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Ethics bureaucracies and student research

22 July, 2009

When I arrived at Macquarie in 2007, I had big plans for my students.  I was scheduled to teach a postgraduate methods class, and I decided that the students were going to learn research methods by undertaking their own research project from start to finish and trying to publish the results.

“Crazy!” one of my colleagues said.  “Do you really think that they can get published?”

“Of course!” I said. “Have you seen how many journals there are out there?  You can publish anything if you are persistent enough.”

Another colleague said, “What are you going to do about ethics clearance?”

Uh-oh.  I hadn’t thought about that.  But I wasn’t going to let it derail my plan, so my ad hoc solution was to make each of my students apply for ethics clearance.  Macquarie has 30+ page ethics application form for human research — not including appendices.

I tell you, the students LOVED that.  And so did the Ethics Secretariat, which had to process 20 ethics applications from one class and deal with weekly phone calls from me cheerfully asking when so-and-so’s project was going to get approved so s/he could start her research.  Some students didn’t get ethics approval to start their research until the last week of classes.  There were lots of extensions and late papers.

Despite the slow start and the frustrations, the work that my students did was really good.  In one semester, every student had to come up with their own original research projects, design an appropriate methodology, obtain ethics approval, execute the project, write up the results, and submit for publication. Every student came up with a completely unique research project, from researching the smoking practices of international students at Macquarie to investigating online lesbian networking in New South Wales to studying how Aboriginal artwork is marketed to tourists. Students gained a tremendous amount of hands-on research experience. At every seminar we discussed the progress of their research projects, and there were fascinating discussions about methods and ethics.  Even though they had largely seen the ethics application as an exercise in bureaucratic hoop-jumping, they were genuinely concerned with ethics, and we regularly discussed research ethics dilemmas.

So at the end of the year I decided that it was a good exercise and worth keeping the independent research projects the next time I taught the class. But the students were pretty clear in their feedback that they didn’t want to have to deal with the bureaucratic obstacles themselves.

Informal feedback from the Ethics Secretariat also suggested that they would be grateful if I found another solution (or at least stopped ringing them to ask about the status of students’ ethics applications).

Finding work-arounds for bureaucratic obstacles

So after the semester was over, I made an appointment to meet with the head of the Ethics Secretariat to try to find ways to simplify the ethics approval process for student research projects.  I’d gotten a fellowship from the Provost, Judyth Sachs, to work on this project, so I was empowered by significant institutional support.

We batted ideas around together. The Ethics Secretariat pointed out that Macquarie had a simpler process for evaluating student research projects that weren’t going to be published, but since helping students to publish was a major goal for me, I didn’t want to take that easy route.  They rejected the idea of a blanket template that would cover any sort of student research project.  I wanted to give my students some choice in what they could do.

The compromise that we worked out was this: I designed 4 basic research projects, all revolving around a different methodology and method of recruiting research participants. Students could then pick a project that already received ethics approval.  I tried to come up with projects that collectively would use every method that I could imagine a social science discipline using: online and street surveys; interviews, formal and informal; research in online communities; public observation; participant observation; even oral history, which has quite different conventions surrounding confidentiality and intellectual property than I was familiar with. The goal was to create a set of “templates” that colleagues could adapt to develop their own ethics applications for student research projects, so others could take advantage of my work and wouldn’t have to start from scratch.

The 4 projects

Here are the research projects I came up with, along with an extract from the project summary that I included in the ethics application. Each project title links to the full ethics application that I submitted. Of course, it is in the peculiar and particular format of Macquarie University’s ethics application form, but because MQ’s form is more elaborate than that of many other universities, you’re likely to find that I’ve dealt with most of the concerns that your own ethics committee or IRB might raise. All these ethics applications are Creative Commons licensed for non-profit use and adaptation, so feel free to borrow as much as you want. If you do decide to adapt one of these ideas for your own teaching, I’d love to hear about it! Send me an e-mail at lisa.wynn[at]

1) An ethnographic study of mobile phone use in Sydney

Anthropologists have always been interested in the relationship between technology and culture.  Contemporary anthropologists have recently been particularly interested in the spread of global communication technologies and how they are taken up in local social and cultural contexts (Axel 2006).  Mobile phones, in particular, have been revealed as devices which extend social networks in unique ways and which have been incorporated into local cultural norms about sharing, gift giving and exchange, and economic strategies (Smith 2007, Horst and Miller 2006, Wong 2007).  Corporate anthropologists have also researched the materiality of cell phones – where they are carried, how they are held, when they are turned off and on – to inform product design (Chipchase 2007).  Sociologists and psychologists have also examined the uptake of cell phone and messaging technologies amongst subcultural groups (e.g. Sylvia and Hady 2004).

