learning about other higher education and science systems. A shared history among team members promoted their wish to join forces in the project. This confirms Melkers and Kiopa’s (2010 : 391, 408) finding that growing interest in IRC also reflects the personal desire to work together and to access new and diverse resources and knowledge not available at home.

The team’s multidisciplinarity and expertise in multiple methods advanced thinking and facilitated development of new approaches, including the unique database construction. Thus, this case corroborates diverse benefits and motivations of IRC mentioned in the research literature.

Next, we address challenges faced by the team members. International and multidisciplinary projects require considerable organization and structured management of tasks (work packages). This was experienced as a major challenge.

‘Asian people always like to work overtime. But I know [PI 1] would never do that’ (PhD 2).

Working styles represent aspects of the scientific culture, cultural background, career stage, and individual personality. Cultural, organizational, and team expectations may not always be in harmony. Indeed, for some team members, it was challenging to adapt to different social situations and ways of discussing research problems across status groups. Yet experiences in different subteams helped them to overcome fears and to open up, reflecting the influence of global scientific norms.

Not only do different communication styles hinder or enhance collaboration, the geographical location of researchers across time zones and on other continents demanded flexible organization to ensure steady work progress. The distribution of labor needed to be continuously (re)negotiated to achieve the milestones and complete work packages that often relied on other sub-teams. Team members did not explicitly discuss these topics in advance, implicitly assuming that the others would understand their responsibilities to deliver on time–– ‘We never discussed it’ (PhD 1). This manifests the implicitness of norms as well as non-rational qualities of much collaborative work. More regular communication among team members about tasks and specific goals and needs of individual team members, but also about culturally variant workstyles, could have been optimized. Open communications and support by team leaders even after funding ended were essential for this IRC’s long-term success. Culturally diverse subteams with members working outside their countries of origin were responsible for a range of interlocking tasks, requiring individual members to manage different expectations—organizational and interpersonal—to meet the goals set forth in a field new to many. For those writing national case studies on their home country, collaboration proceeded more easily than for those analyzing contexts foreign to them or comparatively.

Over time, more frequent, often bilateral, exchanges within and across the subteams led to better solutions than larger, general discussions with the entire team. Furthermore, while multidisciplinary teams may facilitate innovative ideas and develop new methodological approaches, the lack of shared disciplinary grounding posed challenges. As one doctoral student noted, ‘I have never taken a real sociology course’ (PhD 1), which resulted in delays due to the necessary (and gradual) embedding of findings within the project’s theoretical approach. This comment emphasizes that recruitment processes must take into account the constellation of researchers assembled and project tasks.

As key challenges to successful collaboration, multiple members mentioned time constraints, insurmountable disciplinary differences, and diverse theoretical and methodological strengths and weaknesses. For example, ‘I need to teach them how to do STATA’’ or ‘… scholars from different backgrounds […] have their own interests. I think that is very unique’ (PhD 2). Contrasting norms and discussion cultures, communication styles, and handling of hierarchies and status differences were identified as additional challenges. Furthermore, taken-for-grantedness and the reflection of changing task distribution and subteam membership were mentioned as difficult to negotiate. By contrast, facilitators included ‘ Not making the project too tight; being generous with people; flexibility; I tried to be mellow about it; principle: everybody can use the data, you just have to communicate about it; everybody can publish their own things’ (PI 1). This last example from our interviews shows that flexibility and resilience are important skills team leaders should bring. It is important to keep the overall project goals in mind, but IRCs must also provide room to evolve and to develop new ideas, especially given varying tasks and learning processes within the team and across subteams.

Surveying team members at different career stages and in diverse higher education systems worldwide eight years after project begin, we found a range of benefits, motivations, and challenges ( Table 1 ). Among the many benefits, team members mentioned learning about other higher education and science systems and conducting global research. Learning from and helping each other was closely related to the distribution of labor across subteams that enabled results beyond what any individual or regional team could have accomplished alone. Beyond broadening knowledge, the considerable benefits deriving from the project, a perhaps surprising result is the social significance of team members’ friendships, the reinforcement of existing relationships, and networking. Thus, this social dimension should not be marginalized in future analyses of research collaboration. Further motivations to participate included the relevance of the research topic, career advancement opportunities, and––associated with the clear benefits of such international, multidisciplinary teams—the learning of new theoretical approaches and methods. Individual work does not provide similarly diverse opportunities to learn.

Simultaneously with numerous benefits and strong motivations to collaborate, the team members also reflected on more and less foundational challenges to the project as it evolved from a short-term funded project to a less formal, long-term global collaboration supported solely by intrinsic motivation to learn, to advance the common research agenda, and to maintain friendly social relations. Unsurprisingly for a truly global project with considerable empirical ambition, the organization and structured management of work packages and tasks was challenging, despite the dedicated project management and continuous usage of information technology. In fact, more challenging than actual work organization were contrasting expectations and norms relating to culture and specific organizational contexts. Obviously, individual, disciplinary, and career stage differences affected what researchers needed—and this changed over time as the younger scholars matured, completed their dissertations, and embarked on new projects, some directly building upon the project’s medium-term achievements.

Critically noted, along with different modes of working, were contrasting styles of communication and differing language skills that inhibited free exchange of information. Beyond these more individual challenges, the distribution of labor and the time constraints due to the limited duration of project funding delayed or limited the IRC’s output. Finally, while diverse theoretical and methodological backgrounds reflected team strengths and weaknesses, these also posed challenges for optimal collaboration, especially due to lack of sufficient opportunities for dialogue across considerable spatial distance.

These findings confirm the diversity and complexity of benefits, motivations, and challenges of IRC; of cultural, organizational, and individual characteristics; and of informal and formal collaboration processes leading to scientific contributions, such as coauthored publications. In team science and beyond, these topics require further attention in science, policymaking, and project-based practice. Cultural and social dynamics of collaborative research in multidisciplinary and international teams remain insufficiently investigated. We next reflect on the autoethnographic approach taken and reflect on implications for future research.

The benefits, motivations, and challenges of international collaborative research were analyzed to understand diverse subjective perspectives on the dynamics relating to such collaboration in a specific globe-spanning team. We reviewed research on IRCs on the team level, embedding therein our empirical material, based on autoethnographic interviews and a retrospective survey with the project’s researchers and managers. The case study provides diverse perspectives of members in an international, multidisciplinary team in the sociology of science. Our findings confirmed previous findings on IRCs, but also provided novel insights relating to IRC team dynamics.

For example, the significance of and mutual dependence of researchers to broaden their knowledge and expertise is an essential element of successful research collaborations. Using autoethnography, we uncovered implicit norms and non-rational qualities of collaborative work. This result emphasizes the need for more regular personal communications among team members about the contents of their work, but also about their individual goals, unique contributions, and (career development) needs. The creation of an open communication environment by team leaders is crucial, especially in projects with multilingual members (see Wöhlert 2020 ). Careful recruitment of team members reflecting project goals and approaches is necessary, questioning assumptions that recruitment should be objective or ignore existing personal relationships, as a crucial source of trust. Cultural and career stage issues should be explicitly addressed by team leaders, who attend to evolving task distribution and provide room to develop new ideas and learn to practice critique within hierarchies. Such findings suggest further research focus on IRC team dynamics.

While the presented findings derive from one case study and thus cannot be generalized, the results of this autoethnography highlight specific dimensions of IRCs in the social sciences—and confirm previous findings. Using autoethnographic methods to analyze developments over a decade, we presented insights into cultural differences and intercultural communication challenges, but also into myriad benefits and motivations of collaborating across boundaries, both spatial and social. Open questions for future research include the assessment of relevant dimensions of culture in IRCs—such as national, organizational, or epistemic—as well as discussion of the diversity of cultures within multidisciplinary and intercultural teams and its influence on IRC. The above outlined methodological critiques of autoethnography, such as lack of self-criticism and subjectivity notwithstanding, this approach acknowledges and uncovers often hidden but equally important drivers of research, namely interpersonal connections and curiosity, which are difficult to observe applying other methods, such as bibliometrics that emphasizes collaboration’s most visible outputs.

Further implications for future research include the investigation of team-level dynamics of IRCs and the specific needs of researchers at different career stages. The utilization of individual team members’ strengths and how these can be applied in team building and achieving project goals is another important strand of research. Most studies concentrate on the benefits of IRCs, discounting the challenges. Yet holistic perspectives are needed for realistic planning and durable success in (larger) collaborations that pay off (much) later than official project duration, for the individual researchers, for their organizations, and for global science. The social and networking dimensions should not be underestimated in motivating such research, which may be considered risky, as trust is a key to the sharing of ideas that lead to discoveries. The chosen mixed-methods approach combined analysis of coauthored publications and interpretative analysis of autoethnographic interviews and surveys with various team members (at PI, doctoral, postdoctoral, and project manager levels).

In contrast to the presented retrospectively-designed case study and based on the above findings, for future IRCs, we recommend implementation of accompanying team-oriented autoethnographic research throughout the project—and following researchers’ scientific careers longitudinally—to monitor and reflect on researchers’ dynamic roles within such complex project arrangements and less formal collaboration networks as their careers develop. This approach would have been beneficial for an in-depth analysis and interpretation of the presented results as well as to capture important nuances and informal processes that contribute to the development of social and intellectual capital on the team level in IRCs (see Melkers and Kiopa 2010 : 404).

While there is some variability in the duration of funded projects, the typical 2- or 3-year timeframe is often insufficient to complete empirical data-gathering or the in-depth (comparative) analysis needed for either in-depth understanding or policy recommendations. For complex international projects, teamwork is challenging; thus, necessary trust—including support and friendship—is crucial, especially beyond the official project duration, to complete publications and design follow-up projects; particularly within new settings and constellations of researchers. More explicit reflection of cultural backgrounds and language competencies as well as theoretical and methodological knowledge would facilitate teams’ overcoming key challenges, yet this is often not explicitly made a key criterion during peer review, even though such preparation and processes are essential for long-term project success.

Complex projects, and those in particular disciplines utilizing rare infrastructure, often exhibit collaboration imperatives. Comparative and global higher education and science research are hardly possible without the in-depth contextual knowledge provided by researchers from different places. Team leadership and planning—related to the division of labor and communication, work styles, and cultural and disciplinary backgrounds—demand more attention from scholars and policymakers alike. For the project members, spatial mobility was essential to achieve project goals, yet the burden was unequally distributed. The COVID-19 global pandemic has led to the broad questioning of the effects of spatial distance on IRCs as communication technologies develop even further. More than ever in highly competitive academic labor markets, explicit project planning is crucial. The key motivations and benefits of IRCs are the advancement of scientific careers via opportunities to learn new theories, develop methodological skills, and expand contextual knowledge. Building international, intergenerational networks provides the explicit collaboration opportunities necessary to ensure that the benefits outweigh the challenges of international collaborative research that, in many fields, is increasingly the norm.

We thank David P. Baker and our other SPHERE team members who contributed to our international research collaboration and to this case study. For encouragement, advice, and comments on earlier drafts, we thank Sarah-Rebecca Kienast, Anna Kosmützky, Diego Kozlowski, Marcelo Marques, Romy Wöhlert, Mike Zapp, and the anonymous reviewers. We dedicate this article to the memory of Robert D. Reisz (1964–2020), a convivial and dedicated team member and Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, Philosophy and Communication Sciences, West University of Timisoara, Romania, who passed away unexpectedly and far too young.

We acknowledge the Qatar National Research Fund, a member of Qatar Foundation, for co-funding this research (NPRP Grant No. 5-1021-5-159). The findings herein are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Conflict of interest statement . The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

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While most of NCCIH’s research support goes to U.S. institutions, we do in some instances support work outside of the United States which is in alignment with our strategic plan and research priorities .

Most work in other countries is supported through subcontracts or consortium agreements of U.S. grantees.

Direct funding of research at foreign institutions is possible under a limited set of grant mechanisms or specifically targeted initiatives. Investigators from non-U.S. institutions interested in direct funding of their research by NCCIH should contact the appropriate NCCIH Program Director to discuss eligibility and opportunities.

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Foreign institutions are eligible for funding through direct mechanisms (R01, R21, and R03) only when specified in the PA or RFA. In addition, NCCIH encourages foreign researchers to contact the appropriate NCCIH Program Director noted in the PA or RFA, or on the NCCIH website.

Foreign institutions are not eligible to submit grant applications for the following types of grant mechanisms used by NCCIH:

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Foreign institutions often receive NIH/NCCIH support as foreign components of a grant made to another research institution. In these cases, the funding flows from the grantee institution to the foreign collaborating institution through a subcontract agreement between the two institutions. The subcontract agreement details the respective roles, activities and responsibilities of both institutions, and any conditions or terms for payment of subcontract funds. These arrangements are developed during the grant application process.

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All research proposals submitted to NIH undergo the same process of scientific peer review .

In addition, NIH policy requires that specific criterion be considered in the review process and award decision for foreign grant applicants, including whether the project presents special opportunities for furthering research programs through the use of unusual talent, resources, populations or environmental conditions in other countries that are not readily accessible in the United States, or that augment existing U.S. resources, and whether the proposed project has the potential for significantly advancing the health sciences.

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The Fogarty International Center is dedicated to advancing the mission of NIH by supporting and facilitating global health research conducted by U.S. and international investigators, building partnerships between health research institutions in the United States and abroad, and training the next generation of scientists to address global health needs. Information on specific opportunities can be found at .

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Assistance Listing Number (ALN): 84.017 Program Type: Discretionary/Competitive Grants

This program supports research, surveys, studies, and the development of instructional materials to improve and strengthen instruction in modern foreign languages, area studies, and other international fields.

In addition to research, surveys and studies, the program provides funds for the development of foreign language materials designed to improve and strengthen foreign language and area and related studies in the U.S. education system.

Types of projects funded under this program:

  • Studies and surveys to determine needs for increased or improved instruction in modern foreign languages, area studies, or other international fields, including the demand for foreign language, area, and other international specialists in government, education, and the private sector.
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Funds awarded may NOT be used for the training of students and teachers. No cost-sharing is required.

Under the terms of the Small Business Research and Development Enhancement Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-564), the Department of Education is required to set aside a minimum of 1.5 percent of funds appropriated for research to support the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. Funds from the International Research and Studies (IRS) Program are used to support the SBIR Program.

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International Research

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Princeton boasts many centers and research projects specifically focused on international work. These provide opportunities for students, scholars and faculty to conduct international research, learning and teaching both on campus and around the world. Such is the dynamic nature of international research activity that the following list may not be exhaustive. 

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International Projects

Academic fellows from Afghanistan, who worked previously in support of U.S. government efforts there, will collaborate with SPIA’s academic community on policy research to help build an inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan that represents all its citizens equally. 

