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Stop centring Western academic ethics: deidentification in social science research – Anna Denejkina0


This blog will provide a discussion of issues present in deidentifying marginalised research participants, or research participants who request to be identified, in the publication of qualitative research. As my research is mixed-method (quantitative and multi-method qualitative) it included several data collection techniques and analyses. For this discussion, I will specifically focus on the face-to-face and Skype interviews I conducted with participants in Russia and the United States.

My PhD study investigates intergenerational transmission of combat-related trauma from parent to child, focusing on the Soviet–Afghan war, 1979–89. This research includes interviews with Soviet veterans and family members of veterans; it was these interviews that raised questions of participant erasure and agency. From 12 face-to-face and Skype interview participants, one participant requested complete deidentification; one requested that their real name not be used but their location and other identifying details remain; two participants requested that only their first names be used and their location and other identifying details remain; the eight remaining participants requested that they be fully identified, with some participants sending me photographs of them and their families for inclusion in research publications. Given the social and political sensitivity that persists in Eastern Europe around the discussion of the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, I had to consider and discuss with participants that requested they be identified the issue of their safety.

My research participants are marginalized participants by virtue of the topic of my research, the Soviet–Afghan war, and the ongoing silencing treatment they’ve received during and following the war by the state:

To take just two examples: in the hope of obscuring the true impact of the war, some local authorities refused to allow special areas in cemeteries to be set apart for the graves of soldiers killed in Afghanistan; while others forbade the cause and place of death to be stated on gravestones or memorial shields. (Aleksievich, Whitby & Whitby 1992, p.5–6)

Given academic broad-stroke standards of deidentifying research participants, we must review the ethics of this practice as it can promote and perpetuate erasure of marginalised participants and the silencing of their voices. Some textbooks on the topic of ethics in the social sciences approach anonymity and deidentification of participants from the angle that anonymity is part of the basic expectations of a research participant, without elaborating that anonymity is not always desirable nor ethical (see for example Ransome 2013), essentially replicating the medical model of human research ethics developed for the regulation of biomedical research in the United States (Dingwall 2016, p.25). Such an approach does not address the issues of presenting anonymity as a status-quo in social research, and makes a sweeping – and a Western academic – generalisation that anonymity is one of the vital assurances researchers must give to their participants to keep within their duty of care (that is, that researchers have at least some obligation to care for their research participants).

This approach to research ethics negates participant agency, particularly those participants that request they be identified in research. Furthermore, forced anonymity can be an act of disrespecting participants (Mattingly 2005, p.455–456) who may have already experienced invisibility and who are then further erased through anonymity by researchers (Scarth & Schafer 2016, p.86); for example, “in some Australian and, in particular, some Indigenous cultures, failing to name sources is both a mark of disrespect and a sign of poor research practice” (Israel, Allen & Thomson 2016, p.296).

As researchers, we must also question if presenting this approach as a vital tenet of social research can become a damaging rule-of-thumb for new researchers who might, therefore, not question the potential undermining of participant agency, and use deidentification unethically as a sweeping regulation within their research without consideration for the individual situations of their research participants. This is part of the issue created by applying a medical model of ethics assessment processes to the social sciences, in which the prevailing interpretation is that deidentification is also required within social research, whereas the reality is that specific agreements between the researcher and the research participant must be honoured.

The ethical dilemma, therefore is: can researchers ethically deidentify participants at the expense of the participants’ agency, potentially perpetuating the historical and symbolic erasure of their voices and experiences? I argue that, based on research design and data collection methods, this decision-making process is an ‘ethics in practice’ and must be approached in context, individually for each study, and for each individual participant.
As scholars, we want to minimise or eradicate harm that might come to our participants through our research. While we think “in advance about how to protect those who are brought into the study” (Tolich 2016, p.30) this must be a continual process throughout our project, in which we “work out the meaning of what constitutes ethical research and human rights in a particular context” (Breckenridge, James & Jops 2016, p.169; also see Ntseane 2009). This is important to note, because protection does not only refer to participants but also to others connected to them. For example, the use of a real name at the request of a participant may expose their family member(s) who were not part of the research.

Consequentialist approaches to ethics suggest that “an action can be considered morally right or obligatory if it will produce the greater possible balance of good over evil” (Israel, 2015: 10; also see Reynolds, 1979). This is an approach we could take to issues around deidentification; however, this also means that researchers must know what is good or bad. In studies like mine, this would mean knowing (or making an attempt, or an assumption to know) what is good or bad for my research participants. This action is infantilising, and places the researcher above the research participant by making the final call ourselves, which is to remove participant agency – if we can assume participants are autonomous during the research consent process, we must also assume that they are autonomous in making decisions with respect to their identification (Said 2016, p.212). Additionally, this action may be culturally insensitive given that Western human research ethics committees follow Western cultural guidelines, centring the dominance of Western academia.

The ethical issues I faced during my PhD research highlight why researchers cannot take a sweeping approach to deidentification in qualitative research – not even for a single study. ‘Ethics in practice’ means that each participant’s situation is analysed individually, and issues around erasure, safety, and their agency weighed against each other to reach a conclusion. I propose that if this conclusion is at odds with the preference of the participant, that it must then be taken back to the participant for further discussion. Not implementing this aspect of ‘ethics in practice’ goes against social science ethics, that we must avoid doing long-term and systemic harm, both of which come through erasure and silencing. We must also remember that “any research project has the potential to further disenfranchise vulnerable groups” (Breckenridge, James & Jops 2016, p.169), and ignoring the wishes of participants regarding their identification due to a Western model of ethics can cause further damage to these groups.

