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Communication in the digital age

Person with smartphone in hands
Image: Pixabay

Digitalisation greatly influences North-South research partnerships and whether they are fair and equitable. This page provides an overview of challenges and opportunities that research partners should consider when using digital means of communication in their work.

Digitalisation comes with unprecedented options of mutual connection and exchange at distance, without the necessity of meeting physically. These options – and the capacities to make use of them – have greatly increased in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, with online meetings and web-based conferences commonly used for both personal and professional exchange. Researchers all around the world have become accustomed to maintaining interactions virtually.

Increased virtualization affects the scientific community particularly, as networking between scientists and the sharing of findings and resources has for a long time been structured around direct exchange at international conferences and workshops. Participation in such physical gatherings thus often represented a limiting factor for researchers from southern countries due to visa restrictions, as well as unaffordable travel, accommodation and participation fees. Online conferences and globally accessible virtual tools such as MOOCs and webinars thus represent great opportunities for researchers to connect more easily with their peers from other regional contexts. International online meetings allow all partners to attract more attractive speakers and participants to their events, as fewer costs must be borne by the organizers.

Enhanced possibilities in online exchanges also present significant advantages for North-South research partnerships: Most evidently, there is less necessity to travel to physical meetings with partners, as such exchanges have become easily affordable both in terms of time investment and expenses by using digital tools. Exchanges can thus take place much more frequently and in less formal settings. Also, digital communication using messenger services or social media platforms may contribute to increased informal contacts and more direct interaction between partners, enabling more efficient sharing of knowledge, data, contacts and results. As such, digital communication and exchange can facilitate collaboration and improve equal participation in North-South research partnerships.

Share of global population using the internet, 2019
Share of global population using the internet, 2019Image: Our World in Data

However, online communication also comes with some security issues and, in particular, exclusion risks affecting those with poor internet access or insufficient infrastructure. Also, it is associated with new challenges in creating and nurturing trustful relationships between partners.

The following aspects are seen as crucial with regard to a fair use of digital communication tools in North-South research partnerships:

“Digital” has become standard and can make many processes faster, more efficient and more transparent. This not only holds for the tools used in the actual research activities, but also for the ways communication is organized in North-South research partnerships. Not using digital, state-of-the-art technologies might lead to missing out on great opportunities and will be difficult to justify. On the other hand, those requiring “digital” as the new standard option need to be aware that not all activities may be accomplished through digital formats if partnerships are to remain effective and equal.

A certain reluctance to engaging in digital exchange may have to do with the necessity of building trustful relationships, which is sometimes deemed to be more difficult through non-physical meetings. Also, various institutions set different rules and restrictions regarding the use of specific tools. Guaranteeing equal access thus requires sensitivity for external factors that partners cannot influence. Raising awareness of such issues is a vital task of those active in North-South research partnership promotion.

An increased use of digital communication tools in North-South research partnerships must consider and avoid exclusion mechanisms proper to the digital field. Existing gender gaps and power structures that support exclusion, for example the fact that younger and female researchers are less heard in meetings, may be accentuated by digital communication. This needs to be considered and avoided.

Hybrid meetings are especially prone to exclusion, as they grant those who can afford travel costs or who are nearby the advantage to gather physically. These participants then benefit from informal exchanges outside of the actual meeting time, excluding those only participating in the formal parts of the event. The use of online communication tools and the clear advantages of creating hybrid settings must thus always be balanced against the requirement of guaranteeing equal treatment of all partners involved.

In order to fully reap the benefits of increased online exchanges, it is crucial to establish trustful relationships from the outset. This is particularly important for teams and partners that engage in collaboration for the first time, and especially when new partner institutions – or new individual partners – join already existing research groups. Building trustful relationships may require some physical meetings at the beginning and throughout a partnership, allowing to get to know each other also in settings that go beyond mere professional roles. This entails the readiness on behalf of all partners to travel from time to time. Online meetings should nevertheless replace more frequent travel, an important aspect also regarding climate change issues and the no-flight policies in place in many scientific institutions.

Building trustful relationships, however, also means establishing clear rules applying to online exchanges. These rules must pay attention to the inclusivity of settings, to the accessibility, stability and security of the platforms used, and to the costs that hard- and software requirements may generate and that must be covered by the respective project funding. Online meetings should take place on a regular basis, be free of non-necessary hierarchies, and promote a culture of data and knowledge sharing.

Building trust while relying increasingly on digital communication tools requires absolute transparency: it is important to determine and to communicate which communication channels are used for which purposes, in order to avoid parallel structures or untransparent decision-making between peers. Messenger services or social media platforms should only be used for clearly defined official purposes that do not lead to exclusion from joint decision-making. The risk of further blurring distinctions between private and professional lives must be considered.

Global exchange with scientific peers is of particular importance for young researchers both from the southern and the northern contexts. Opportunities for travelling, actual field research and direct exchange with peers in other world regions are important for acquiring direct scientific and cultural experiences and should not be entirely replaced by digital communication. Accordingly, funding agencies still need be willing to cover related expenses.

Principles for Digital Development
Image: Principles for Digital Development

Principles for Digital Development

Designed primarily for practitioners in international cooperation, these principles nevertheless contain aspects that are very relevant in international research partnerships. See the webpage for more details