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Princeton professor  C. Jessica E. Metcalf  and postdoctoral researchers  Fidisoa Rasambainarivo  and  Benjamin Rice  will lead this project evaluating the impact of domestic-animal pathogens on the biodiversity of native wildlife in Madagascar and — in light of COVID-19 — the potential consequences for human health. The researchers will focus on the parasite  Toxoplasma gondii  transmitted by domestic cats, which infects warm-blooded animals and can cause severe disease in many species, as well as birth defects in humans. The researchers will collect samples from endangered carnivores within the island’s protected habitats to determine the extent of infection and the impact of  T. gondii  on species’ health. They will build on these data to help design potential control programs to limit initial  T. gondii  infection in housecats for wildlife conservation and human health. At the same time, the researchers will document the diversity of pathogens found in non-human wild and domestic mammals across the island, from within human communities to the interior of protected habitats, compiling data on the transmission modes that drive the proliferation of pathogens in Madagascar’s native carnivores.

In the Brazil LAB, the South American country is taken as a nexus for thinking through pressing issues that affect people in Brazil and globally, and that are salient to both established scholarship and nascent critical work.

Princeton professors  Robert Pringle  and  David Wilcove  will lead an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, economists and social scientists who will collaborate with communities in and around Mozambique’s  Gorongosa National Park  to help promote biodiversity and strengthen local economies, while also optimizing the landscape’s climate resilience and potential for carbon storage. The project builds on  the Pringle Lab ’s extensive work studying Gorongosa’s ecology, and  the Wilcove Team ’s research related to preserving biodiversity, particularly in tropical and agricultural zones. By using Gorongosa as a model, the researchers aim to develop an adaptable framework that can be tailored for coupled human-natural systems throughout Africa and worldwide.

The Global Japan Lab (GJL) promotes and supports research, teaching, and training on contemporary Japan across multiple disciplines. GJL places particular emphasis on questions regarding demographic change, international relations, and environmental uncertainty – and the contexts in which they are experienced. As the oldest population in the world, a key player in international economic and geopolitical systems, and a country dramatically impacted by climate change and natural disasters, Japan is a particularly valuable source of insight. GJL collaborates closely with the  UTokyo Center for Contemporary Japanese Studies (TCJS)  as part of the  Princeton-University of Tokyo Strategic Partnership .

The Global Systemic Risk research community frames its multidisciplinary inquiry from a number of vantage points to better understand the nature of risk, the structure of increasingly fragile systems, and the ability to anticipate and prevent catastrophic consequences.

The Migration Lab is a multidisciplinary research community that brings a wide range of scholarly expertise to bear upon contemporary migration issues. 

This research community investigates opportunities to channel capital flows to countries suffering from weak institutions and, in many cases, the threat or reality of violent conflict. 

Rapid Switch is a cross-disciplinary research community involving political science, other applied social and behavioral science, and economics whose purpose is to expand and deepen an understanding of pathways to decarbonization.

This research community seeks to foster debate and collaboration among a diverse range of scholars over the character and future of global order. 

C. Jessica Metcalf , professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs, is examining the intersection of food security and disease in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. Home to 2 million people and in one of the world’s poorest countries, Antananarivo hosts a flourishing poultry-farming sector, which provides food security and an income stream for many households. Local poultry farms are primarily small-scale and together provide an affordable source of protein with relatively low environmental impacts compared to industrial agriculture. However, these small operations can be devastated by poultry diseases, particularly Newcastle disease (ND), which swiftly spreads between birds and can cause 100 percent mortality in unvaccinated flocks. This project is modeling the spread and distribution of ND in Antananarivo in order to identify ND-infection risk factors, as well as to improve vaccination and prevent outbreaks. Metcalf is working with Princeton students to map farms, trading centers and ND cases across the city. The project’s hypothesis is that birds are most at risk of infection from contact at trading hubs rather than between neighboring farms. The data will be used to explore the cost and benefit of ND vaccination for local poultry farmers.

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Regions & Countries

International surveys.

Pew Research Center regularly conducts public opinion surveys in countries outside the United States as part of its ongoing exploration of attitudes, values and behaviors around the globe. To date, the Center has conducted more than 800,000 interviews in over 110 countries, mainly in conjunction with the longstanding Global Attitudes and Religion & Public Life projects but including others such as a 20-country international science study and another on digital connectivity in 11 emerging economies.

Country Specific Methodology

View detailed information such as mode of interview, sampling design, margin of error, and design effect, for each country we survey.

Cross-national studies constitute the bulk of Pew Research Center’s international survey research. Such studies pose special challenges when it comes to ensuring the comparability of data across multiple languages, cultures and contexts. To learn more about the challenges and best practices of polling in foreign countries and in multiple languages, see here.

Pew Research Center staff are responsible for the overall design and execution of each cross-national survey project, including topical focus, questionnaire development, countries to be surveyed and sample design. The Center’s staff frequently contract with a coordinating vendor to identify local, reputable research organizations, which are hired to collaborate on all aspects of sample and questionnaire design, survey administration and data processing. Both coordinating vendors and local research organizations are consulted on matters of sampling, fieldwork logistics, data quality and weighting. In addition, Pew Research Center often seeks the advice of subject matter experts and experienced survey researchers regarding the design and content of its cross-national studies.

Field periods for cross-national studies vary by country, study complexity and mode of administration, typically ranging from four to eight weeks. To the degree possible, Pew Research Center attempts to synchronize fieldwork across countries in order to minimize the chance that major events or developments might interfere with the comparability of results.

Pew Research Center’s cross-national studies are designed to be nationally representative using probability-based methods and target the non-institutional adult population (18 and older) in each country. The Center strives for samples that cover as much of the adult population as possible, given logistical, security and other constraints. Coverage limitations are noted in the detailed methods for each country.

Sample sizes for Pew Research Center’s cross-national studies are usually designed to yield at least 1,000 interviews, though larger samples may be required for more robust within-country comparisons. Reported margins of error account for design effects due to clustering, stratification and weighting.

In the case of both telephone and face-to-face surveys, weighting procedures correct for unequal selection probabilities as well as adjust to key sociodemographic distributions – such as gender, age and education – to align as closely as possible with reliable, official population statistics. To learn about the weighting approach used for U.S. surveys using the nationally representative online American Trends Panel, visit here .

Pew Research Center is a charter member of the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) Transparency Initiative .


Other research methods.

About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .

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The OSU IRB must review all international research projects involving human subjects to ensure that the appropriate provisions are in place to protect the rights and welfare of study subjects. The safeguards must be at least equivalent to the protections afforded by the U.S. regulations pertaining to the protection of human subjects in research (45 CFR 46).

Research studies are considered to have an international component when investigators travel abroad to collect data or investigators use or collect data from participants who are outside of the U.S. Examples include (1) a researcher traveling to Brazil to conduct a survey with a Brazilian population, (2) a researcher analyzing identifiable biological specimens that were collected in India, or (3) researchers in the United States conducting an online survey in which subjects who live in other countries may respond.

Note: Research with international populations that occurs within the borders of the United States is not considered international research as the U.S. IRB regulations apply. However, many of the considerations below may be relevant as they relate to cultural sensitivity and/or language barriers.

Applications for international research should identify whether there is a local IRB, ethics committee, or government entity that must be consulted or that will perform a review within the host country. A copy of the approval notice or supporting documents for the local review should be included in the OSU IRB application.

If the research is funded by the U.S. government, then each foreign site that is “engaged” in the research must hold and/or obtain a valid Federal Wide Assurance (FWA) with OHRP and these sites must review and conduct research in compliance with the applicable U.S. federal regulations.

Helpful Links

  • Useful Considerations in International Research from Cornell University (2014)
  • Look here to see if there are IRB Requirements in your country of research: International Compilation of Human Research Standards
  • Listing of Social-Behavioral Research Standards
  • The Office of Human Research Protections ( OHRP) International Issue Links
  • For information on IRBs and IECs in a large number of countries, see the Harvard School of Public Health Global Research Ethics Map.
  • Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS), International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects .
  • For information about setting up an Ethics Review Committee (ERC) in a global setting, see World Health Organization (WHO) Research Ethics . 

Additional Considerations for International Research

  • The consent documents must be in a language understandable to the proposed participants. The IRB will not verify the accuracy of translated document. Therefore, a back translation may be required unless this requirement can be waived based on the qualifications of the translator.  For more information about how the IRB defines who is a qualified translator, please refer to section 10.4(d) of the OSU Policies and Procedures . Translated consent documents and any applicable back translations must be provided to the IRB along with the credentials of the translator detailed in Section 17.5 of the application and protocol form. Translated documents will be processed (stamped) in a manner consistent with documents presented in English.
  • There may be circumstances under which verbal consent is more appropriate than written consent. For more information, please refer to the section pertaining to Waiver of Documentation of Informed Consent in the OSU Policies and Procedures .


  • As with all compensation, investigators must take care to avoid unduly influencing subjects. Investigators should consider local context when determining the amount, type, and/or method of payment.The remuneration should be described in the compensation section of the application and protocol form in terms of its value in the U.S. and local context. This section of the protocol should also include a description of payment in relative terms (i.e., payment equates to a day’s work, hourly salary, or another local reference) (Duke University, 2011).Compensation need not be monetary and can include items such as food, gift cards, transportation reimbursement, household supplies, etc.

Local Contact Information

  • The consent form should include local contact information that is appropriate and feasible for the subject populations. Examples include phone and/or email for local co-investigators, name of community leader, Ministry of Health, coordinator for a non-governmental organization (NGO), and local IRB or ethics committee. 
  • Note: The consent form does not have to include the OSU IRB contact information on studies where that is not a reasonable requirement, e.g. participants do not speak English and/or they do not have access to international calling or email.

Non-English Speakers

  • Translations of consent documents, recruitment materials, test instruments, and/or other materials that will be seen by the participant must be submitted to the IRB for review in addition to the English version of the documents.
  • To ensure that the translations are accurate for the specific community of study, it is recommended that a local contact person verify the translations.
  • If local translators will be used to facilitate the research, Section 17.5 of the application and protocol form should include details about how translators are trained in confidentiality and protocol adherence.  
  • In instances where the data to be collected have the potential to cause social stigmatization, researchers and other study personnel should use care in selecting an appropriate field assistant or on-site translator to ensure that participant confidentiality is maintained. In some cases, local customs may require that the translator/field assistant be drawn from the community. In this case, the researcher/study personnel should also train the assistant about not unduly influencing a participant to respond to questions that s/he may otherwise not wish to answer (Seattle University, 2014). This training should also be outlined in the Training and Oversight section of the protocol.

Data Security 

  • Every effort should be made to save research data to the OSU server.
  • If it not immediately feasible to save data to the OSU server, a description of how data will be securely stored electronically and/or in paper format while both on site and in transit should be included in Section 30, question 7 and/or Section 34 of the application and protocol form. Please refer to the OSU Data Security Guidance for additional requirements. 
  • Once back in the United States, data should be saved in accordance with OSU data security guidance.

Export Control/Embargoed Countries

  • If you are planning to conduct research in an embargoed country , please indicate in your protocol and contact the OSU Export Control and International Compliance Office .

Local Context

Relevant local context information should be included in the IRB protocol. This includes, but it not limited to, the following:

  • A description of the research team’s knowledge of or experience in the host country as well as any relevant qualifications for conducting the proposed research within the international setting should be included in Section 20, question 3 and/or Section 39 of the application and protocol form.
  • Cities, regions countries where research will be conducted
  • Scientific/ethical justification for conducting the research in an international setting
  • Economic status of the country/community
  • Current events or socio-political environment in the country that may impact research conduct or alter the risks or benefits to subjects
  • Societal and cultural beliefs in the country that may impact research conduct or alter the risks or benefits to subjects
  • If women and children are part of the subject population, their role in the society, including their autonomy and legal capacity to make decisions.
  • If there are circumstances in which women or community members do not have the autonomy to make decisions for themselves, the plan for obtaining informed consent from both the study subject and any additional authority figures should be included in Section 17.3 of the application and protocol form.
  • Literacy rate of the potential subject population
  • Languages and dialects of the potential subject population
  • Involvement of organizations, community leaders, or experts in engaging the subject population or conducting the research
  • Relevance of the research to the area’s health, economic, educational, or other needs
  • Distribution of risks and current and future benefits (Tufts University, 2014).
  • A description of how the plan for recruitment and subject selection will avoid undue influence or favoritism within the subject population.

Mandatory Reporting

  • Indicate what local laws govern reporting of child abuse in the country of study, if applicable.
  • Provide a plan if you encounter suspected child abuse or neglect.
  • Indicate in the consent form your plan for reporting suspected child abuse or neglect to local authorities, if applicable.
  • NOTE: Under Oregon Law, employees of the University are required to report instances of child abuse to Oregon Authorities regardless of where the child abuse occurred. However, the IRB has had multiple conversations with Oregon authorities and it is unclear what would happen with that information. Therefore, while it is still required and should be included in the application and protocol form, disclosure to Oregon Authorities does not need to be added to the consent form, as it is unlikely to pose a risk to participants within the country of study.
  • Additional information about mandatory reporting can be found on the OSU Equal Opportunity and Access website and on the Oregon Department of Human Services website .

Project Revisions

  • All revisions or amendments to an approved study must be reviewed and approved by the IRB prior to initiating the change(s) regardless of the location of research. Changes that are required by local IRBs or communities must be submitted to the OSU IRB prior to initiation. Please see the HRPP project revision  guidance for more information.

Lab Tests in an International Setting

  • If lab tests will be performed in an international setting, additional information may be required. Please see the Guidance for CLIA Certification for additional Information.

International Travel Resources on the OSU Campus

While the personal safety of OSU employees and students conducting research outside the United States is outside the purview of the IRB, there are relevant resources available on campus.

  • Office of Global Opportunities guidance for students about Health and Safety while studying or traveling abroad
  • Office of Risk Management, International Travel Requirements for OSU Employees
  • Office of Export Control and International Compliance information about international travel
  • Student Health Services Travel Clinic

Cornell University (2014), Human Research Participant Protection Program: Guidance on IRB Review of International Research

Duke University (2011), International Research 

Seattle University (2014), Research in International Settings

Tufts University (2014), International Research Guidance & Checklist

Human Research Protection Program, Institutional Review Board B308 Kerr Administration Corvallis, OR 97331-2140 [email protected] Phone: (541) 737-8008

  • Education and Advising
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  • Ethical Principles, Regulations, and Policies
  • Guidance for Researchers
  • Informed Consent Guidance and Templates

Contact Info

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Challenges of Researchers in Conducting International Study during the Eruption of COVID-19: Student and Mentor Perspectives

Jenail mobaraka.

