What do we know?
I wish I could say there’s a simple formula that will reduce the anxiety of researchers (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) when it comes to research that involves Aboriginal peoples. But I’ve found that when any of us put on a research hat (not just the lab coat), then this brings another set of expectations to the enterprise.
Karen Martin is an Associate Professor, School of Education and Professional Studies, since 2013 she has been the Deputy Chair: Griffith University Human Research Ethics Committee, and is a Noonuccal woman from North Stradbroke Island (south east Queensland) with Bidjara ancestry (central Queensland).
How do I know this? To be honest, it comes more from my research experience and training more than my Aboriginal experience. What???? Yes…it’s true because research has a particular purpose with particular expectations, including ethics. That’s something often misunderstood when it comes to research with Aboriginal peoples. In the same way as not all researchers understand Aboriginal peoples, not all Aboriginal peoples understand research.
So, over time, I’ve been thinking just as much about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ that is Aboriginal research and ethics to be offering the following points. I’ve had to limit myself, so here the six main things for making Aboriginal research ethics far less complicated.
What could we do (or not do)?
1) Don’t treat the research design as separate to the research ethics: Treat them equally and start the ethical considerations at the same time as the design and methodology. Waiting until the 11th hour is guaranteed to bring confusion; headaches; frustration that no amount of creative writing will alleviate this.
2) Don’t lower the bar on your research decisions: We’re in the best position of anyone to think within and outside the boxes of institutional requirements and legalities. We’re the academics and we’re the scholars. Use your knowledge of research and of the contexts and conditions of the research to resolve dilemmas, and at all costs, please don’t lower the bar. Where you have limited knowledge, do what all scholars should… (no, don’t just Google it)… gather information and get advice. Understanding (not just reading) the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ (AIATSIS) Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies (GERAIS), 2012 and the NHMRC’s Values and Ethics, 2003 is a good start.
3) Don’t turn the bar into a benchmark: Given that research occurs in institutions that are the pinnacle of knowledge and education (you simply can’t go higher), then resting on your reputation or your identity could work counter to knowledge building. At worse, it could be stagnation (having become too comfortable) or it could be rigidity (having become fixed and unchanging). What’s the solution? Go for rigour and go for scholarship (see No. 2).
4) Don’t over-complicate the research and so, the ethics: This can happen when the AIATSIS or NHMRC Guidelines are treated as a checklist, especially in developing the research ethics application. The key word here is ‘guidelines’ and so they’re effective in guiding your decisions throughout the entire research (see No. 1). The old KISS adage (Keep It Simple Scholars) isinvaluable here.
5) Don’t lose sight of the research purpose: Here’s where we might have differing ideas. Mine (and this is reinforced by the AIATSIS and NHMRC Guidelines) is the main research beneficiaries (as different to research data users) have to be Aboriginal peoples and communities. So, give just as much attention to deciding how they will benefit. Show that you understand the contexts of the research and the conditions under which it will operate. Write this clearly in the ethics application.
6) Don’t be a ‘consumer’ of literature of Aboriginal research ethics: Be a scholar and always
be scholarly. Show that you have more than a surface level of information (i.e. only cite certain authors or documents). Demonstrate where and how such literature has indeed informed your thinking and decision making. Next, give due attention to how you write (and avoid perpetuating stereotypes or misinformation) as much as to how you research and understanding of the role of an ethical researcher and ethical research. Words can wound.
What does this all mean?
There are both macro levels of research and ethics as there are micro levels. Knowing this is a strong start to being able to attend to both from the outset and at all phases during the research. Here’s an image that will help understand this point. It’s about working the macro and the micro; breaking through the barriers and not lowering the bar.
* Are there any short cuts? NOOOO.
* Is there another way to do this? This is the second decade of the 21st Century (not the 15th Century, 18th or 20th Century).
* What do I do next? Step back; think about the macro levels and the micro levels of the research; begin your research ethics at the same time as the research design and expect to learn deeply.
* Whatever you do… don’t be a ‘consumer’. You’re a scholar and your core business is knowledge acquisition; knowledge transfer and its transformative power.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2012). Guidelines for ethical research in Indigenous Studies. Retrieved from http://www.aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/docs/research-and-guides/ethics/GERAIS.pdf
National Health & Medical Research Council. (2003). Values and ethics guidelines for ethical conduct in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/e52.
Assoc Prof Karen Martin
School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University
View Karen’s EPS profile