Helen Kara is the author of Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives, out today.
I have been fascinated by ethics since long before I became a researcher. Like most of my contemporaries (and no doubt many others too), I was brought up to believe that fairness was worth striving for.
Working for the statutory and third sectors in the 1980s and 90s involved a lot of talk about equal opportunities (as it was termed in those days). These raised questions that interested me from an early age. What is fair? What is equal? Who decides?
The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article last month suggesting that scholars should stop citing the work of ‘bad people’ (everyone from sexual harassers to fully paid-up Nazis). The basis of this article was a judgement that if someone is identified as a ‘bad person’, we can all stop citing their work, and so, presumably, feel pleased with ourselves for making the world a slightly better place. This approach is problematic in a number of ways. First, it is actually only possible to stop citing the work of people you know to be in some way ‘bad’. If someone has been convicted of a heinous crime then, arguably, fair enough – though not all convictions are safe. If they have been accused of a crime? That is even more problematic if you subscribe to the notion of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. And whatever criteria you use, you can’t escape the fact that you are still likely to cite some ‘bad people’: from criminals who go uncaught to people who are just generally unpleasant.
Also, findings from research conducted in horrific ways by some of the very worst of ‘bad people’ have been later used to save lives. There is a wide difference of opinion about whether this can ever be justified. Some scholars think not; it is simply too repugnant to be OK to use such data in any circumstances. Others think that the harm has been done, and cannot be undone, so why not use the existing results for good?
Research ethics committees have to make judgements about ethical aspects of research, and these too can be really challenging. People who sit on research ethics committees are generally people who work hard to be ethical and to help others think and act ethically. However, committee members may be constrained by institutional and/or legislative requirements.
A few days after the Chronicle ran its article, I heard about a student’s ethical approval application being rejected on several grounds, one of which was that they could not guarantee individual participants would not be members of vulnerable groups. While the application may have had a number of flaws, this ground for rejection worries me deeply. How can any social researcher judge whether or not a participant has a mental health problem, or uses illicit drugs, or lives with a chronic but invisible disability? These factors are not self-evident, and I cannot see how it would be ethical to ask every potential participant a string of intrusive personal questions to find out. Also, if we did that, it would exclude people from participating in research: people who are already marginalised, who may rarely have the chance to be listened to attentively by another human being, and whose voices are insufficiently heard in the wider world.
I can see that both the judgement advocated in the article, and the judgement made by the committee, were intended to be ethical. I think I have demonstrated that in each case, the situation is too complex to be effectively addressed by such a straightforward judgement. What, then, are we to do? In my view, part of the answer is for us all to learn to think and act more ethically. It may help if we remember that research is built on academic foundations of elitism and exclusion. Of course there may at times still be occasional grounds for exclusion, but in general might it not be more worthwhile to work towards more inclusive research practice? Rather than trying to complete the impossible task of compiling a definitive list of ‘bad people’ to exclude, we could judge worthy of inclusion more scholars of colour, queer scholars, scholars with disabilities, scholars from Indigenous communities, and so on. And perhaps we could judge the perspectives of so-called ‘vulnerable people’ as valuable, for they may have a great deal to teach us, if only we can learn to listen.
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