1 Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of California Berkeley, 340 Stephens Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-2314, USA; ude.yelekreb@akarabomj

Lian Elkazzaz

2 Global Studies, University of California Berkeley, 101 Stephens Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-2306, USA; ude.yelekreb@zazzaklenail

Niveen Rizkalla

Associated data.

Not applicable.

Conducting an international research study may bear various challenges; however, during the global COVID-19 crisis, such a study undertakes unpredictable trajectories. This paper explores the challenges experienced by researchers studying Syrian refugees’ physical and mental health and aid workers serving under humanitarian organizations in Lebanon. It includes information about the changes in the study’s goals and design with the emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-2, as necessitated by the circumstances COVID-19 imposed. It focuses on the unique perspectives of the research team of two students and their mentor who faced multiple challenges while involved in the study, and their narratives and subjective experiences that led to new opportunities for growth in the project. The research team specifically engaged in humanistic and existential psychology in order to conduct research in a manner conducive to personal and professional development, productivity and growth. To conclude, the researchers propose recommendations to the academic community on mitigating some of the challenges faced when conducting international research, and suggestions to the humanitarian sector serving vulnerable populations in conflict zones during COVID-19.

1. Introduction

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the international community has come to a breaking point. Borders have been closed, economies have suffered and communities have lived in fear of potential viral transmission. Academic research activities were significantly hampered, field visits and data collection were paralyzed and funding resources were frozen and halted [ 1 ]. In our study, the existing challenges of conducting international field work research in Lebanon’s precarious socio-economic and political conditions were compounded by the complex implications of COVID-19.

This paper explores the challenges encountered by the team of researchers from two perspectives: the students’ perspectives, the first two authors, and the mentor’s perspective, the third author. The paper begins with a brief background on the study and its complex circumstances and proceeds to the subjective perspectives of each researcher’s personal experience. The authors’ experiences will engage in a humanistic and existential psychology scholarship and its relevance to the process of this study.

In the initial study design, the research team approached contacts in the Middle East. It established connections with on-the-ground nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Lebanon, which provide services to Syrian refugees and local Lebanese in need. The study titled “Violent Conflict, Physical and Mental Health Needs of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon” aimed to examine the physical and mental health conditions and unmet needs of Syrian refugees who reside in the urban areas of Lebanon. The initial goals of the study did not include the impacts of COVID-19 on the targeted population. The students were set to travel to Lebanon to gather survey data from Syrian refugees and conduct semi-structured interviews with staff of the NGOs frequented by Syrian refugees for aid and services. However, due to COVID-19, travel-related restrictions were put into effect, which prevented the implementation of the initial study design, as well as changed the goals of the study. Various risks and ethical concerns, which arose around the continuation of the study, included the possibility of the students’ immediate deportation from Lebanon, their inability to return to the United States, and most importantly, the risk of transmitting the virus unknowingly to the already vulnerable refugee population and service providers who were assisting them. Moreover, the academic institution with which the team was affiliated has determined a strong preference for human subjects research to be limited, “unless it was in the best interest of the subjects” (R. Katz, personal communication, 16 March 2020). Thus, out of moral and ethical values, the study immediately shifted to be remote and focused on semi-structured interviews with only the staff of NGOs. The initial goals and design of the study to examine Syrian refugees’ physical and mental health needs—collected firsthand from refugees and NGO staff—were changed to examining Syrian refugees’ conditions as they were perceived by staff, as well as the physical and mental health consequences for staff due to their trauma work, while considering the impacts of COVID-19 on both refugees and staff [ 2 , 3 ].

During the COVID-19 pandemic, staff faced extreme limitations as a result of quarantine. This included the stress and mental health effects of deteriorating global conditions, changes in family dynamics and the enmeshment of boundaries, as well as complexities in the work–life balance, which shifted to a work-from-home life balance [ 4 ]. Staff had to rapidly adjust to their organizations’ new health and safety guidelines and faced increased workloads in serving communities who were struggling under shelter-in-place policies. As a collective society, social-distancing imposed difficulties on staff in restricting their social encounters, daily responsibilities, caregiving to family elderly/parents and their community support, which mostly includes frequent physical touch as a survival need, as well as a social and cultural norm for expressing human affection and warmth, especially common in the Middle East.

The shelter-in-place policies and the difficulties of conducting an international study during a pandemic was doubly challenging on researchers as well. Most participants were at home and therefore did not have access to the same work environment they did in their offices. This included a lack of private office space and the limited availability of a wireless connection; a condition in Lebanon where electricity inconsistencies are commonplace [ 5 ]. The limited internet connectivity forced researchers to only audio-record, rather than video-record aid workers, which had the benefits of minimizing a breach in participants’ confidentiality and enabled a safe space, but on the other hand, it narrowed the human interaction and nonverbal communication (e.g., body language, facial expressions) necessary for understanding emotional states. Furthermore, the 10-h time difference between Lebanon and California (Pacific Standard Time) posed additional stress. Establishing a rapport with participants in order to gather the data was paramount, but external distractions proved significant and required additional attention, flexibility and care [ 6 , 7 ].

Conducting an international study in the Middle East regardless of a pandemic is complex in itself. In terms of interviewer–interviewee dynamics, coming from a prestigious American academic institution to interview participants from the Middle East generates diverse power imbalances [ 8 ]. Participants were accustomed to interacting with American and other Western institutions in more formal donor–recipient relationships, rather than being interviewed about their personal working conditions and mental health, in addition to the physical and mental health of refugees and the locals they served. Moreover, the difference in cultural norms between participants and interviewers required adjustment for a cohesive and comfortable interview experience [ 9 , 10 ]. Ultimately, the dynamics of research conducted in the Middle East—where colonialism dominated the past, but still has many impacts on the reality in the present—by American researchers were only made more complex by the complications of living through a global pandemic and performing remote interviews.

All the aforementioned challenges have particular implications in the complicated socio-economic and political Lebanese terrain. Since October of 2019, Lebanon has undergone significant political upheavals, with millions of protestors taking to the streets to voice their frustration with governmental austerity and rapidly declining economic conditions [ 11 , 12 ]. Further, no one could have predicted the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disastrous implications on the already vulnerable Lebanese state’s economy. The consequences were so grave that protests only took a brief hiatus with the imposition of government shelter-in-place orders, but reignited due to economic unrest.

Syrian refugees, the primary population we had interest in studying, have been severely impacted by both the economic–political tensions and the COVID-19 conditions in Lebanon. To some degree, everyone in the world has felt the invasion of this crisis in their personal, professional, financial and familial lives [ 13 ]. For refugees who have already lived through the traumatic events of war, horror journeys of escape and who were barely surviving the extreme post-displacement poverty and survival challenges in the host country [ 14 , 15 , 16 , 17 , 18 , 19 , 20 ], their sense of insecurity and shattered safety have been further fragmented and ruptured. COVID-19 has created an inhumane hostage situation for refugees recuperating from the wounds and the ramifications of war. The refugee experience is one of forced displacement—crossing borders to flee the violence within their homelands—in search of shelter, protection and freedom. However, with a borderless global crisis like COVID-19 looming, safety remains out of reach and exacerbates refugees’ predicament. Thus, COVID-19 was evidenced as a complex, multilayered, prolonged global and shared trauma, which has an adverse and disproportionate impact on Middle Eastern minorities [ 21 ]. Its impact on minorities, among which are Syrian refugees, was found to elevate PTSD symptoms, depression and anxiety due to prolonged economic and lockdown acute stressors, discrimination, as well as multiple ongoing traumatizations and their cumulative and proliferation dynamics [ 21 , 22 ].

2. Student Perspective: The First Author

As a senior in college, this project was my first opportunity to engage in research so thoroughly. It is not often that an undergraduate student gets the level of access that I did into scholarship of this magnitude. Despite this being an incredible opportunity, there also existed a personal need and pressure to complete this project. Conducting original research and writing an accompanying undergraduate thesis is a requirement for graduation and was meant to be the culmination of four years of arduous and thoughtful study in this field.

With the news of shelter-in-place and subsequent travel restrictions, funding I had previously secured to support my field research was rescinded because of federal restrictions on travel. The inability to conduct the in-person interviews our team planned was particularly difficult for me as it could not be postponed and would push back my graduation until the project was completed. Coming from a background where I had little experience in conducting research and with my ability to graduate linked to the successful completion of this project, my stress increased significantly. However, my determination to continue the project did not solely lie in a fear of sunk costs or failure. The opportunity to conduct this study, under the circumstances of a global pandemic, encompassed a humanitarian purpose: finding new meaning in life and a valuable responsibility, a personal vocation and mission as a Syrian American researcher, in the hope to serve my people in delivering the voices of their suffering to the public eye. Eric Fromm’s [ 23 ] analysis of the human condition may explain the mixture of excitement and distress I felt upon embarking on such a journey; with the freedom to choose comes a tremendous responsibility, and into that burdening role of authentically and truly vocalizing my people’s torment, protrudes anxiety.

As a Syrian American, I expected discomfort in conducting research related to the Syrian refugee crisis. I understood that hearing the stories of war survivors would be deeply upsetting as I am a Syrian who felt close to the conflict, but I did my best to prepare. Nonetheless and despite my preparations, the inhumane conditions Syrian refugees endured during COVID-19, especially those described by aid workers, many of whom were Syrian refugees themselves, were the most inspiring and painful narratives to which I was exposed. I was saddened to discover that structural violence imposed on refugees during COVID-19 was even more dehumanizing of their already fragile conditions. The pandemic exacerbated their needs and limited their access to services, which resulted in keeping them physically isolated, socially demonized and consequently made the public panic from mortality threats more tangible [ 24 , 25 ]. Refugees were alienated and abandoned to cope with minimal governmental assistance, which left all the burden and responsibility on humanitarian organizations and their staff.

Aid workers had become overwhelmed due to the increased amount of support they had to provide to their beneficiaries in remote interactions, new project implementation and their own personal statuses as residents, or as Syrian refugees who worked in Lebanon. Many considered themselves in an emergency situation and had to take calls and complete tasks after work hours, in addition to dealing with their own disturbed routines and economic stressors. These circumstances imposed additional challenges in scheduling a convenient time for interviews or conducting the interviews in a space that provided privacy.

Further into the research process, the effects of interviewing, transcribing and analyzing the responses of aid workers became difficult. COVID-19 had burdened and slowed down all activities, which at times felt extremely heavy to me and made the transcribing process slower than I anticipated [ 6 , 26 ]. Mental and physical fatigue had started to show its impact with a feeling of emptiness looming over and slowing the process further.

In the struggle to defeat this exhaustion among our research team, we needed to remind ourselves “why are we doing this?” The sense of purpose and sacrifice aid workers shared with me has inspired me, especially that of Syrian refugees, who felt obligated and committed to help their people and vocalize their suffering. I made a choice and drew strength to persist for the sake of the same meaningful goal they held onto; we were united by a meaning we had to fulfill [ 27 ]. Nietzsche’s words of wisdom, cited by [ 27 ] helped in understanding their mission and my own: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”. Meaning-making is an important tool for coping with physical and mental health through life challenges such as adversity, crisis and trauma [ 28 ]; however, it was limited, especially among aid workers [ 2 , 3 , 29 ], and I have only encountered a few academic studies demonstrating similar impacts on researchers.

Practically, in order to persist and overcome this challenge, our research team agreed to edit each other’s interviews after finalizing the initial transcriptions. Analysis was conducted independently, which proceeded with group analyses and discussions on the final codes. The team shared the progress of the work via a group file, wherein all finalized materials were added by each researcher. This mutual responsibility and transparency of working together as a group improved our motivation and productivity, since the progression of the study depended on each team member’s contribution. This process particularly enlightened my understanding on how resourceful we were as a team, the power of solidarity [ 30 ] and how fortunate we were in being able to live in a country that still enjoyed abundance under such circumstances, especially in comparison to our participants. This realization and sense of gratitude allowed us as a research team to establish authentic relationships among one another, which were interwoven with empowered feelings of love and belongingness.

The friendships we formed with each other served as solace for me when the community was scarce, scattered, or too overwhelmed to offer any support. Our relationships also served as motivation for working through the project, even when it was emotionally taxing. Our resiliency in the face of unimagined challenges gave me hope for the future and a purpose in learning from the stories of aid workers I interviewed. My encounters with participants were filled with compassionate human connections that were not hampered despite being virtual.

Conducting international research during this time has been filled with challenges I never expected to face as an undergraduate student. However, because of the adaptation in this study I developed my research skills while limiting the margin of error that may have occurred in the field as a first-time researcher. Having spent four years studying the Middle East and personally being invested in the outcomes of the Syrian conflict, this project was gratifying at the culmination of my college career. This study taught me a lot about researchers’ existential need of walking alongside participants with sensitivity, the shared humanity between the researchers and participants [ 26 ], and the essence of compassion.

3. Student Perspective: The Second Author

Islamic tradition offers a saying, translated roughly as, “don’t hate something; it could be good for you”. I often found myself returning to this verse through our research project and the unfolding of the COVID-19 crisis. In its early stages, COVID-19 struck with collective fear and panic and revealed existential anxieties [ 13 ].

As a research team, we closely watched every development to plan our next moves. We sought travel and research-related guidance from the university and tracked the closure of airports and imposition of increasing travel restrictions globally. Ultimately, several months of planning unraveled over the span of two weeks. In making the decision to indefinitely postpone our travel plans, my frustrations exceeded my capacity as a student-researcher with disrupted plans. My Lebanese heritage emerged at the forefront of my thinking and I was left devastated at the prospect of losing the opportunity to reconnect with my family in Lebanon and revisit my invisible home and collective roots for the foreseeable future.

At the time of this project, I was a third-year undergraduate and a new transfer student from a community college. Thus, I had minimal research experience and faced a substantial learning curve. Prior to undertaking this project, I had never heard of research scales, much less tailored an entire project according to my interests. I quickly found myself doing work I previously thought inaccessible to undergraduates; I learned to code and analyzed transcripts and aided in protocol writing of the Institutional Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects review board.

Theoretically, government-imposed lockdowns would work to our advantage, as participants were working from home and would likely have a greater capacity to participate. In practice, we found that in the early days of lockdown, the world was still adjusting to life at home and social distancing. For weeks, our entire lives had been consumed by the virus; it occupied our thoughts, conversations and wedged its way into our relationships.