Globally, some 3 billion people are expected to have cell phones by the end of this year, so it is clearly a technology that has a powerful global reach across cultures and socioeconomic class. How do new technologies such as cell phones extend or modify existing cultural norms and social networks?  What are the explicit and implicit cultural rules that shape how people use these technologies?

The methods for this study included street interviews and online questionnaires, as well as participant observation.

2) An ethnography of a virtual online social world

Tom Boellstorff (2008) poses this question: “How is everything from identity and community to property, place, and politics shaped the fact that human beings can now live parts of their lives in virtual worlds?”  Some of the potential research questions raised by cybersociality in online virtual worlds like Second Life include the following:

  • How are social norms enforced and violated, and how does that contribute to a sense of community?
  • What does identity mean in a massive multiplayer online role playing game when people can have alts (secondary accounts not linked to their primary avatar, or animated representative), or more than one person can control an avatar?
  • What does embodiment mean in Second Life, where you can change your gender, body type, skin color, and even species at will, where other players can even *give* you a new body type to “wear,” and you can buy a penis to use for cybersex?  Do people change certain aspects of appearance (such as clothes or hair style ) more than others (such as body shape or gender)?  How often to people change their appearance?  To what extent does an avatar’s appearance influence how people interact with that avatar?
  • What religious or cultural rituals do people engage in, in cyberspace?
  • What are the social norms for gift-giving and reciprocity in cyberspace, and how does this contribute to community and sociability in cyber worlds?
  • Are there coercive exchanges, and how are they handled or talked about?
  • How does partnering occur in Second Life? Do virtual partners know each other in real life, and if not, how does it impinge on their real life worlds? What is the interface between Second Life and “real life”?

In this ethics application, I got a lot of help from Tom Boellstorff (whose ethnography on Second Life we read for the class). He generously shared with me his original ethics application for his research in Second Life, which I was able to draw on in figuring out how to answer the Ethics Committee’s concerns about privacy and the permissibility of research in Second Life.

3) Oral Histories of International Students in Australia

Education is a $12.5 billion “export industry” for Australia, bringing in more income than tourism (Rout 2008).  Yet little is known about the social experience of international students in Australia, despite the fact that they face unique pressures.  Rout (2008) summarized recent research that points out that, “Contrary to their image as cashed-up BMW drivers, many overseas students cannot afford to eat, are paid well below the minimum wage and are among those most vulnerable to exploitation in this country.”

For this project, students in ANTH 801 will conduct oral life histories of international students at Macquarie, focusing on their educational trajectory leading to, and including, their student experience at Macquarie.  How did they end up at Macquarie?  What are the personal, social, financial, and familial obligations that shape students’ experiences at university in Australia?  What are the cultural factors that influence their integration into, or alienation from, the Macquarie student body?

Very little qualitative research has been done on the higher education experience of international students in general, and yet they comprise a large minority of students at Macquarie.  Letting them speak in their own words about their experiences is an opportunity to learn about the pressures and problems that international students face, their goals and aspirations, and the social and learning strategies that they use to cope with a culturally new educational experience, which Macquarie University may be able to use to improve the experience of international students on campus.  It also has the potential to inform our understanding of the informal, affective, and social aspects of learning and intellectual development for international students.

I grounded this project in the principles of oral history methods, which specify that (1) the interview or transcript must be placed in a repository, and (2) those interviewed retain copyright and control over the use of their interviews.  It was therefore a complicated application, and probably the most closely scrutinised of all the projects I submitted, but it eventually received approval.

4) An applied anthropological study of the social use of space on campus and its relationship with ‘intellectual climate’

Macquarie University is looking for ways to improve its rankings in graduate student evaluations of “intellectual climate” on campus.  U@MQ is eager to think about new ways that the food and social facilities on campus could be restructured to be more appealing and better utilized.  Might these be linked?  Do students’ most formative moments at university happen inside or outside of the classroom?  How is social time in or outside of the classroom related to intellectual interaction?  To what extent is intellectual climate shaped by space and facilities?  What other factors shape the perception of intellectual climate on campus?  The aim of this project is to study use of space and evaluate whether there are any inexpensive or cost-effective interventions that you can recommend to improve the intellectual climate for students at Macquarie.

