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The ethics of student research ethics

1 December, 2009

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?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 December, 2009 11:46 am

    Thanks for posting on this, Jovan. This change is very disturbing for a number of reasons, but I think the key one is that it is fundamentally unethical to claim that a PhD student who is doing her or his own independent research is merely a sub- or at best co-investigator. I have a lot of respect for our ethics committee at Macquarie, so this move, which I consider extremely ill-considered, completely baffles me. It also appears to be unprecedented. I have inquired with an American historian of ethics regulation, Dr Zachary Schrag at George Mason University, and he tells me that he is not aware of any precedent in any country for this. He has seen this on grant applications, where a student applying for U.S. federal grant money sometimes is not allowed to be named as the chief investigator, but he hasn’t seen this on ethics applications.

    I have carefully examined the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research and I find no basis in the national code for such a move. On the contrary, everything I read in that document persuades me that this is itself a move that is unnecessary at best and unethical at worst. I am not and will never be the primary investigator or even a co-investigator on my PhD students’ or MAA students’ independent research projects. I am — merely, and entirely — their adviser. I cannot see how it could ever be ethical to put my name down to falsely claim such a role for myself vis-a-vis the Ethics Committee. In the end, we all have to follow our own conscience when it comes to ethics in research and ethics in teaching and supervision. If this rule becomes permanent at Macquarie, I see no way to ethically comply with such “ethics” regulations. I won’t do it.

  2. costa permalink
    10 December, 2009 11:15 am

    Interesting post, these changes will be significant for someone starting a PhD project. There are many things to consider especially authorship. Questions such as: who is creating research questions/conduct/concept? What about publishing – how will that change? How will the thesis be disseminated? Who has authorship rights?

    Does this mean a new trend in PhD or Master’s research? I mean, does this imply then, for a mentor to comply ethically, they have to make the student a research assistance in their own research project? Otherwise – as you point out a mentor cannot guarantee that the student complies ethically while doing fieldwork. Or do these changes mean that research will become limited to local fields, so that the mentor can have a greater involvement in the project? What type of research

    I agree with you on the point that perhaps the problem here stems from ethics being modelled for scientific research and not necessarily for social research. There is an increased need to apply ‘ethics relativism’ –

    Anthropology in an undergraduate setting is obscure at best: doing my own research project (masters) allowed for independent learning, ownership and responsibility. There is so much that can be tough in my opinion. Going through ethics, developing a research project, conducting, and writing creates an opportunity for a student to work through ethical and practical questions that arise. Otherwise this experience will become disengaged if the changes in ethics application stick.

  3. gregdowney permalink
    17 December, 2009 3:53 pm

    Another update on this issue. It turns out that it’s already more deeply ingrained in Australian anthropology than we realized. At the recent meeting of the Australian Anthropological Society, it became clear that other departments throughout Australia had already conceded to this practice, making our position against the move even more difficult. When it was brought up at an internal meeting of PhD program directors at Macquarie, I was told by several other departmental directors that I should get in line on this one.

    I agree with Lisa that it’s pretty stunning. Jovan, I don’t know if it’s just that it’s modeled on the physical and laboratory sciences, at least not the proximate impetus. That is, the model is probably from the sciences, but the reason we’re getting for the roll-out to the Faculty of Arts are the alleged inappropriate behaviours of a couple of PhD advisors in the Faculty. Certain leaders in our University Research Office think that making advisors the ‘chief investigator’ will communicate to advisors the seriousness of their responsibilities.

    Of course, if this is the rationale, it’s ridiculous. If there are really two cases of supervisorial neglect, then this policy has to be considered a bit of an over-reaction in light of the fact that we’ve no doubt graduated more than 100 PhD students from the faculty in the same time. If the rate of neglect is, at worst, 2%, a massive policy change to ‘rectify’ it is a case of swatting flies with a sledgehammer. Besides, the obvious counter-argument is that the change in designation to ‘chief investigator’ is not liable to significantly affect those who routinely engage in the academic advising equivalent of malpractice. I think that the whole ‘we’ve-had-bad-experiences’ argument is a ruse to extend this policy, so I don’t want to give it too much credence.

    The policy itself, as Jovan and Lisa point out, is unethical on several levels. I won’t repeat what I think Jovan spells out quite clearly, but on one other level, we fight very hard to convince our students that they are independent scholars. The PhD is a liminal period between student and teacher, the certification of and practice for life as an academic teacher, mentor and policy-maker (potentially). Do we really need yet another way to arrest the development and undermine the maturation intellectually of our students?

    Just about every other discussion I have with people on the HDR Committee in the Faculty of Arts (responsible for overseeing PhDs) highlights that we need to professionalize them, not infantilize them or artificially subordinate them in ways which do not accurately represent what we’re asking them to do. It just seems like a retrograde step to me, a pushing them back down to a status that we’re already trying to get them to grow out of when they’re writing their honours theses or designing MA projects.

    And do we really want to say that we can only get advisors to be responsible if we make them liable for the legal consequences of their students’ actions? What does this say about us as supervisor and dissertation advisors?

    If anything, I think that the intellectual fealty model in the laboratory sciences is a necessary evil, an artifact of the high cost and prohibitive lead time of setting up one’s own laboratory. Sure, within this environment, excellent mentorship can take place, but I’m sure we can find plenty of instances of advisor misconduct and failure of over-sight even in these settings. Good mentorship is not the automatic product of greater intellectual subordination of doctoral students, nor do all projects in the physical and psychological sciences correspond to this model, either.

    It just seems to be an imposition of an overly-homogeneous understanding of the doctoral training process. I wish that the people running these things didn’t seem to always want standardization to reign rather than flexibility, responsibility, and real accountability.

  4. 5 January, 2010 11:42 pm

    Very interesting debate, thanks for sharing.

    UK universities distinguish between ‘chief investigator’ and ‘principle investigator’ (‘principle investigator’ and ‘associate investigator’ in Canada) whith the latter being the person responsible at the particular site of research while the ‘chief investigator’ remains responsible for the overall research design.

    This makes sense in particular in cases where more than one researcher gets involved, also from a perspective that PhD students are not yet independent researchers (i.e. require no longer a supervisor/advisor) at the point of applying for ethical approval but only at the time they have submitted their thesis and passed the viva.

  5. 15 January, 2010 5:45 pm

    Good points Greg, and point taken about the proximate motivation for rolling out the policy at MQ. It’s interesting though that, as you note, Macquarie is not just acting to (supposedly) improve accountability of their supervisors but also bringing itself in line with a policy that most other Australian universities have already adopted. This more general phenomenon seems interesting, and possibly a move towards the dominance of the lab science model (?), beyond the pretexts given by the MQ management.

    Let me also say that I’d be very interested to hear of further developments on this policy when they arise, seeing as I’m no longer in the local loop.

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