This invasion of sorts was abundantly present in my interviews through the demeanor of my participants, their responses and their outlooks. My questions were often met with “before COVID-19 or now?” It became clearer with each interview that participants were not interested in talking about circumstances prior to the onset of COVID-19. While I set out to learn about Syrian refugees’ legal and economic status in Lebanon, participants were more concerned with the implications of the rapidly deteriorating economy due to lockdown measures on the already extremely vulnerable refugee population. Thus, interview questions were modified to address the new goals of the study in examining aid workers’ current needs, concerns, and subjective experiences during the pandemic [ 6 ]. Although social and economic disparities have always been observed in Lebanon, I was still devastated to witness how COVID-19 intensified them, to the extent of splitting Lebanon aggressively into local-Lebanese and nonlocal refugees. During the pandemic, refugees were vilified, othered, and became even further alienated and feared. As a result, they suffered from heightened hostility and discrimination [ 21 ]. Hostility and micro-aggression were present in our interviews, when Lebanese aid workers articulated their professional opinions and perspectives on refugees while trying to hide their personal derogatory criticism and stigmatized attitudes.

Despite the complexity of conducting remote interviews, I bonded with many of my participants over our shared difficulties with working from home, the mental toll of quarantine and the emotional weight of witnessing the world’s uncertain state. As different as our circumstances were, I identified with my interviewees who, like myself, were working from home in less-than-ideal conditions, often with our families in the next room. I frequently found myself in an apology tug-of-war with the person on the other line, each insisting our regret for our poor internet connection. During the interviews, I learned how to differentiate between the line dis-connectivity and the silence I needed to allow in the conversation as a space for participants’ reflection [ 6 ] and gradually internalized not to fear from such silence [ 31 ].

In my previous academic and personal experience, I have found that navigating the Lebanese socio-political arena was tantamount to navigating a minefield. As a Lebanese person in the diaspora, I have always been invested in understanding the material conditions of the most vulnerable populations in the country. The personal narratives of aid workers have illustrated to me the magnitude of the challenges they and refugees face in ways that my past observations as an outsider could not. The participants effectively took my hand and walked me through the complexities of their work and lives in the Lebanese context. They discussed the technicalities of aid-related work in the Lebanese field, but also opened themselves up to be intimate and vulnerable with a stranger. By the conclusion of the interview process, I had discovered far more than what we initially sought out. Participants shared in great detail the structures of the NGOs serving refugees and highlighted their competition for the resources necessary to provide relief. I also identified my own vulnerabilities and learned new self-care techniques, as well as coping with pain, stress and trauma. Aid workers taught me about finding meaning and growth in humanitarian work and the factors which drove them to commit their professional and often personal lives in the service of others, despite the ever-present risk of secondary trauma [ 3 , 32 ].

However, the most important lesson they taught me was on how fragile we are as humans when confronting conflicts and disasters such as a pandemic, but not inasmuch as how resilient we could be in the most unanticipated moments; as in Nietzsche’s [ 33 ] vastly quoted affirmation: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. One of the Syrian participants attested that her son was killed in the war and she was still mourning his loss. Nonetheless, she was devoted and determined to contribute to other refugees at work. Her testimony reverberated within me how the personal, professional and political could not be differentiated, especially under the most miserable conditions, which force a person to transcend one’s self. She lost her son, but she wasn’t lost, she didn’t lose her will to live and survive, she said “yes” to life despite her loss and embraced an abundant lifestyle in the service of others.

Writing and disseminating this manuscript were also complex and anxiety provoking, especially in that journal reviews were also slowed down due to the pandemic circumstances and the unique scope of this paper, which did not always yield a perfect fit to journals’ aims. However, reading about Frankl’s determination—while being in a concentration camp, he clung onto rewriting his destroyed manuscript, which gave him a purpose to live and forced him to rise above his suffering—left our team with a feeling of awe. We too could not bear the thought of not finalizing this work under less severe conditions. The lessons we learned about the human capacity to make the best of any given situation by creatively turning negative aspects into constructive ones, under all circumstances, were tremendous. Acknowledging how meaningful our work and the relationships we established, have inspired us to change our attitudes towards the challenges of dissemination and to transcend above the quarantine sense of emptiness into proactively writing the manuscript. This has even rendered new opportunities for resilience and growth [ 27 ]. From this research team emerged loving and life-long friendships and as Yang [ 30 ] (p. 558) articulated: “it takes a team to accomplish important things”. In the rigorous academic environment through which we came together, this is a rarity. The nature of our dynamic provided collaborative space and support, which I will always value as essential components of success in every research endeavor, project and human interaction.

4. Mentor Perspective: The Third Author

Prior to COVID-19, my main concern as a mentor was related to the possible adverse impacts of secondary traumatic stress [ 32 ] and vicarious traumatization [ 34 ] of the students due to their involvement in a study that encompasses exposure to traumatic narratives. The students conducting the study were not professionally trained for their encounter with Syrian refugees who endured multiple traumatic events and prolonged survival stressors [ 15 , 16 , 17 , 18 ]. Therefore, the student researchers were at risk of potential harm in experiencing refugee PTSD-similar symptoms due to their field work-related exposure [ 2 , 3 , 35 , 36 ]. I was also concerned that the students’ lack of experience in interviewing traumatized populations, may result in causing discomfort or re-traumatization of participants [ 37 ]. Therefore, prior to the planned travel to Lebanon, I provided the students with training on conducting such a study, interviewing participants, participants’ vulnerability and potential benefits, self-care techniques, as well as increasing their awareness of the risk to their well-being as a consequence of their empathetic involvement with refugees via weekly in-person supervision meetings [ 37 , 38 ].

However, with the eruption of COVID-19, my concern amplified to include the potential harm to students as they were in similar circumstances to the study’s participants. They not only empathized with participants by putting themselves in their shoes, but they also identified with the participants being quarantined at home. This unusual and complex situation placed my students in a position defined as “Shared Traumatic Reality” [ 39 , 40 ]. Both the students and participants lived and worked under quarantine. This stressful context was at times traumatizing. Personally, I was also under quarantine, maneuvering parenting and academic work and faced similar stressful challenges; however, I needed to remain functional to provide my students with remote support and practical solutions during the research process. The more COVID-19 was hovering like an existential threatening cloud over our heads, the more the awareness of death became tangible and the greater my urge intensified in clinging onto life, similarly to confronting death as described by Irvin Yalom’s book [ 41 ] “The Gift of Therapy”. Though Yalom describes a more general awareness of death, my awareness of death was contextualized by the particular experience of fear due to the COVID-19 circumstances. Choosing life and living for me were reflected in a zest of vitality, enhanced awareness of the study’s importance and rarity, and a hectic working pace. Therefore, my relationship with my students intensified and became significant to a degree that they have saved me from isolation, lack of creativity and the ever-changing sense of uselessness and degrading meaninglessness [ 27 ].

The sudden change in the global spread of the virus made the study’s initial implementation plans impossible. Despite both students’ extreme desire to travel, I had to consult with administrative officials and colleagues regarding the university’s restrictions on travel. It was a difficult decision I had to make, bearing in mind both the health and safety of the students and participants, as well as the threat of the students’ inability to return to the United States from Lebanon. After long discussions with the students and navigating their disappointment and frustration, we decided to adhere to the university’s code of conduct and new guidelines and adjusted the study according to the new requirements the IRB office placed regarding international projects. This decision resulted in compromising many of the initial research goals that would have provided a person-centered holistic perspective on refugees’ conditions from both refugees and aid workers [ 42 ]. Instead, we accepted the fact that data collected might provide only partial information gathered from only aid workers and according to their subjective points of view. This solution of dividing the research into phases, wherein the first phase was conducted remotely, provided some relief to students and allowed for an easier adjustment to the remote phase.

Afterwards, the study’s team started preparing for the changes ahead. First, I contacted all the collaborating NGOs and informed them of the changes pertaining to our inability to conduct the study physically in Lebanon and gained their approval to conduct remote interviews with their staff. The response from organizations was slow due to being overwhelmed with the changes occurring globally and locally and the new stress their organizations faced in shifting their communication and services provided to refugees and locals to a remote operation. Then, the research team adjusted the research goals and interview schedule, to include new questions pertaining to the impacts of COVID-19 on aid workers and their perspectives on the impacts on beneficiaries. The informed consent process was adjusted to contain remote interviewing, ethical considerations of recorded interviews, privacy and confidentiality [ 31 ].

During the preparations for the changes in the study, I had to adjust the training of the students to weekly remote meetings, in addition to including potential challenges related to remote interviews. These challenges included the clarity of interview recordings, scheduling interviews considering the time difference, internet dis-connectivity and flexibility required from the researchers. Flexibility in conducting the study required scheduling meetings according to participants’ convenience and language preferences—which have not always aligned with those of the researchers. Fluency and professional terms in Arabic were another concern that students needed my help in translating. Additionally, we always had to bear in mind that participants were at their homes with their families, children, accompanying background noises, and distractions. Furthermore, other challenges were raised pertaining to participants’ responses, which might be biased to solely focusing their discourse on the impacts of COVID-19, rather than a chronological comparison prior to the pandemic. Moreover, it was necessary to consider participants’ levels of stress and the general feelings of panic in the Middle East. All these research challenges as well as personal challenges increased the students’ anxiety and stress levels in conducting a study for the first time in their academic experience, as well as my own anxiety in mentoring them during these unpredicted circumstances.

As a Palestinian trauma researcher, it was important to me to support my students during these tumultuous times. Therefore, our weekly remote meetings would commence with the students sharing their personal experiences, state of mind and well-being and later on would proceed to the research-related challenges and practical decision making ( Figure 1 ).

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Challenges of researchers in conducting international study during the eruption of COVID-19.

This process has proven to be effective and helpful in making the students feel safe, capable, encouraged and embraced. A useful and encouraging statement that I used during the meetings with my students and a reminder for myself when our work energies dropped, intimidated with doubt and a sense of vanity was: “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior” [ 27 ] (p. 32). I would recommend that mentors and supervisors at academic institutions provide their students and staff with such safe spaces to contain all the stressors conveyed, in order to enable productivity, growth and empowerment when conducting research in a Shared Traumatic Pandemic Reality.

5. Conclusions

COVID-19 has imposed many challenges on researchers in conducting an international study on refugees and aid workers’ circumstances in Lebanon. Such topics are rarely investigated and scarcely funded in academic studies, regardless of a pandemic. During the pandemic, many studies have utilized secondhand data found in internet resources due to the limited access to vulnerable populations in the field. However, our team has insisted on facing such challenges and conducted this firsthand study despite COVID-19 limitations and other obstacles faced in “normal” times. To conclude, we have set forth recommendations to the academic community and the humanitarian sector pertaining to conducting an international study and providing services to vulnerable populations in conflict affected zones during COVID-19, respectively, inspired by the holistic approach of humanistic psychology. Our recommendations hope to assist other researchers who undertake uncommon, underrepresented, and underfunded research journeys in times of disasters, beyond COVID-19. First, we recommend that researchers examine the Shared Traumatic Pandemic Reality as encompassing multiple impacts on both participants and researchers. During our study, quadrilateral impacts of COVID-19 were observed on four actors: refugees, aid workers, student researchers and a mentor. The pandemic has affected and changed the life and work circumstances of all mentioned actors, combining an additional layer of secondary traumatization to the already traumatizing work-related materials [ 21 ]. Second, conducting in-person data collection during a pandemic would place both participants and researchers at a potential risk of infection. Therefore, adjusting and compromising the study’s goals, design and methodology to address the new subjective conditions of all actors involved in the process are crucial protective measures. Flexibility and authentic communication are key requirements from researchers and mentors to overcome obstacles, such as adjustment of research questions and collaboration with agencies. Researchers need to take into consideration that the findings of their study might be dictated by participants’ personal experiences affected by a pandemic. These may encompass challenges and stressors, as well as new paths of making meaning, growth and development [ 43 ]. Third, even though COVID-19 disrupted the speedy processes and productivity of all professions [ 13 ], researchers may take advantage of remote studies, since they were found to be cost-effective [ 31 ]. Remote research spares the time of travel, accommodation, culture shock and academic institutional reimbursement procedures. Researchers may utilize the time productively in data analysis to be delivered to collaborative agencies in a faster manner. “The methodology should inherently be aimed at improving the situation for those affected by it” [ 44 ] (p. 716). Thus, productivity may assist agencies and policy makers in incorporating the research recommendations to the benefit of their beneficiaries and staff. Fourth, being exposed to the complex traumatic pandemic experience, which includes fear, panic, uncertainty, emptiness, economic instability and helplessness, may hold some solace as a shared global human experience [ 13 ]. However, at the same time, it may also hold a dehumanizing experience due to the forced quarantine, social distancing and isolation, which can be devastating if not addressed in humane policies. Therefore, we recommend addressing the basic needs of all actors, especially the physiological and safety needs, as well as the need for love and belonging [ 43 ]. By providing emotional support during COVID-19, not only to beneficiaries, the refugees in our study, but also to the aid workers who assist them, researchers involved in data collection and mentors who support their research teams may increase the sense of belongingness. Support groups and training on balancing work and work-from-home, remote work and parenting, and precautionary measures during work, are recommended in enhancing the sense of belonging, safety and productivity [ 45 ].

Additionally, refugees, aid workers and research teams may face similar challenges during COVID-19, manifested in new work stressors, threatened health, family dynamics, unemployment of family members and other economic obstacles [ 45 , 46 , 47 ]. Therefore, we also recommend addressing refugees, aid workers, and research teams’ basic needs in providing them with hygiene kits, food pantries or grocery bags, children’s school supplies and so on. Due to COVID-19′s economic impact and the high unemployment rate globally, we recommend continuing the cash assistance for refugees and paid salaries for aid workers and researchers, despite the changes in eligibility criteria, or working hours and productivity, respectively. These recommendations would require flexibility from donors in the terms and standards of the funds provided to academic institutions and relief agencies, so that they can adequately support, embolden capacities, enable a sense of dignity, security and stable functioning of their beneficiaries, staff and researchers.

COVID-19 impacted humanity globally, regardless of citizenship, culture, race, gender, ethnic group, sexual orientation, or any other affiliation, which resulted at times in feelings of despair, meaninglessness, loneliness and a violation of profound aspects of life, such as questioning the purpose in living [ 48 ]. Still the impacts of COVID-19 were disproportionately more taxing among sexual minorities, BIPOC and women in general in academia [ 45 ], underserved and marginalized populations belonging to a low socio-economic stratum [ 47 ], as well as minorities and refugee populations in the Middle East [ 21 , 22 ]. It is thus crucial to familiarize all actors with the term “monoanthropism” or shared humanity [ 27 ], to offer them some hope and strength, since they are not alone in the current situation, and to remind them that what they do is meaningful, under all circumstances, including at times of inevitable suffering and torment. Such a reminder will encourage them to make an opportunity out of a challenge and to gain resilience and growth in the face of adversity [ 48 ].