Here are some angles that you may consider:

1) In the library, how do students mark off spaces for individual and group work?  The library is the most formal learning space on campus.  How do students claim it to be more informal?

2) How much does home life influence use of public spaces on campus? Do students who use the campus do so to escape from home life for whatever reason?

3) Using the language of de Certeau, what are the tactics that students use to claim space and how does it differ from the ostensible ways that the space was designed to be used?

This particular project was set up as an applied anthropology project for a “client,” Macquarie University, and one organisation in particular, U@MQ, was very interested in the results and sponsored a competition and prize for the best student project.  (U@MQ is the company that provides non-academic services on campus — they run the coffee carts, the food court, the gym, etc.)  At the end of the semester, the students who did this research project presented their research results and policy recommendations to a panel from U@MQ, the Learning and Teaching Centre, and Facilities Management.

Protocols and scripts

In the ethics application for each project I had to set out the general research question and draft protocols – scripts actually – for students to follow in recruiting participants.  This was the only way that the ethics committee could feel satisfied that students wouldn’t put undue pressure on friends and family to participate in their research projects.  I also had to draft protocols for taking pictures, and several variations on informed consent forms and recruitment advertisements.  Students put their own spins on the research project and came up with their own lists of interview questions.  They submitted a short description of their own approach at the beginning of the semester and this received expedited review by the Ethics Secretariat.

So students in that same methods class the following year were able to either do their own research project (and go through the whole ethics approval process), OR they could take one of these 4 research projects and interpret it in their own way, while following the basic protocols and methodologies that I’d already gotten clearance for them to use.  Two did their own projects (one on roller derby leagues in Sydney and another on the Miss India-Australia beauty pageant); the rest of the class slotted into the projects I’d gotten pre-approval for.  With ethics approval mostly taken care of in advance, the students in 2008 were able to start their research right away.  We still had extensive discussions about research ethics, facilitated by the online ethics training module (see section 2 above), but this time students didn’t see research ethics as a tedious bureaucratic requirement, but rather as an area of intense current debate in anthropology.

They all did great work.  Most of them have submitted their papers to journals.  Several are under review, and so far one has been published (Elisabeth McLeod’s study of mobile phone use amongst Baby Boomers in Sydney in the International Journal of Emerging Technologies) and another was just accepted for publication (Vanessa Gamboa Gonzalez’s thought piece on conceptions of the body and health in Second Life for the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research). I’m over the moon about this. (I wish that I’d thought about my essays for class in graduate school as articles to submit for publication.  Then maybe I would have had more than 2 obscure publications when I finished my PhD.) These are the exciting possibilities when students are doing their own research instead of writing about the research of others.

–L.L. Wynn

6 Comments leave one →
  1. costa permalink
    23 July, 2009 2:22 pm

    I have to say Lisa, as a student from the first time around:

    it was hard

    looking back:

    a great experience.

    As you know I got my ethics clearance on the last wk of the semester (not approved the wk before because of a dot at the end of Macquarie website!!!)

    Nevertheless it was so helpful for our major research project. At that stage I had an idea about ethics approval procedure.

    I do believe ethics is important in any discipline-a framework that at times makes us stand out from other disciplines: approved consent before undertaking life histories, interviews etc. It also induces students to “put into perspective” the topic and how one would approach it.

    The idea of “Publishing” (when you mentioned it in class) made me apprehensive-but I do believe important to make students familiar with the process, the editing, format necessary for a journal, so that the process isn’t as clear as mud.

    Doing your own research was a valuable experience and active way to learn anthropology-something I hadn’t done before that class.

    I wonder: shouldn’t this be offered to undergrads as well?

  2. 23 July, 2009 2:57 pm

    Ha, thanks for the perspective from the other side, Marlene. My poor guinea pigs, you guys were awesome, and I know I really made you work hard.

    I do a similar thing for undergraduates that entails their own independent research project (I haven’t posted an example of an ethics application for undergraduate research, but I’ll get around to it soon), and the only difference is that I don’t require them to submit the result for publication.

  3. costa permalink
    23 July, 2009 3:14 pm

    Thats great and fundamental. I remember finishing undergrad (majoring in anthropology) and still not understanding how fieldwork was conducted, how ethnography can be written and let alone ethics approval!!!! In the dark, maybe candle light!!!!


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