Ethics and the researcher

Behaving in a good way to the people one is working with is vital – unethical researchers do damage to communities in the short-term. And they do incalculable longterm damage, because communities that feel burned by researchers will reject other research proposals which might benefit them. There’s a new publication addressed to Indigenous people on how to deal with health researchers. It’s a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) booklet Keeping research on track: a guide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about health research ethics. In the past, the NHMRC guidelines for working with Indigenous people have been taken as models in other disciplines. And so it’s important for us to look at them, even though linguists don’t go sticking needles into people, and a grammar is of less direct benefit than the results of a study of the causes of kidney failure.


The NHMRC booklet is the first attempt I’ve seen at explaining to Indigenous people what research is. It is rather well done – it starts with an example of how research may benefit a community, and tries to explain what research is. I like “The 8 steps of the research journey” that they propose – and this would be very good to give to field methods students and to any new researcher in the field, to get an idea of what negotiating a research project can mean.
Two areas for improvements. The first has to do with language. The booklet is written in fairly plain language, but at 52 pages, will probably be useful only for areas where people have good literacy. But the language isn’t always plain, and the attitudes to language are inconsistent, as the following comment shows:

During the pilot testing of this document there were some requests to produce this booklet in different languages and formats. It is not possible or appropriate for a national organisation like NHMRC to take responsibility for translating this information for specific communities across Australia.

It may not be possible to translate the material, in that they may not have the funding, but it is certainly appropriate for a national body treating an important area like ethical behaviour, to attempt to get the material across to people in languages they understand.
The other area for improvement is that the booklet devotes a lot of time to what the community should ask of the researcher, and treads lightly around the fact that a contract is a two-way document. It stresses the constraints that Indigenous people can place on researchers. These show how hard and time-consuming it may be to get a research permit to work in Indigenous communities. There’s also the usual catch 22. How do you get University ethics approval if you haven’t got consent to carry out the project? How do you get finance to visit the communities without ethics approval? How do you get permission to visit the community to talk to them about the project without ethics approval?
Now it’s clear that people in remote Indigenous communities are asking for research of different types – requesting access to past material, requesting help with making quality recordings documenting songs and ceremonies and language, and also with getting this material in accessible forms for schools and other activities for maintaining language and culture (see Anggarrgoon’s post on this). It’s also clear that many (not all) speakers of Australian Indigenous languages, enjoy working collaboratively with researchers on documenting their languages. (Strange behaviour by researchers provides endless entertainment to other researchers – so why not to Indigenous people?) And many speakers feel they benefit when the results of the research are published as a dictionary or grammar.
Communities generally can’t afford the real cost of paying for a researcher to do a good job of something like a picture dictionary. So usually, such work is done by PhD students or researchers on other projects, as it often seems (deceptively) easy to do such work as part of another project. But a picture dictionary, say, cannot count as the main project for, say a PhD thesis. It’s in all our interests to work out clear agreements about what researchers and communities members will do, and can reasonably expect of each other. Such agreements have to be easy for Indigenous people and researchers to manage.
So if some Indigenous people are happy to work with researchers, what should they know about the expectations researchers have, and the constraints placed on researchers? The booklet doesn’t go into this at all. This is is a pity, because it needs to be discussed – to see what can go wrong, look at Tonya Stebbins’ book – she documents the pain caused by community expectations that, when jobless, a researcher should continue working on a project without payment (Fighting language endangerment: community directed research on Sm’algyax (Coast Tsimshian): Endangered languages of the Pacific Rim A2-026. Osaka: Faculty of Informatics, Osaka Gakuin University. 2003).
Indigenous people working with researchers need to know the kinds of constraints researchers face – the need to disseminate the results of one’s research, the time-lines, the requirements of finishing a thesis, the need for some certainty about community permission to make findings public. These days there are strict time constraints on finishing theses. Students generally can’t afford to gamble with spending the first year of their thesis waiting for a decision on whether they can work in a partciular community. The upshot is that supervisors can only encourage graduate students to work on Australian Indigenous languages if the students have existing connections to communities, or the supervisors are very well-connected and have projects with large budgets. In either case, the supervisor must be fairly sure that the community will not decide to rescind consent to publish material in the thesis.
The effort of getting permission to work in Indigenous Australian communities is starting to seem so hard that students are moving away from working on Australian Indigenous languages. They’re working with speakers of other endangered languages, where the need is also great, where ethics clearance is also needed, but where the procedures for it are less time-consuming and less risky. Working, say, with the Karen diaspora in Australia.
In a few years’ time many Australian Indigenous languages (oral and sign) will be gone, many songs,dances and other art forms will have vanished unrecorded, and there will probably still be no decent epidemiological surveys of causes of chronic illnesses. We, the present-day researchers, will be blamed for the absence of this material. Is it ethical to take the tempting, broad and lily-strewn path of not working with Indigenous communities in Australia?