This study was an important opportunity to conduct research during unprecedented circumstances, but the recommendations outlined are not only limited to research conducted during COVID-19. The recommendations provided are based on adjusting to the complicated lives of humans and the considerations made will prove valuable to every research study conducted in less-than-ideal circumstances, especially during precarious times of global turmoil. Pandemics unfortunately are persistent and not easily demolished, with the worsening conditions of climate change, spreading of zoonotic diseases facilitated by global trade, as well as the increased displacement of diverse populations worldwide, making coping for professionals even more traumatizing and complex. Thus, it is essential to learn from our experience during COVID-19 in outlining what to expect in such circumstances and tailoring new policies, so that the academic community and humanitarian sector are better prepared when faced with future epidemics and other globally impacting situations.


We thank the Syrian and Lebanese aid workers for their participation and for sharing their personal and professional narratives, voices, and experiences, which have taught us many lessons on humanity, assisting others and coping with work trauma in Lebanon, especially during the quarantine and the eruption of COVID-19. We also thank all humanitarian organizations operating in Lebanon for their collaboration and for allowing us access to their staff and facilitating our remote encounters with them. These organizations are: Women Now for Development; Basmeh and Zeitooneh: Relief and Development; World Vision Lebanon; Akkarouna; SHEILD Lebanon; and Serepta. We would also like to thank Jamal Atamneh for connecting us with organizations operating in Lebanon that serve Syrian refugees and locals in need. In addition, we would like to thank Rayan Lotfi and Kei McHale for their editing suggestions to the manuscript.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, J.M., L.E. and N.R.; methodology, J.M., L.E. and N.R.; validation, J.M., L.E. and N.R.; formal analysis, J.M., L.E. and N.R.; investigation, J.M. and L.E.; resources, J.M. and N.R.; data curation, J.M. and L.E.; writing—original draft preparation, J.M., L.E. and N.R.; writing—review and editing, J.M., L.E. and N.R.; visualization, J.M. and L.E.; supervision, N.R.; project administration, N.R.; funding acquisition, J.M. and N.R. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

This research was partially funded by two research grants from the Sultan Program in Arab Studies of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley, granted to J.M. and N.R. In addition, publication made possible in part by support from the Berkeley Research Impact Initiative (BRII) sponsored by the UC Berkeley Library.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Informed consent statement.

Only verbal informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study due to the limitations imposed by COVID-19 and the remote interviewing process.

Data Availability Statement

Conflicts of interest.

The authors declare no conflict of interest. The funders had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results.

Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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International Research

International research poses unique and complex ethical challenges. To review a study that is being conducted in an international setting and/or with international participants, the IRB HSR requires additional information about the study and its participants. Although we work to maintain a Board with a broad range of expertise, it is impossible to cover the diverse groups that are studied by our researchers. It is important to provide the IRB HSR with more details about the participants, appropriately identify risks to the participants, and describe how you will minimize those risks. Doing so will help the IRB HSR to accurately review your study and will demonstrate your preparedness for conducting your study. This section details specific information the IRB HSR needs to know as well as provides guidance for navigating and conducting research in an international setting and/or with international participants

  • You must obtain IRB approval before your study can begin.  Whether you are a UVA faculty member, staff or student, your research study must be approved by the IRB before it can begin. To reduce confusion, make sure you have the IRB's approval before you leave the country. We suggest you apply to the IRB at least 3-6 months before you leave to ensure adequate time for reviews. Bring your written IRB approval with you on your trip.
  • Demonstrate cultural understanding and sensitivity . Is the typical process of signing an informed consent document culturally acceptable for your study? Are there other cultural barriers you might encounter once you arrive? The protocol should describe any anticipated cultural sensitivities of conducting your research and how you intend to overcome those barriers. The IRB will help you develop alternative methods for consent (or other issues) to ensure your research practices are ethically sound and respectful of the culture in which you are doing your research. 
  • Understand the research ethics guidelines of the host country. Investigators will be required to obtain IRB approval for research done internationally from the UVA IRB as well as from the local IRB/Ethics Committee within the country in which you will be doing your research. The approval from the local IRB/Ethics committee must be on file with the UVA IRB prior to the UVA IRB granting approval. The IRB strongly recommends you clearly understand the host country's requirements for reviewing and approving human subject research. Some countries have clear ethical guidelines that must be met for conducting domestic and/or international research. Other countries will not have a formal process but might rely on other neighboring countries to assist with the review. The Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) has information on over 133 countries regarding their expectations for ethical committee review as well as information about human subject research laws. See the OHRP International Compilation of Human Research Standards f or more resources on researching your international location. If you determine that you will need a local IRB/ethical committee review, you will need to provide the UVA IRB HSR with contact information for the other IRB as well as documentation of their approval.
  • Please contact the IRB while abroad if you encounter any problems or need to change your IRB-approved protocol. If you find that upon arrival in the host country, some aspects of your research study must be modified for whatever reason, please notify the IRB office immediately. The IRB will do its best to quickly respond to your notification with further instructions and guidance. Please wait to hear back from the IRB before making any changes to your protocol! 

Additional items to consider:

Traditionally, international research involves the researcher flying to a distant location to gather data from participants in that country. While those studies are still an important part of international research, it is possible to conduct international research and stay in Charlottesville as well. If your study includes any of the following, you will need to create at least one International Research Data Source: 

  • International Primary data source: data are collected by the principal investigator and/or the research team, and data are collected outside of the United States.
  • International Secondary data source: data are collected by an individual or institution other than the principal investigator and/or research team, and data are collected outside of the United States.

If you are conducting the research in multiple international locations, particularly if the locations involve multiple IRB reviews and/or local researcher/mentors, please make this distinction in your IRB-HSR protocol/application.

Questions to Consider

The location can be specific or broad, as needed (i.e. Munich, Germany vs Europe) as long as it makes sense with the study. If the study takes place in multiple locations, consider making multiple International Research Data Sources.

Is there a local researcher or local mentor associated with this site?

If you are student researcher (undergraduate/graduate) the board expects you to have a qualified local researcher or mentor who can guide you through the nuances of collecting data in your international location. This individual should be qualified to advise you about local customs, laws, and expectations regarding research, recruitment and consent processes, ethical reviews, and data collection/storage. If you are accessing data from an international source and not traveling abroad, there may be some instances in which a faculty sponsor with adequate experience can act as the “local mentor,” but you should contact our office first before making this determination. The local mentor should be listed on the protocol and needs to have CITI training or an equivalent human subject’s research training certification. Faculty are not required to have a local mentor. 

Will you require a translator to interact with participants?

If you are conducting a study where the participants speak a language other than English and you are not fluent in the language, you will need a translator. When determining fluency, you should verify that your language skills are adequate for the technical information you will provide participants. For example, you may feel confident discussing weather or even politics, but do you feel confident that you can discuss the concepts in the consent form at a level that makes sense to the participants in their native language? In addition, are you confident that you can write appropriate recruitment and consent form materials? If not, you should have a translator.

Are recruitment/consent materials required for this site? / Will recruitment/consent materials be provided in a language other than English?

Briefly describe the process for translating the recruitment and consent materials. This may be somewhat redundant if you have already discussed use of a translator, but it is important for the board to understand this process as not all studies engage a translator.

GDPR - General Data Protection Regulation

If your study will take place in the European Union or United Kingdom or uses data from citizens of those regions, your study will be subject to the GDPR. Please review the GDPR section and access the  GDPR Informed Consent Addendum  to include with your consent materials at the time of initial review or with a modification.

GDPR applies to select data when collected from individuals located in the European Economic Area (EEA) and/or the United Kingdom (UK). GDPR regulates the collection, use, disclosure, or other processing of personal data. If you are collecting personal data in the EEA or UK, or if your participants reside in those areas, you are subject to the GDPR. If your participants are EEA or UK subjects but are outside of the EEA or UK when the data collection occurs, the data collected is not subject to the GDPR.

While many of the US federal regulations mirror the requirements in the GDPR, the GDPR requires researchers to provide additional consent form content and conduct specific processes related to data collection. While this section and the GDPR Informed Consent Addendum provides some guidance on what is required under the GDPR, please note that individual countries may have varied interpretations, etc. It is important that you familiarize yourself with the laws and regulations of the country(ies) in which you will conduct research and seek counsel if needed. Again, please refer to the OHRP International Compilation of Human Research Standards which provides a compilation of information on the GDPR and how it is interpreted in various countries. You will want to use the GDPR Informed Consent Addendum to ensure that you have provided participants with the appropriate information required by the GDPR.

Useful Website Links:

Consent Form Template for International Research

Ethical and Policy Issues in International Research: Clinical Trials in Developing Countries

NIH: Global Clinical Regulations

International Compilation of Human Subject Protections  

Harvard Global Research Ethics Map

Center for Global Health Opportunities

CITI Module

International Studies (ID 971)

Version Date  02-02-22

Human Subjects Division

International Research

Guidance contents, purpose and applicability, when is irb review required, what aspects of the study does the uw irb review for international research, what if i am a fogarty fellow, what if my study falls under the single irb mandate.

  • What if my study is being reviewed by an external IRB?

Are the regulations different for International Research?

What additional regulatory reviews are needed.

  • Where can I locate information on foreign research regulations?

Is a local collaborator required?

What if the local site cannot obtain local review.

  • Are there special requirements if my study is funded by a U.S. government agency?
  • What are the UW IRB’s requirements for translating information for enrolling non-English speaking participants?
  • What if I want to pay or give a gift to participants in foreign countries?

What information must I provide in my IRB application regarding the Local Research Context?

What considerations are there for sending identifiable data or specimens to the u.s., do certificates of confidentiality apply to international research, what if i need to make a change to (modify) my research, other uw international travel resources and requirements.

  • Other Questions?

Related Materials

Regulatory references, version history.

This web page provides guidance to researchers conducting international research and alerts investigators to the additional review requirements and considerations for such activities when the UW IRB is the IRB of record.

Questions and Answers

All human subjects research conducted by University of Washington faculty, staff, or students regardless of funding source or research location, requires prospective submission to the UW IRB or reliance on another domestic or commercial IRB for the engagement of the UW. UW does not rely on international IRBs.

Per HSD policy , for projects with an international component, UW IRB reviews all activities for the proposed research project, including those conducted at international sites, that the UW is engaged in. Additional review by a local “in country” IRB is usually required per local regulations. Local review boards may be referred to as an Institutional Review Board (IRB), an Independent Ethics Committee (IEC), an Ethical Review Board (ERB) or Research Ethics Board (REB). In other words, international projects generally have review by two or more IRBs.

In situations when the UW serves only as a passthrough of NIH funds for Fogarty Fellowships and there is NO other UW involvement, the UW will certify to the external funding agency that IRB approval has been (or is being) obtained, and from whom. If you have questions about this process, or want to request a certification letter, email [email protected] .

International sites are excluded from the Single IRB mandate . This means that international sites would not be required to rely on a Single IRB. If the UW IRB will be the IRB of record for all the domestic sites in a project, you should obtain IRB review of the international components as described in this guidance. If all of the domestic sites will be reviewed by a non-UW IRB, you should obtain IRB review of the international components as described in that non-UW IRB’s policies and procedures relating to international research.

What if my study is being reviewed by an external IRB (for example, Advarra)?

You should follow that IRB’s policies and procedures about the IRB review of international research.

The University of Washington IRB applies the U.S. “Common Rule” human subjects regulations (i.e., 45 CFR 46) to all projects, international and domestic, except as allowed by the HSD Flexibility Policy ( GUIDANCE Authority and Responsibilities of HSD and UW IRB ). Other U.S. regulations are applied as required (e.g., FDA, EPA, DoD). The IRB applies the same ethical and regulatory standards to international research as to domestic research as well as the same UW policies and procedures for the conduct of research. This is separate, and in addition to any regulatory or other reviews (e.g., local IRB, government agency) required at the location where research is conducted.

When research is conducted outside the United States, investigators must comply with both the U.S. regulations and with the local policies, permissions and regulations governing the international research site.

It can take time to identify and navigate the local requirements. If possible, enlist a local collaborator to help you address that site’s requirements and assist in identifying who to contact and what is required to obtain ethics reviews and permissions to conduct research at that international site.

Where can I locate information on foreign research regulations for the specific country where I plan to conduct research?

Investigators can begin to educate themselves about applicable foreign research regulations for a specific country with the resources below:

  • International Compilation of Human Research Standards

Investigators are strongly encouraged to collaborate with an individual or organization with expertise in the region. This collaboration will greatly assist in identifying appropriate research sites, navigating the local regulations and policies, understanding culture, local infrastructure, overcoming language barriers and increasing community partnership.

Based on study location and risk level, the IRB may require documentation of a local site collaborator. This may be necessary to ensure the project meets the IRB approval criteria related to adequate resources and expertise, appropriate subject protections, and an adequate consent process.

There may be no local functioning review board. In these circumstances the UW IRB may require, depending upon study location and risk level, a letter of cooperation or permission from an appropriate local institutional or oversight official. This is sometimes called site permission or a letter of invitation . This letter would need to be written by an individual completely independent of your study who is highly familiar with the culture of the region where the research will be conducted. Required elements:

  • Reference the title of the study displayed in the IRB application
  • Describe the expertise of the individual preparing the letter to address the local cultural and social norms
  • Confirm they understand the intent of the research and activities to be performed
  • Confirm the planned study does not conflict with local and cultural norms
  • Document is signed and dated

Are there special requirements if my study is funded by a U.S. government agency (example: NIH, CDC)?

If the research is funded by the U.S. government, then each foreign institution that is engaged in the research must hold and/or obtain a valid Federal Wide Assurance (FWA) with OHRP and these institutions must review and conduct research in compliance with the applicable U.S. federal regulations. The UW investigator is responsible for ensuring that all engaged international sites hold an FWA and that the research is approved by an IRB or Ethics Committee.

These are common examples of when an institution is “engaged” in human research:

  • Institutions whose employees or agents obtain the informed consent of human subjects for the research.
  • Institutions whose employees or agents obtain for research purposes identifiable private information of identifiable biological specimens from any source for the research (even if the institution’s employees or agents do not directly interact or intervene with human subjects).
  • Institutions whose employees or agents intervene for research purposes with any human subjects of the research by performing invasive or noninvasive procedures , or by manipulating the subject’s environment .

Information on FWAs can be found at OHRP’s Register IRBs & Obtain FWAs page.

Issues of engagement, FWAs, and local site requirements can be complex. Please contact [email protected] if you have specific questions or concerns.

What are the UW IRB’s requirements for translated and/or interpreted information and documents for enrolling non-English speaking participants?

