Fiction helps us learn about research ethics and research integrity by personalizing abstract hypotheses and dilemmas, and by depicting the consequences of compromised integrity – through characters, for example, choosing career (results above all) over ethical research processes that respect vulnerable populations and (non-biased) data integrity.
Texts or TV series with a focus on research ethics are fairly rare beasts. Usually, the research is merely the pre-theme to the fun part, namely the chaos created when rogue scientists play god. The Netflix series The Imperfects (2022), for example, starring Australian comedian Rhys Nicholson as a geneticist, offers a familiar depiction of an arrogant researcher treating his patients as guinea pigs, indifferent to their safety as he tweaks their genetic codes towards transhumanism. While he does pause briefly to explain his cost/benefit approach to ethics to the viewer (species survival outweighs any moral duty towards individuals), the focus is firmly on the guinea pigs’ attempts to deal with those intent on exploiting their new superpowers. It’s a cliché of the superhero genre to have such martyred characters, who provide examples of the need for informed consent and respect for research subjects.
Image from https://anz.newonnetflix.info/info/81252707
The campus novel, in which one might expect to see research as a topic, has not particularly flourished as a genre in Australia or New Zealand, and contemporary examples follow the global focus on campus assault, such as Diana Reid’s Love and Virtue (2021), or Bridget Delaney’s Wild Things (2014), depicting academics not as researchers but as seducers/ineffective bystanders. In Janet Turner Hospital’s Charades (1988) the physicist protagonist even discusses his research as a sexual process; getting your hooks into an idea leads to the research becoming ‘flesh that swallows me up’ (pp. 105-6).
Even looking at so-called ‘lab lit’ novels, which focus on scientific characters, there is little with an Australian aspect, though Graeme Simsion’s popular Rosie trilogy (2013-19), set in Melbourne, is worth a mention. Depicting a genetics professor who applies his research methods to his romantic life – his ‘Father Project’ researches his love interest’s genetic history – we see a somewhat unethical use of his university’s facilities for personal interest; that issue is not a particular focus of the books, however.
There are some Australian novels which point towards an interest in animal rights and that might reframe the ethical issue of research subjects for the reader. In Nicholas Drayson’s Love and the Platypus (2007), protagonist (and historical zoologist) William Caldwell researches whether platypodes lay eggs. Dissection is required to answer this; thus a paragraph on the use of dead cats as dissection subjects at Cambridge and a discussion of Caldwell’s science as ‘but the sport of intellectuals’, no better than killing for sport (p.142). The question arises as to whether killing for knowledge is better or worse than killing for food or commerce. A rotting pile of dead animals, discarded once their valuable body parts have been harvested, provides an emotive answer. Caldwell is bent on making his reputation rather than preserving ecosystem or species numbers. Another ethics issue, that of obtaining animals for study via the illegal trading of alcohol with First Nations community, also surfaces briefly as part of a wider narrative about Australian historic racism.
Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish (1995) also raises the ethical issue of animals as subjects. Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975) was a likely influence on this tale of a chimp called Eliza able to learn advanced sign language, leading to the question of whether she can then give informed consent (p.100) and should be treated as sentient. This is an interesting addition to current debates on animal sentience; various countries have recognised this in legislation – New Zealand in 1999, the European Union in 1997, Canada in 2015, and the United Kingdom in 2022, while in Australia, the ACT passed its Animal Welfare Legislation Amendment Act in 2019 and, in Victoria, a similar bill has been proposed. In Goldsworthy’s novel, this interesting question devolves into her sign language teacher claiming she consented to sex. (The police do not, unsurprisingly, see it that way.)
Image from http://petergoldsworthy.com/wish
The lack of ethics surrounding the chimp is unsubtle; Eliza was experimented on in utero to improve her intelligence and so potentially be turned into a worker (or slave, rather). The novel’s end, with the research subject self-destructing, suggests overall a grubbily sad tale of a project that started as ‘pure research originally’ but that soon degraded, for we ‘live in a world of compromise. Money was needed’ (p.291).
Animal rights are a theme in Blanche D’Alpuget’s White Eye (1993) but more in terms of wildlife conservation/trafficking; the research ethics topic at the novel’s centre is one similar to that of George Turner’s 1987 novel The Sea and the Summer, namely, population control. With a sterilization virus being developed at a biotechnological research centre in the Australian outback, we appear to be back to the ends/means debate on whether all is permitted to save the species.
It is perhaps surprising that more has not appeared on conservation ethics. Australian ‘cli-fi’ novels do however exist and, importantly, include First Nations writers such as Alexis Wright, whose novels encompass both land rights issues for indigenous peoples, and one of the barely noticed issues of research ethics, that of epistemological diversity. Contemporary global initiatives to introduce First Nations lore and cognitive approaches into university curricula suggest a fascinating potential topic. The researcher of the future could promulgate not a western, linear view of managing ecosystems for the goal of progress, but as an integrated cosmology of human and environmental interactions understood by traditional ecosystem owners.
D’Alpuget, Blanche, White Eye, Penguin 1993.
Domingo, Andreu. “‘Demodystopias’: Prospects of Demographic Hell.” Population and Development Review, 34: 4, 2008, 725–45.
Drayson, Nicholas, Love and the Platypus, Scribe 2007.
Goldsworthy, Peter, Wish, Text 1995.
Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, HarperCollins 1975.
White, Jessica, ‘Australian Cli-Fi: Fiction or Reality?’, 28 June 2021, at https://www.cccnn.org.au/2021/06/28/548/
This post may be cited as:
Dalton-Brown, S. (18 January 2023) Can reading Australian novels help us become more ethical researchers? Research Ethics Monthly: https://ahrecs.com/can-reading-australian-novels-help-us-become-more-ethical-researchers/