3 Comments

  1. bulanjdjan says:

    Great post Jane.
    Re: the catch 22(s) of getting community support, finance to make the connections to get that support, ethical clearance to begin research with a community, the time to establish relationships with speakers and stakeholders of Aboriginal languages to the degree that one has confidence that the conversations taking place about researcher and community expectations are being understood by all parties…
    Working as a linguist in language centres prior to commencing a research project certainly gives the opportunity to achieve many of these things without the ticking clock of candidature hanging over one’s head.
    Other benefits include the opportunity to negotiate and develop language documentation materials using time and financial resources other than those provided with PhD enrolment, a (more) structured and supported introduction to the field than travelling solo to remote destinations for the first time…
    I don’t mean to set this up as though language centres should be a training ground for would-be linguistic researchers, who only stay in the job for as long as it takes for them to decide they’re ready to ‘graduate’ to research. In my experience, working at language centres seems to sustain/generate a commitment to ‘giving back’ to communiites, as well as create a significant network of researchers and fieldworkers available to advise and support newly-commmencing staff.
    Back to research and its confines: what do supervisers think about this as a proposition? Would you advise your research students to intermit their candidature to undertake community-benefitting work (e.g. picture dictionaries) – either as an employe of a language centre, or as part of an AIATSIS grant, for example? Or perhaps advise would-be PhD students who want to work on an Aboriginal language, but are concerned about the above, to take a job at a language centre to ‘see how they go’?
    (I’m concerned I’m describing too-casual an approach to employment at language centres. This is not my intention.)
    I know David Wilkins describes alternating between wearing two hats while working in Alice Springs and writing his PhD, and some off the time-constraint issues he faced in trying to carry out his work in research in a manner e considered to be most ethical. Given the increased time-restrictions (and opportunities for funding for community-focussed language documentation work) in research projects, what options for advice do supervisors feel they can suggest to research students?

  2. Jane Simpson says:

    I thought there was something missing! Thank you!
    Yes of course, I’d strongly recommend working for language centres, for all the reasons you mention. And I agree that working for language centres does make people much more conscious of the responsibility of reseachers to give back. And conscious that we’re not Researcher 007; we don’t have the licence to research what we like, where we like, how we like….
    And yes, taking time off to do projects that the speakers are asking for is an excellent thing. It’s probably better to suspend than to try to do both research and project simultaneously, I think, given the strict time-frame PhD students operate in. But, doing a lot of community work can be a subconscious strategy for not finishing one’s thesis (been there done that..).
    Very occasionally a language centre loses its way and cannot look after students, or wastes its energies gate-keeping. That could be bad for students, as well as for language work and language maintenance (and the long-term future of the language centre).
    As for Aboriginal organisations other than language centres – they sometimes make their employees sign contracts which lack an understanding of how important archiving and preservation is. Moral: don’t join an Aboriginal organisation as a stepping-stone to carrying out research with speakers, if that organisation has strong views about controlling research.
    I guess such problems would most likely become apparent pretty soon – before the student and speakers have got too involved in planning research.

  3. bulanjdjan says:

    “doing a lot of community work can be a subconscious strategy for not finishing one’s thesis”
    I have absolutely *no* idea of what you’re talking about… 😉

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