Researchers must have a plan to manage communications with non-English-speaking participants during all phases of study participation. Because participants may have questions or concerns at any time, investigators must be prepared to manage communication beyond the consent process and data collection.

Review the section on  Anticipated involvement of subjects with limited English proficiency in HSD’s Consent guidance for full details.

What additional information must I provide in my IRB application if I want to pay or give a gift to participants in foreign countries?

Researchers should first find out whether the laws and regulations of the foreign country permit research participants to receive gifts or monetary compensation for research participation. If yes, researchers must describe in their UW IRB application the planned amount of compensation in both UW and foreign currency. To prevent undue influence from inappropriately high levels of compensation, as well as inappropriately low levels of compensation, information about the average daily wage in the country must also be provided. For more information, review HSD’s guidance on Subject Payment .

“Local context” means information about the local regulations, policies, relevant cultural norms, and relevant local cultural/religious/social sensitivities. The UW IRB must be provided with sufficient knowledge about the local research context to ensure that adequate protections are in place and ethical research conduct occurs in that geographic location. Local context information is provided to the IRB in the IRB Protocol form .

  • Research Sites . Identify all countries where the research will be conducted.
  • Cultural Context . Describe site-specific cultural issues, customs, beliefs, sensitivities, or values that may affect the research, how it is conducted, or how consent is obtained or documented.
  • Specimens – for example, some countries will not allow biospecimens to be taken out of the country.
  • Age of consent – laws about when an individual is considered old enough to be able to provide consent vary from country to country.
  • Legally authorized representative – laws about who can serve as a legally authorized representatives (and who has priority when more than one person is available) vary between countries.
  • Mandatory reporting – some countries have laws requiring reporting of specific conditions or behaviors (for example, child abuse or serious criminal behaviors) to local authorities.
  • Language and Literacy . The IRB reviews the process that will be used to ensure that: (1) the oral and written information provided to participants during the consent process and throughout the study will be in a language readily understandable to them; and (2) at an appropriate reading/comprehension level for written materials (e.g., consent forms, questionnaires). More information can be found at the section on Subjects With Limited English Proficiency in HSD’s consent guidance.
  • Subject payment . How your planned payments or gifts to subjects compare with the local economic situation and average wage.

Researchers are strongly encouraged to collaborate with an individual or organization with expertise in this topic.

Some countries place restrictions on bringing identifiable data into/out of the country. The European Union, for example, has laws surrounding what kind of identifiable information can be provided by participants in Europe and brought to the United States. Data export laws and U.S. export control laws [ ] may also affect your research in countries with which the U.S. has embargoes or trade restrictions, such as Iran. These laws may also affect which technology you can bring into the country.

U.S. federal Certificates of Confidentiality will be issued to researchers for applicable research regardless of the country where the investigator or the protected information resides. However, Certificates of Confidentiality may not be effective for data held in foreign countries. Review the guidance on Certificate of Confidentiality for more information and the UW Consent templates for appropriate consent form language.

All revisions or modifications to an approved study must be reviewed and approved by all reviewing IRBs prior to implementing the change(s), regardless of the location of research. Changes that are required by local IRBs or communities must be submitted to the UW IRB prior to implementing the changes.

The only exception is for changes or actions that are “necessary to eliminate apparent immediate hazards to the subject”. If this does happen, regulations require you to report the actions taken to the IRB within 10 working days ( Guide to Reporting New Information ).

While the personal safety of UW employees and students conducting research outside the United States is not the responsibility of the IRB, there are relevant resources available on campus that can be helpful for other institutional requirements. For example, if students will conduct research in other countries, they must register with the UW Office of Global Affairs.

A UW Travel Waiver may be required for travel to certain countries: list of countries .

What if I have questions?

Contact HSD Info [email protected] if you have questions about preparing your IRB application or about conducting International Research.

APPLICATION IRB Protocol GLOSSARY Engagement GUIDANCE Authority and Responsibilities of HSD and UW IRB GUIDANCE Certificate of Confidentiality GUIDANCE Consent GUIDANCE Subject Payment UW Consent Templates WEBPAGE Guide to Reporting New Information WEBPAGE Single IRB

Version Information

Open the accordion below for version changes to this guidance.

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Research Ethics FAQs for International Research

Definition of international research.

Any study that is intentionally designed to target individuals outside the United States in its stated procedures for participant recruitment, data collection, data analysis, or results dissemination.

Do other countries have research regulations/policies?

The researcher must consult the international compilation of regulations provided by the USA federal Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) .

This list includes regulations, government infrastructures, and guidelines that are relevant to human subjects research, organized by country. Researchers are expected to be aware of all relevant regulations and to remain compliant with these regulations.

How do I reconcile other countries’ research requirements with Walden’s USA-based requirements?

When any other country is involved in data collection, Walden applies the ethical standards of whichever country is more strict. The only time we relax the stricter county’s standards (such as age of consent) is when a local custom supporting one of the three main ethical principles articulated by the Belmont report (justice, beneficence, and respect for persons) dictates a different practice (such as asking for a father's consent for his adult daughter to participate in research).

Do interpreters require special training?

All interpreters in the USA and partner countries are required to complete some sort of human subject protections training. Family Health International (FHI) shares a free, online module in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Research Ethics Training Curriculum (RETC), Second Edition

The content of these international trainings is not very different from the standard USA training in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) module because they are all based on Belmont Report principles, but this one does include some rich international examples. The IRB also will consider approving using other countries’ training programs that are custom-built by the researcher, provided that the Belmont Report principles and best practices in informed consent, voluntary participation in research, and research safety/confidentiality are covered.

Which language is appropriate for informed consent?

The IRB only approves protocols in which informed consent can occur in a language/dialect in which the participants are fluent. In multilingual countries, it is acceptable to prepare consent documents in the official language of the country, but it is required that the person obtaining informed consent is fluent in at least one of the dialects/languages in which a participant is fluent. Participants may not be recruited if they are not fluent in at least one of the following:

  • the language of the consent form, or
  • one of languages/dialects spoken by the person(s) obtaining informed consent.

Note that persons obtaining informed consent must also complete an IRB-approved training module regarding protection of human subjects. Either the NIH or FHI online modules are recommended but other training methods can be considered by the IRB and will be approved if they adequately train the research assistant regarding best practices of informed consent, research safety/confidentiality, voluntary research participation and the related Belmont Report principles of justice, beneficence, and respect for persons.

Should I have my documents translated or use an interpreter?

The IRB requires written translations of as many documents as possible at the time of IRB review, as opposed to plans to conduct on-the-fly interpreting.  Any time that consent documents or other research materials are translated, the IRB requires (a) that backtranslation procedures confirm the accuracy of the translation, (b) that the qualifications of the translator(s) and backtranslator(s) are documented, (c) that translation and backtranslation procedures are documented.

Can I conduct research in an international area in which people are not familiar with research processes?

Several organizations provide pamphlets or other materials to help researchers explain the purpose of research within developing countries. Language is not the only critical factor in bridging cultural differences in remote areas or areas with limited infrastructure. Researchers must remember that individuals in these areas are also likely to have different social and educational backgrounds as well. Study materials should explain the purpose of research activities without making cultural, social, and educational assumptions.

How can I assure the IRB that my proposed research procedures are culturally sensitive (especially when they might go against typical American practices)?

The IRB will seek the researcher’s assurance that s/he is familiar enough with the culture to authentically understand local norms of privacy, confidentiality and advocacy. It is not appropriate for any of us to apply American standards in these dimensions. The researcher should consult with qualified local experts to determine appropriate action plans to handle possible breaches in confidentiality (particularly when parents want access to a child’s data), situations that might indicate reporting abuse to authorities, and possible direct advocacy on behalf of a participant.

Would I be permitted to collect data in a dangerous area?

Researchers are responsible for their own safety and welfare while conducting research activities. In addition to acquiring the appropriate visas and access approvals, researchers are advised to link with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for support in identifying a local research participant advocate, dealing with adverse events, pragmatic navigation of local government structures, and communication with local press.

Can I link my research activities to existing aid efforts?

In developing countries, it can be very difficult to distinguish the research activities from other types of educational, therapeutic, or aid efforts. International researchers are strongly discouraged from assuming dual roles. For example, an aid worker should not recruit participants in a community in which she is known as an aid worker since the community members would reasonably assume that the research activities are somehow linked to the broader aid effort. In order to ensure respect for persons (as per the Belmont Report), a researcher should not leverage pre-existing roles to encourage research participation, particularly when the vulnerable individual’s participation would result in personal gain (a doctoral degree) for the researcher. For more specific guidance on this topic, please review the online IRB Guidance for Research in Intervention or Treatment settings.

General tips for avoiding ethical problems in doctoral research

 Below are the solutions to the most frequently occurring ethical challenges in doctoral research:

  • Use anonymous methods if possible.

This is the simplest way to avoid pressuring subordinates, students, or other vulnerable individuals to participate in your doctoral research.

  • Pay very close attention to alignment among the research question(s), planned analyses, and components of the proposed data collection.

The IRB can only approve those specific components of data collection that show promise of effectively addressing the research question(s). Misalignment will cause approval delays.

  • Use existing data whenever possible.

Secondary data analysis (aka archival data analysis) is the most ethical way to study your own subordinates, students, clients, or any other vulnerable group because it does not ask them to do anything out of the ordinary for research purposes. Risks to these vulnerable individuals are managed by removing all identifiers from the dataset.

  • Use existing measures whenever possible.

Unless the specific purpose of the doctoral research is the validation of a new measure, creating a new instrument is typically beyond the scope of a doctoral study.

  • Check and  double-check that all IRB materials reflect the final set of research questions and procedures.

The IRB does not review the entire proposal and can only approve the procedures that are listed in the IRB application itself. Thus, all participant recruitment and data collection procedures MUST be described in the IRB application. If an audit reveals that a student deviated from that specific list of IRB-approved procedures, then the data can be invalidated and the final doctoral study rejected.

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International Research


When conducting international research, additional review and documentation are required from both the international site and the Pitt IRB. It is imperative that you start the process early and request a consultation with the IRB staff during the initial planning stages. 

HRP consultation can be requested at  [email protected]

When is IRB review required?

All human subjects research conducted by UPMC and/or University of Pittsburgh faculty, staff, or students, regardless of funding source or the  location  at which the research will be conducted, requires submission to the Pitt IRB.

What training is required to conduct international research?

Prior to conducting international research, all study team members must complete the CITI International Research course . This course is comprised of two modules: International Research-SBE and Consent and Cultural Competence.

How far in advance should I submit my international application to the Pitt IRB?

Minimal Risk  applications should be submitted to the Pitt IRB a minimum of 2 months prior to Investigator approval deadlines. Submission 3 months prior is highly encouraged.

For  Greater Than Minimal Risk  applications the location and topic of the research may require the Pitt IRB to employ a foreign consultant with the appropriate expertise to assist in the ethical review. Locating and enlisting the assistance of consultants may make the review process take significantly longer.

Do not make specific travel plans or purchase plane tickets until you have received all foreign and domestic approvals. There is no guarantee of IRB approval by a given deadline.

What additional regulatory reviews are needed?

When research is conducted outside the United States, investigators must comply both with the U.S. regulations and with the local policies and regulations governing the international research sites. This is true whether the researchers are traveling to the foreign location or conducting their research remotely.  Local policies and regulations are often governed by an ethics committee, which is a committee that has been formally designated to approve, monitor, and review biomedical and behavioral research involving humans. This ethics committee may also be referred to as an Institutional Review Board (IRB), an Independent Ethics Committee (IEC), an Ethical Review Board (ERB), or Research Ethics Board (REB).

It is important to do your homework early and, whenever possible, enlist a local collaborator to help you address that site’s requirements and assist in identifying who to contact and what is required to obtain ethics reviews and permissions to conduct research at that international site. All documentation, including ethics reviews, site permissions, and memos of cultural appropriateness, must be uploaded in English.

Single IRB (Reliance) cannot be used for international sites. Even if the research would usually require a single IRB, each country must have its own approval or determination that oversight is not required.

Where can I locate information on foreign research regulations for the specific country where I plan to conduct research?

Investigators can begin to educate themselves about applicable foreign research regulations, by specific country, using the resources below:

  • Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) “International Compilation of Human Research Standards”
  • Harvard School of Public Health Research Ethics Guidelines International Online Navigation Map (REGION)

There is a high level of variability in the procedural details across international research regulations. However, the majority of foreign regulations are based upon the foundational ethical guidelines provided within the International Conference of Harmonization (ICH) and the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS).

  • International Conference of Harmonization (ICH)
  • Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) (PDF)

What is required for Minimal Risk studies?

Depending on the international site, local ethics committee review may or may not be required. If it is required, it should be uploaded in the Supporting Documentation section. If it is not required, the PI must provide documentation to that effect.

One of the following should be uploaded as Supporting Documentation:

1. A Letter of approval from an Ethics Committee.

Required elements:

  • Reference the title of the study displayed in the IRB application
  • Clearly state the planned research was reviewed and approved
  • Document is dated
  • Provided on the official letterhead of the signatory

2. Documentation that the local regulations do not require a local ethics review

  • Providing direct references to the local regulations that state ethics review is not required;  or
  • Acknowledgement of Unregulated Research Activities (PDF) letter confirming that local ethics review is not required
  • Clearly state the planned research does not require local regulatory oversight
  • Confirm the Regulatory Official understands the intent of the research and activities to be performed

If local ethics review is not required then the IRB may request a memo of cultural appropriateness. The Memo of Cultural Appropriateness (PDF) should be authored by an individual completely independent of the study who is highly knowledgeable about the culture in the region where the research will be conducted. This document must be specific to the proposed research. Blanket statements about research within a particular country or culture are not sufficient. Required elements:

  • Describe the expertise of the individual preparing the letter to address the local cultural and social norms
  • Confirm they understand the intent of the research and activities to be performed
  • Confirm the planned study does not conflict with local and cultural norms

If the culture of the research location is suitably similar to the United States, this requirement may be waived if the PI provides what the IRB deems to be sufficient reasoning.

What is required for Greater than Minimal Risk studies?

Studies that are designated as greater than minimal risk  require  a formal ethics review within the country where the research will be conducted.  Not all countries have an ethics review committee and the oversight may be addressed by the Department of Ministries or other governmental entities. 

A Letter of Approval from an Ethics Committee, required elements:

When are site permissions required?

When research is conducted at any site other than UPMC or Pitt facilities, an authorized individual from the proposed research site must provide written permission that the research can be conducted. This requirement may be waived if the local ethics approval affords access to the site, if research will be conducted in a truly public location, or if the research is conducted remotely. 

