The ethics of student research ethics
Recently we were informed that Macquarie was to change its ethics policy to make it so that students could no longer be listed as chief investigators on ethics applications. This would mean that supervisors would have to be listed as CIs for all student research projects, including those of PhD students. Should these changes be put in place students will have the choice of being minor researchers or, at best, ‘Co-investigators’. The proposed changes immediately raised concerns in the anthropology department about the implications our students’ research. I’d like to raise some of these issues here in the hope that it will generate a productive discussion of the subject. The central question essentially is this: why might a change that is perfectly innocuous for other disciplines be problematic for anthropological research?
First, what are the stated reasons for making these changes? The primary justification for the new approach is to better recognise the role of students as research trainees rather than researchers in their own right, and to better reflect the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, which states that
“the research supervisor… (must provide) guidance in all matters relating to research conduct and overseeing all stages or the research process, including identifying the research objectives and approach, obtaining ethics and other approvals, obtaining funding, conducting the research, and reporting the research outcomes in appropriate forums and media”
I don’t think anyone would disagree that it is always the supervisor’s role to provide guidance in all the areas stated here. But making supervisors CIs is something rather different than acknowledging their role as mentors; it implies that this is their own research in some sense, and more importantly it assumes that they can take ethical responsibility not only for the design of the research project but also for its conduct.
It seems to me that these changes are an attempt to apply a laboratory-based model of research across the board in which students either work on a project in collaboration with their supervisor, or work in a controlled environment in which they can, at least in theory, be constantly under the supervision of an academic. I was reminded of the different disciplinary expectations of lab-based research when I discussed this issue with my wife, a molecular biologist. She couldn’t initially see why the anthropologists were so concerned about the implications of the changes; for her it was perfectly normal for the lab head or other senior researcher to be the CI for student projects. This gave me cause to reflect on why the changes seemed so problematic for anthropological research.
So why is anthropology different? Here are four reasons I can think of why the proposed ethics model is problematic for ethnographic research:
- First, students doing fieldwork in often far flung locations cannot reasonably be expected to be under the direct supervision of an academic. Guidance may come from afar but in the end the student must be able to take responsibility for their own ethical conduct. Related to this, the research ‘situation’ is never determined once and for all as it is in a laboratory environment; it is an ongoing, evolving process in which the ‘terms’ of the research, and the frame which differentiates the research from not-research, are never fixed. This therefore requires researchers to make ethical decisions in real time, in novel situations as they arise. Thus it would not be possible for a supervisor to visit a field site, determine that everything is okay ethically, and then leave again. For a supervisor reasonably to take responsibility for the ethics of an ethnographic field project s/he would have to be there the whole time.
- Second, the ethical qualities of anthropological research cannot be separated from the relationships of trust established during fieldwork. As the sole fieldworker the student, and no-one else, enters into relationships (hopefully) of trust and obligation with the people s/he is working with. This kind of rapport is not something that can simply be transferred to others, people whom the research communities have never met. How can informants be sure that sensitive, personal or secret information won’t be shared with the other researchers on the project? How could the student researcher guarantee the confidentiality of information s/he acquires? And would, indeed, supervisors have the right to demand to see their students’ fieldnotes on the grounds that they are CIs in the research project?
- Third, in interactions with bureaucracies and others in gate-keeper roles, it is the student who must act on his/her own behalf. The perception that the student was merely an assistant (because even as ‘co-investigators’ they would clearly appear to be the junior party) would certain diminish his/her ability to negotiate terms of the research.
- Fourth, unlike fields such as biology in which the lab head always appears as last author on papers regardless of whether s/he contributed to the research in any practical sense, in anthropology the student is usually the sole author of work based on her/his research. There are some exceptions of course, but in the case of co-authored work there would be expectation that the supervisor has also did a substantial amount of the research or writing. If supervisors were required to be CIs with regard to ethics, would they also appear as authors of the research outputs? Shouldn’t there be a logical consistency between ethical requirements and authorship, both of which are expressions of the subject-position of the researcher?
So those are four reasons, although I am sure there are more. The broader consequence of my argument is that there can’t be an a priori universal ethical researcher-subject, independent of discipline or research situation. In order to work with this recognition ethics committees need to be able to indulge in a sort of ethical relativism, which is to say that they see ethics as contextualised by discipline and research situation rather than being based on universal models that can be applied uniformly in every situation. This is of course a very ‘anthropological’ way of viewing things. But I think anthropology and its methods demand the ongoing contextualisation of ethical engagement, which is to say that it demands to practise what it preaches.
I’m interested to hear what others think on this matter though. Are there other universities adopting a similar approach to student researcher ethics? Are there any precedents for this sort of change? Are there good arguments for making supervisors CIs for all their students’ research? Or does this put supervisors themselves in an unethical position, i.e. being asked to take responsibility for things that are largely out of their control? And if supervisors feel that they are morally and even legally accountable for their students’ ethical conduct during research, what effects would this have on the sorts of projects they would be willing to take on?