Is my research ethical? (Or… just because it was ethical, does that mean it still is?)

There’s one thing that every single Australian doing research involving humans must do – receive ethics approval for their research.  Everyone at UWA who does research involving humans, whether that means working in indigenous communities, testing radioactive dye in people’s bodies or surveying people about their favourite type of ice-cream, has to complete the same ethics approval application form.  You are asked about the value of your research to society, how you will recruit people to your research and how robust you expect your findings to be.  You fill in the form, send it to the ethics office, and then sometime later (weeks, months who knows?) you hope to receive approval to continue your research.

I had always thought that the ethics process stops there.  I have my ethics approval for my research.  Now I can perform my research.  What else is there to think about?  But recently I’ve been thinking more about what happens in the field, how it compares with my ethics application, and what my responsibilities are to my subjects.

If I have received approval on the condition that all my subjects remain anonymous, what happens if one requests to be identified?  If I have sought to keep all the answers from my respondents private, what happens if someone wants to know how their best mate responded to the survey?  And if I have been welcomed into a community to report on their experiences, what happens if the findings show something negative about the community?  What is my duty to them?  Doing my own research I quickly realised that, while my ethics approval form had been cut and dry my research in the field was definitely not.  There were grey areas of appropriate engagement and there were questions about whether I owed more to the academic integrity of my work or to the community that I was representing in my research.

I’m not alone in these questions. A fellow postgrad is doing her research in an indigenous community and was wondering how she can build interest in her research without giving away too much of the privacy of the people she’s working with.  A staff member was telling me about one of her idols, who also works in indigenous research, and has become so conflicted about her own ‘profiteering’ from their indigenous knowledge and experiences that she has discontinued her research.

The truth is that while there are endless textbooks discussing ethics and values in social research, there are no clear rules outside those that you intend to subscribe to in your initial ethics application, and the ethics application itself is limited in its reach.  In the end it’s up to every researcher to consider their own subjects, the value of their research to society and how they can diplomatically display their findings to the research and wider community.  And I’ve come to realise that this is something that isn’t appropriately conveyed in the ethics application – that with ethics approval comes great responsibility.

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