If site permission is required, you must upload to following question #6 for each site after selecting “International or Culturally Different” on Research Sites page.

A   Site permission letter (PDF)  from authorized individual. 

  • Confirm the authorized individual understands the intent of the research and activities to be performed
  • Must include a statement permitting the research to be conducted at that site
  • The document is signed and dated

Do I need a local collaborator?

Investigators are  strongly  encouraged to collaborate with an individual or organization with expertise in the region. Based upon study location and risk level, the IRB may  require  a local site collaborator.

What are the additional requirements for enrolling non-English speaking participants?

The initial Pitt IRB submission should  only  include the English version of documents that will be used with research subjects, (recruitment materials, consent documents, data collection materials, etc.). Once the materials are approved both by the Pitt IRB and foreign Ethics Committee, the approved documents should be translated and submitted as a Modification including the final translated documents, back translations (if required) and a signed translator certification form. The documents may not be used until this Modification is approved.

For more detailed guidance, please see  Non-English Speaking Participants .

What additional information must I provide in my IRB application if I want to compensate participants in foreign countries?

If the laws and regulations of the foreign country permit research participants to receive monetary compensation for their time, the PittPRO application (Recruitment Methods #4) must describe the planned amount of compensation in both US and foreign currency.  For studies that do not require local ethics approval, the compensation must be placed in the context of average daily wage and/or purchasing power.

Note: The University has additional policies and procedures, not overseen by the IRB, dictating how participant payments in foreign countries are implemented. For more information on the topic of compensation outside of the U.S. visit the  University of Pittsburgh Global Operations website .

Can I submit to the Pitt IRB before I have ethics approval from my international site?

You are permitted to submit to the Pitt IRB before foreign ethics approval is granted. In these cases, the Pitt IRB approval letter will be contingent and will state no research activities may begin until a Modification providing documentation of foreign ethics approval is submitted to and approved by the Pitt IRB.

How can I locate a Foreign Ethics Committee to provide review and approval of my study?

Research studies supported by U.S. Federal funds are required to undergo foreign IRB review by an Ethics committee that holds a Federal Wide Assurance (FWA). Investigators of U.S. Federally funded research studies can search the OHRP “ Database for Registered IORGs and IRBs, Approved FWAs and for Documents Received by OHRP in the Last 60 days ” to locate foreign IRBs that hold an FWA:

  • Choose the "FWAs" tab
  • Press the “Advanced Search” link
  • Select the appropriate country & Search

Non-federally funded studies can use this same search to locate and contact a foreign ethics committee/IRB.

Summary of Required Documents by Review Type

graphic of required documents

Additional University Policies Related to Conducting University Business Outside of the U.S.

When affiliates of the University of Pittsburgh are engaged in international projects there are additional University Policies and procedures that must be followed. For a summary of all University policies relating to international projects, please visit  University of Pittsburgh Global Operations .

There are additional University Policies and procedures when materials and/or data enter or leave the country. There are also additional considerations when research is conducted in embargoed or sanctioned countries. For further information, please visit the Office of Trade Compliance .

What information must I provide in my IRB application regarding the local site and culture?

It is imperative that investigators be fully informed about the local site and cultural context before submitting to the Pitt IRB. Select “International or Culturally Different Sites” in item 1 of Research Sites. This will prompt a series of questions about the research site, as well as a place to upload documentation, including memos of cultural appropriateness and local ethics committee approval. If non-English documents have been approved by the local ethics committee, they may be uploaded at the time of initial submission.

v. 8/14/2023

International Programs

Ui student chase laspisa awarded fulbright to norway.

student smiling

Chase LaSpisa , a PhD candidate in political science from the University of Iowa, is the winner of a Fulbright Study/Research Grant to Norway for 2024-25.  

Hometown: Bartlesville, Oklahoma Degree: PhD candidate in political science  

Could you give us a brief synopsis of what you'll be doing with your Fulbright?      During my Fulbright year, I will be in Tromsø to study why Norway is more cooperative on maritime security issues despite having substantial interest in offshore fossil-fuel resources. I will be conducting interviews with local community leaders, foreign policy officials, and fossil-fuel industry experts as well as attending international conferences hosted in Tromsø. I am extremely excited to immerse myself in Norwegian culture and to learn first-hand what it is like to live in the Arctic Circle.  

How do you envision this will influence your life/future career?   As a future maritime conflict scholar, this opportunity to do research on Arctic international relations in Norway will significantly enhance my dissertation research, allow me to gain international connections, and learn more about the geopolitical challenges countries face in the fast-changing Arctic Circle. I plan to use this experience to set myself up for a career that will allow my research to reach foreign policymakers and advocate for peaceful and sustainable interactions in our oceans.  

What advice do you have for future students interested in applying for a Fulbright?   The Fulbright is an amazing opportunity, but it can seem extremely daunting in the beginning. My advice for future students is to start early, not be afraid to ask questions, and trust Iowa's process! We have an amazing group of people at Iowa who help prepare and support Fulbright applicants, and they want you to have as best of a chance as possible to get the grant. The feedback can be tough at times, but the staff and faculty mentors have a ton of experience and will make your application much stronger!  

Were there experiences at Iowa that inspired you to pursue a Fulbright ?   As a graduate student, I have not been able to participate in any of the numerous international experience opportunities that Iowa offers, but I was inspired by the many success stories that we have every year for Fulbright applicants. I would often check the International Programs page around this time every year to read the short blurbs from the numerous UI students who were receiving grants.  

Are there individuals you'd like to thank for their investment in this process?      I'd like to thank the Fulbright advising team, especially Karen Wachsmuth and Bill Reisinger, for their help with my application. I would like to thank my mentor Sara Mitchell for reading drafts and writing me a letter of recommendation as well as Brian Lai and Holley Hansen for also writing me letters. I want to thank my friends in my department who helped read drafts and listened to me talk things through, specifically Carly Millerd and Dasha Kuznetsova. Lastly, I'd like to thank my family for always supporting me!  


International Programs  (IP) at the University of Iowa (UI) is committed to enriching the global experience of UI students, faculty, staff, and the general public by leading efforts to promote internationally oriented teaching, research, creative work, and community engagement.  IP provides support for international students and scholars, administers scholarships and assistance for students who study, intern, or do research abroad, and provides funding opportunities and grant-writing assistance for faculty engaged in international research. IP shares their stories through various media, and by hosting multiple public engagement activities each year.

  • Fulbright 2024
  • international fellowships
  • student funding
  • study abroad

International Programs at the University of Iowa supports the right of all individuals to live freely and to live in peace. We condemn all acts of violence based on race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and perceived national or cultural origin. In affirming its commitment to human dignity, International Programs strongly upholds the values expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights .  

Global cyber attack around the world with planet Earth viewed from space and internet network communication under cyberattack portrayed with red icons of an unlocked padlock.

World-first “Cybercrime Index” ranks countries by cybercrime threat level

Following three years of intensive research, an international team of researchers have compiled the first ever ‘World Cybercrime Index’, which identifies the globe’s key cybercrime hotspots by ranking the most significant sources of cybercrime at a national level.

The Index, published today in the journal PLOS ONE , shows that a relatively small number of countries house the greatest cybercriminal threat. Russia tops the list, followed by Ukraine, China, the USA, Nigeria, and Romania. The UK comes in at number eight.

A white woman with long brown hair standing in front of a hedge. A white man wearing a check shirt standing in front of a bookcase.

‘The research that underpins the Index will help remove the veil of anonymity around cybercriminal offenders, and we hope that it will aid the fight against the growing threat of profit-driven cybercrime,’ Dr Bruce said.

‘We now have a deeper understanding of the geography of cybercrime, and how different countries specialise in different types of cybercrime.’

‘By continuing to collect this data, we’ll be able to monitor the emergence of any new hotspots and it is possible early interventions could be made in at-risk countries before a serious cybercrime problem even develops.’

The data that underpins the Index was gathered through a survey of 92 leading cybercrime experts from around the world who are involved in cybercrime intelligence gathering and investigations. The survey asked the experts to consider five major categories of cybercrime*, nominate the countries that they consider to be the most significant sources of each of these types of cybercrime, and then rank each country according to the impact, professionalism, and technical skill of its cybercriminals.

List of countries with their World Cybercrime Index score. The top ten countries are Russia, Ukraine, China, the US, Nigeria, Romania, North Korea, UK, Brazil and India.

Co-author Associate Professor Jonathan Lusthaus , from the University of Oxford’s Department of Sociology and Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, said cybercrime has largely been an invisible phenomenon because offenders often mask their physical locations by hiding behind fake profiles and technical protections.

'Due to the illicit and anonymous nature of their activities, cybercriminals cannot be easily accessed or reliably surveyed. They are actively hiding. If you try to use technical data to map their location, you will also fail, as cybercriminals bounce their attacks around internet infrastructure across the world. The best means we have to draw a picture of where these offenders are actually located is to survey those whose job it is to track these people,' Dr Lusthaus said.

Figuring out why some countries are cybercrime hotspots, and others aren't, is the next stage of the research. There are existing theories about why some countries have become hubs of cybercriminal activity - for example, that a technically skilled workforce with few employment opportunities may turn to illicit activity to make ends meet - which we'll be able to test against our global data set. Dr Miranda Bruce  Department of Sociology, University of Oxford and UNSW Canberra   

Co-author of the study, Professor Federico Varese from Sciences Po in France, said the World Cybercrime Index is the first step in a broader aim to understand the local dimensions of cybercrime production across the world.

‘We are hoping to expand the study so that we can determine whether national characteristics like educational attainment, internet penetration, GDP, or levels of corruption are associated with cybercrime. Many people think that cybercrime is global and fluid, but this study supports the view that, much like forms of organised crime, it is embedded within particular contexts,’ Professor Varese said.

The World Cybercrime Index has been developed as a joint partnership between the University of Oxford and UNSW and has also been funded by CRIMGOV , a European Union-supported project based at the University of Oxford and Sciences Po. The other co-authors of the study include Professor Ridhi Kashyap from the University of Oxford and Professor Nigel Phair from Monash University.

The study ‘Mapping the global geography of cybercrime with the World Cybercrime Index’ has been published in the journal PLOS ONE .

*The five major categories of cybercrime assessed by the study were:

1.   Technical products/services (e.g. malware coding, botnet access, access to compromised systems, tool production).

2.   Attacks and extortion (e.g. denial-of-service attacks, ransomware).

3.   Data/identity theft (e.g. hacking, phishing, account compromises, credit card comprises).

4.   Scams (e.g. advance fee fraud, business email compromise, online auction fraud).

5.   Cashing out/money laundering (e.g. credit card fraud, money mules, illicit virtual currency platforms).

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April 16, 2024

This article has been reviewed according to Science X's editorial process and policies . Editors have highlighted the following attributes while ensuring the content's credibility:


peer-reviewed publication

New study sheds light on the structure and evolution of an enzyme in psychoactive fungi

by Friederike Gawlik, Leibniz-Institut für Naturstoff-Forschung und Infektionsbiologie - Hans-Knöll-Institut (Leibniz-HKI)

New study sheds light on the structure and evolution of an enzyme in psychoactive fungi

An international research team has investigated the biosynthesis of psilocybin, the main ingredient of hallucinogenic mushrooms. They gained new insights into the structure and reaction mechanism of the enzyme PsiM. It plays a key role in the production of psilocybin. The results of the study were published in the journal Nature Communications .

The psychoactive substance psilocybin is the most important natural product of so-called "magic mushrooms" of the genus Psilocybe, which makes these mushrooms a popular drug. However, psilocybin has also become increasingly interesting in medicine in recent years for a number of mental illnesses. It has shown promising results in the treatment of depression, addiction and anxiety. Psilocybin is therefore already at an advanced stage of clinical testing as an active pharmaceutical ingredient .

Psilocybin is formed by fungi in complex biochemical processes from the amino acid L-tryptophan. The enzyme PsiM, a methyltransferase, plays an important role in this process. It catalyzes two methylation reactions in succession, the last two steps in the production of psilocybin.

"There are many methyl transfer reactions in nature," says Dirk Hoffmeister. He is Professor of Pharmaceutical Microbiology at Friedrich Schiller University Jena and heads an associated research group at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology—Hans Knöll Institute (Leibniz-HKI). "Here, we asked ourselves how exactly psilocybin production is accomplished."

Two enzymes, one origin

To this end, a team from the Medical University of Innsbruck led by crystallographer Bernhard Rupp and the Jena researchers investigated the enzyme PsiM both biochemically and using X-ray crystal structure analysis. This method allows proteins to be visualized down to the atomic level , whereby several stages of the reaction could be depicted in ultra-high resolution.

Examination of the protein structure revealed astonishing similarities in structure between the fungal enzyme PsiM and enzymes that are normally responsible for the modification of RNA. Although there are also differences, the great structural similarity indicates that the fungal enzyme has evolved from a single methylating RNA methyltransferase.

Accordingly, it previously only had the ability to attach a single methyl group to the target molecule. "The psilocybin precursor norbaeocystin, which is converted by PsiM, structurally imitates part of the RNA, but is methylated twice," says Hoffmeister.

In further investigations, the researchers were also able to identify a crucial amino acid exchange that gave PsiM the ability to carry out double methylation during evolution. This process involves the final step in the entire reaction chain for potential biotechnological production of the active ingredient: the conversion of the single-methylated intermediate baeocystin to the double-methylated psilocybin.

A clear end

The researchers then wondered whether PsiM could also convert psilocybin to aeruginascin by attaching a third methyl group. Aeruginascin is an analog of psilocybin, which occurs naturally in some types of fungi.

"The only question is, where does it come from?" asks Hoffmeister. Until now, there has been disagreement in the scientific community as to whether the compound is a metabolic product of the psilocybin biosynthesis pathway and could arise from psilocybin through PsiM.

The study now provides a clear result: "This is clearly not the case," says Hoffmeister. "PsiM is not able to convert psilocybin to aeruginascin." PsiM can therefore be ruled out for the biosynthetic production of this analog. However, the enzyme could be relevant for the production of psilocybin in microorganisms in the future.

"Overall, our results can help to develop new variants of psilocybin with improved therapeutic properties and to produce them biotechnologically," says Hoffmeister.

Journal information: Nature Communications

Provided by Leibniz-Institut für Naturstoff-Forschung und Infektionsbiologie - Hans-Knöll-Institut (Leibniz-HKI)

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SDSU international women grad students bring diversity to research

Candidates in SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Programs are engaged in complex scientific studies spanning cancer, water quality and immigrant health.

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Student conducts research in a lab at SDSU

Maryam Fani analyzes surface water for microbial clues on the source and age of human pollution that could make people sick. 

Nicole Karongo researches strategies for guiding African immigrants around the nutrition pitfalls in the U.S. food landscape, benefitting their long-term health.

After her grandmother’s ovarian cancer diagnosis, Esra Tiftik was surprised by the lack of effective late-stage cancer therapies. Now she crunches big data in computational models on what triggers breast cancer to spread.

These women scientists are international students in joint doctoral programs between SDSU and the University of California San Diego. Their work highlights the depth and diversity of SDSU’s degree-seeking international cohort's academic pursuits, particularly women in male-dominated scientific fields. Here is a snapshot of the science they are advancing.

Tracking Pathogens

A native of Iran, Fani fought to find research projects as a civil engineering undergraduate but initially faced skepticism over her ability to manage the physical demands of fieldwork. She persisted, and eventually a professor gave her a chance to join a short-term project. It was a turning point, resulting in Fani leading her own research projects thereafter.

Fani came to SDSU alone in 2019 and found her footing, in part, by joining the Safe WaTER Lab, run by one of her Ph.D. advisors, Assistant Professor Matthew Verbyla , in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering.

While working at the lab, she propped open maintenance hole covers to collect and analyze wastewater for traces of COVID-19 on campus. She worked on a government water agency project, testing samples from around the county for pathogens.

These experiences hooked her on environmental engineering. “I feel even though it is engineering, our impact is very related to human health,” she said.

Now, she is pursuing next-generation research on fecal pollution source tracking in her doctoral thesis. The crux of the project involves understanding the different decay rates of two target biomarkers in human waste under myriad environmental conditions, such as sun exposure and water temperature. 

That enables researchers to compare decay ratios and calculate how far pollution has traveled and how old it is.

“This is important to know because if the pollution is new, it potentially has more pathogens,” said Fani. “So, we try to identify if the pollution is a small amount of strong, new pollution with a source nearby or a large amount of decayed pollution traveling from a farther location.”

Fani wants to understand further the correlations between these biomarkers and fecal pathogens to better predict health risks from contaminated surface water. 

“It is very time-consuming and very expensive to analyze one sample for many pathogens,” she said. “But if we analyze it for these two targets always, can these two targets tell me if I have (pathogens) there or not?”

Zimbabwe native Nicole Farongo studies ways to improve nutrition for African immigrants trying to navigate the unfamiliar U.S. food landscape. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Karongo) Diet and Immigrant Health

Karongo came from Zimbabwe to Minnesota in 2013 for her undergraduate studies. After earning her master’s degree, she came West to begin her public health doctorate with a focus on behavior, nutrition and chronic disease prevention.

Karongo developed strong convictions about the widespread impacts of food after she helped her father with a medically tailored diet during his recovery after cancer treatments. She planned to practice as a dietitian in clinical settings but pivoted to public health because it allows her to be “a little more upstream in prevention” of diet-related health problems. 

Research shows immigrants often come to the U.S. healthy but experience a decrease in their cardiometabolic health after about a decade, said Karongo. Her research is testing whether community-based nutrition interventions to improve diet quality can have a positive influence.

She is working with the East African immigrant population served at the United Women of East Africa Support Team (UWEAST) in San Diego on how they are approaching healthy eating and the food environment since moving to the U.S., and what they would like to see in a nutrition intervention that emphasizes herbs and spices to decrease sodium, fats and sugars in their diet.

Next, she plans to help create a cooking class curriculum focused on both nutrition guidelines and what immigrants requested in a program to foster healthy eating.

“We are thinking about this not only as how people should eat but also what the community wants to learn,” said Karongo. “So, we are prioritizing a community-engaged approach.”

Her doctoral advisors include Cheryl Anderson , dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UCSD; Professor Noe Crespo , division head of the Health Promotion and Behavior Sciences program at SDSU’s School of Public Health; and Distinguished Professor Connie Weaver from SDSU’s School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences.

Karongo said she is privileged to have the support of empowered women in her academic journey. Women lead her primary research lab, the Anderson Lab, and United Women of East Africa, which is an example of a women-driven service for San Diego immigrants and their families.

“I feel honored to have been surrounded by female excellence in research and advocacy,” she said.

Cancer Cell Conundrum

Tiftik earned an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from her native Turkey before pursuing her master's degree at the University of Southern California.

She expected to follow the same academic track but began working in the computational systems biology lab. It brought back memories of her grandmother’s death from cancer, sparking Tiftik’s interest in applying powerful computational models to cancer research.

Image of SDSU student Esra Tiftik

She entered the bioengineering joint doctoral program at SDSU and UCSD in 2019, working in SDSU’s Computational Active Matter Lab with advisor Associate Professor Parag Katira and the Fraley Lab with co-advisor Associate Professor Stephanie Fraley at UCSD.

“In both my labs, we try to understand why cells leave their original location and move to other parts of the body,” she said. “What kind of forces cause cell movement? This is an important function, but we do not know exactly why this is happening with cancer cells.”

Tiftik focuses on breast cancer and the factors that might spark their migration, such as DNA, protein interactions, and environmental factors such as hormones and nutrition.

“The reason we are using the computational model is it really helps us use large data on genes, and we can run multiple scenarios, like when they have high hormone levels, high nutritional levels, or high surrounded fibrous proteins. These are all environmental factors we must consider.”

Tiftik thinks the research could enable early identification of cells with high potential to spread. “And this allows you to provide treatment, targeted treatment, before they get into the metastatic stage,” she said.

As a woman scientist, Tiftik said one challenge is the scarcity of female role models in male-dominated science professions, which can create feelings of isolation and uncertainty for aspiring female scientists.

However, she hopes to improve the gender ratio after completing her Ph.D. and staying in the U.S. to build a career.

“San Diego is a hub for bioengineering,” she said. “I am just so lucky to be part of this city because there are so many companies interested in what I am looking for.”

Campus News

SDSU Aztecs Football team takes the field at Snapdragon Stadium in front of the student section.

  • Recap: 16th annual San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering
  • SDSU Associated Students wins sustainability leadership award

Photo of Jorgen Tonne and Ashley Mathews

  • 45th Annual Black Baccalaureate Graduation Ceremony takes place May 9
  • 2nd annual Black Fashion Show celebrates culture, creativity at SDSU

A portrait of Marylinn J. Metzke, who is smiling and wearing a large red hat, with her left hand on her chin.

  • Giving that goes above and beyond
  • SDSU Women’s Fund champions equity in athletics, academics

AI Index Report

Welcome to the seventh edition of the AI Index report. The 2024 Index is our most comprehensive to date and arrives at an important moment when AI’s influence on society has never been more pronounced. This year, we have broadened our scope to more extensively cover essential trends such as technical advancements in AI, public perceptions of the technology, and the geopolitical dynamics surrounding its development. Featuring more original data than ever before, this edition introduces new estimates on AI training costs, detailed analyses of the responsible AI landscape, and an entirely new chapter dedicated to AI’s impact on science and medicine.

Read the 2024 AI Index Report

The AI Index report tracks, collates, distills, and visualizes data related to artificial intelligence (AI). Our mission is to provide unbiased, rigorously vetted, broadly sourced data in order for policymakers, researchers, executives, journalists, and the general public to develop a more thorough and nuanced understanding of the complex field of AI.

The AI Index is recognized globally as one of the most credible and authoritative sources for data and insights on artificial intelligence. Previous editions have been cited in major newspapers, including the The New York Times, Bloomberg, and The Guardian, have amassed hundreds of academic citations, and been referenced by high-level policymakers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, among other places. This year’s edition surpasses all previous ones in size, scale, and scope, reflecting the growing significance that AI is coming to hold in all of our lives.

Steering Committee Co-Directors

Jack Clark

Ray Perrault

Steering committee members.

Erik Brynjolfsson

Erik Brynjolfsson

John Etchemendy

John Etchemendy

Katrina light

Katrina Ligett

Terah Lyons

Terah Lyons

James Manyika

James Manyika

Juan Carlos Niebles

Juan Carlos Niebles

Vanessa Parli

Vanessa Parli

Yoav Shoham

Yoav Shoham

Russell Wald

Russell Wald

Staff members.

Loredana Fattorini

Loredana Fattorini

Nestor Maslej

Nestor Maslej

Letter from the co-directors.

A decade ago, the best AI systems in the world were unable to classify objects in images at a human level. AI struggled with language comprehension and could not solve math problems. Today, AI systems routinely exceed human performance on standard benchmarks.

Progress accelerated in 2023. New state-of-the-art systems like GPT-4, Gemini, and Claude 3 are impressively multimodal: They can generate fluent text in dozens of languages, process audio, and even explain memes. As AI has improved, it has increasingly forced its way into our lives. Companies are racing to build AI-based products, and AI is increasingly being used by the general public. But current AI technology still has significant problems. It cannot reliably deal with facts, perform complex reasoning, or explain its conclusions.

AI faces two interrelated futures. First, technology continues to improve and is increasingly used, having major consequences for productivity and employment. It can be put to both good and bad uses. In the second future, the adoption of AI is constrained by the limitations of the technology. Regardless of which future unfolds, governments are increasingly concerned. They are stepping in to encourage the upside, such as funding university R&D and incentivizing private investment. Governments are also aiming to manage the potential downsides, such as impacts on employment, privacy concerns, misinformation, and intellectual property rights.

As AI rapidly evolves, the AI Index aims to help the AI community, policymakers, business leaders, journalists, and the general public navigate this complex landscape. It provides ongoing, objective snapshots tracking several key areas: technical progress in AI capabilities, the community and investments driving AI development and deployment, public opinion on current and potential future impacts, and policy measures taken to stimulate AI innovation while managing its risks and challenges. By comprehensively monitoring the AI ecosystem, the Index serves as an important resource for understanding this transformative technological force.

On the technical front, this year’s AI Index reports that the number of new large language models released worldwide in 2023 doubled over the previous year. Two-thirds were open-source, but the highest-performing models came from industry players with closed systems. Gemini Ultra became the first LLM to reach human-level performance on the Massive Multitask Language Understanding (MMLU) benchmark; performance on the benchmark has improved by 15 percentage points since last year. Additionally, GPT-4 achieved an impressive 0.97 mean win rate score on the comprehensive Holistic Evaluation of Language Models (HELM) benchmark, which includes MMLU among other evaluations.

Although global private investment in AI decreased for the second consecutive year, investment in generative AI skyrocketed. More Fortune 500 earnings calls mentioned AI than ever before, and new studies show that AI tangibly boosts worker productivity. On the policymaking front, global mentions of AI in legislative proceedings have never been higher. U.S. regulators passed more AI-related regulations in 2023 than ever before. Still, many expressed concerns about AI’s ability to generate deepfakes and impact elections. The public became more aware of AI, and studies suggest that they responded with nervousness.

Ray Perrault Co-director, AI Index

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O.J. Simpson will be cremated; estate executor says 'hard no' to controversial ex-athlete’s brain being studied for CTE

A lawyer who represented O.J. Simpson, who died from cancer last week at 76, said Sunday that the former NFL star’s body will be cremated in the coming days, and there are no plans to have his brain donated to science.

“On at least one occasion, someone has called saying he’s a CTE guy who studies the brain,” said attorney Malcolm LaVergne, referring to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that has been studied in former football players and is associated with behavioral and cognitive issues related to repeated head injuries.

“That’s a hard no,” LaVergne added. “His entire body, including his brain, will be cremated.”

News of the cremation and the request to study his brain was first reported by the New York Post .

LaVergne, who is now serving as the executor of Simpson’s estate, said there are tentative plans for a “celebration of life” gathering limited to close friends and family. Simpson had three children with his first wife, Marguerite Whitley, and two children with his second wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, whom he divorced in 1992. In 1995, Simpson was famously acquitted in the murder of Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

LaVergne on Sunday also clarified comments made to the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Friday in which he said he didn’t want Goldman’s family to be able to collect any money from Simpson’s estate and it was “my hope that the Goldmans get zero, nothing.”

He said he was referring to a debt collection lawyer working with the Goldman family who, “within an hour we announced Simpson’s death, is bashing Simpson and all this stuff, ‘We’re going to do this and that.’”

“In hindsight, in response to that statement that ‘it’s my hope they get zero, nothing,’ I think that was pretty harsh,” LaVergne added. “Now that I understand my role as the executor and the personal representative, it’s time to tone down the rhetoric and really get down to what my role is as a personal representative.”

As he works to calculate the worth of Simpson’s estate and take inventory of his assets and belongings, LaVergne said he would invite a legal representative of the Goldmans to review his findings.

“We can get this thing resolved in a calm and dispassionate manner,” LaVergne said.

Following Simpson’s death, Goldman’s father, Fred Goldman, expressed no sympathy for the fallen Hall of Fame icon turned Hollywood pitchman, telling NBC News that “it’s no great loss to the world. It’s a further reminder of Ron’s being gone.”Simpson, who long maintained his innocence in the deaths of Brown Simpson and Goldman, died without having paid off most of a $33.5 million wrongful death judgment awarded in 1997 in a lawsuit filed by the victims’ families.

LaVergne said he welcomes Fred Goldman and his lawyer, David Cook, trying to ascertain any other financial assets, but with Simpson’s death, the estate must distribute money to creditors who have claims “according to priority.”

“Goldman and the other creditors for decades now have played, ‘Hey, if I get to find something of Simpson’s first, I get it or I get most of it,’” LaVergne said.

“But keep in mind, if he finds $1 million, he no longer gets to keep that $1 million,” he added. “The $1 million is going to come into the estate first, and then we see where the priorities are, and then he gets to keep it because he’s No. 8 on the list” of priorities.

LaVergne has said among Simpson’s debts is money owed to the Internal Revenue Service. In the wake of the lawsuit against him three decades ago, many of Simpson’s possessions, including footballs, jerseys and other sports memorabilia, were seized from his Brentwood estate in California to pay off the judgment. Simpson was living in Las Vegas before his death.

Cook said Sunday that there will be intense interest from lawyers for various parties seeking restitution as Simpson's finances are laid bare.

But "everybody knows when O.J. left, he left without penance," Cook said.

Goldman and Cook have said the litigation against Simpson was not about the money but seeking justice after his acquittal.

“It’s holding the man who killed my son and Nicole responsible,” Fred Goldman said in a previous statement after winning his civil trial.

Simpson’s will asks that LaVergne also set aside money for a “suitable monument” at his gravesite. It also says that Simpson wants the document to be administered “without litigation or dispute,” and if any beneficiary or heir fails to follow that dictate, they “shall receive, free of trust, one dollar ($1.00) and no more in lieu of any claimed interest in this will or its assets.”

international research of study

Erik Ortiz is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital focusing on racial injustice and social inequality.


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