Aleksievich, S., Whitby, J. & Whitby, R. 1992, Zinky Boys: Soviet voices from a forgotten war, Chatto & Windus, London.

Breckenridge, J., James, K. & Jops, P. 2016, ‘Rights, relationship and reciprocity: Ethical research practice with refugee women from Burma and New Delhi, India’, in K. Nakray, M. Alston & K. Whittenbury (eds), Social Sciences Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Routledge, New York, pp. 167–186.

Dingwall, R. 2016, ‘The social costs of ethics regulation’, in W.C. van den Hoonaard & A. Hamilton (eds),The Ethics Rupture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 25–42.

Israel, M., Allen, G. & Thomson, C. 2016, ‘Australian research ethics governance: Plotting the demise of the adversarial culture’, in W.C. van der Hoonaard & A. Hamilton (eds),The Ethics Rupture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 285–216.

Mattingly, C. 2005, ‘Toward a vulnerable ethics of research practice’, Health: An Inderdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 453–471.

Ntseane, P.G. 2009, ‘The ethics of the researcher-subject relationship: Experiences from the field’, in D.M. Mertens & P.E. Ginsberg (eds), The Handbook of Social Research Ethics, 1st edn, Sage, Thousand Oaks, pp. 295–307.
Ransome, P. 2013, ‘Social research and professional codes of ethics’, Ethics and Values in Social Research, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, pp. 24–53.

Said, D.G. 2016, ‘Transforming the lens of vulnerability: Human agency as an ethical consideration in research with refugees’, in K. Nakray, M. Alston & K. Whittenbury (eds),Social Sciences Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Routledge, New York, pp. 208–222.

Scarth, B. & Schafer, C. 2016, ‘Resilient Vulnerabilities: Bereaved Persons Discuss Their Experience of Participating in Thanatology Research’, in M. Tolich (ed.), Qualitative Ethics in Practice, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 85–98.

‘Tolich, M. 2016, ‘Contemporary Ethical Dilemmas in Qualitative Research’, in M. Tolich (ed.), Qualitative Ethics in Practice, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 25–32.

Statement of interest
No interests to declare.

Anna Denejkina | Casual Academic and PhD  candidate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, researching intergenerational trauma transmission UTS | Staff

This post may be cited as:
Denejkina A. (24 May 2018) Stop centring Western academic ethics: deidentification in social science research. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

On the Problem of “Worldlessness”. Do The Declaration of Helsinki and the Council for International Organizations of Medical Science Guidelines Protect the Stateless in the Research Context?0


Associate Professor Deborah Zion
Chair, Victoria University, HREC.

Can these bones live? Ezekiel, 37:3.

The Declaration of Helsinki has considerable guidance on working with vulnerable research participants, and vulnerability in research is the focus of the Council for International Organizations of Medical Science (CIOMS) guidance document. Both of these documents have undergone recent revisions[1]. However, a broader question remains about these and other national guidelines; namely, how can we translate them into practice? When conducting research with one of the world’s most vulnerable populations, namely those seeking asylum, guidelines must be operationalised with creativity so that the research imperative can be fulfilled.

For Hannah Arendt, the refugee was the archetypical figure that revealed the contradiction between universal rights and national sovereignty. For her it was the loss of rights which was, and remains, the defining attribute of the refugee. She insists that the fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world.

In Australia the vulnerability experienced by statelessness is further exacerbated by such persons being incarcerated in offshore detention centres on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea, shut away from the oversight of human rights institutions. Nonetheless, there is an imperative to conduct research about this population, in order to record the conditions of detention and to bear witness, as an act of solidarity, the egregious human rights violations suffered by those detained.

What then do the guidelines say about vulnerable populations, and how can we translate this into research with refugees and asylum seekers?

Clause 19 of The Declaration of Helsinki, states that

Some groups and individuals are particularly vulnerable and may have an increased likelihood of being wronged or of incurring additional harm. All vulnerable groups and individuals should receive specifically considered protection[2].

CIOMS Guideline 15 and the accompanying commentary state that

When vulnerable individuals and groups are considered for recruitment in research, researchers and research ethics committees must ensure that specific protections are in place to safeguard the rights and welfare of these individuals and groups in the conduct of the research.

The account of vulnerability in this Guideline seeks to avoid considering members of entire classes of individuals as vulnerable. However, it is useful to look at the specific characteristics that may render individuals vulnerable, as this can aid in identifying the special protections needed for persons who may have an increased likelihood of being wronged or of incurring additional harm as participants in research. Different characteristics may also co-exist, making some individuals more vulnerable than others. This is highly dependent on the context. For example, persons who are illiterate, marginalized by virtue of their social status or behaviour, or living in an authoritarian environment, may have multiple factors that make them vulnerable [3].

In Australia, The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research[4] specifically mentions refugees in Chapter 4.3, as persons likely to be in dependent and unequal relationships, thus indicating the complexity inherent in working with disempowered populations.

It is the case that asylum seekers have multiple layers of vulnerability, based upon rights’ deprivation, age, previous experience of torture, sexual violence, gender and family separation. These guidelines set some broad perimeters that are certainly worthy of consideration and, as a framework, they are indeed useful. There is, however, no detail about how we might translate from theory to practice[5].

In particular, they do not help us resolve the conflict between on the one hand obtaining informed consent from those detained, where access is limited, conditions constrain autonomy, and we cannot check for understanding and competence, and on the other the imperative to conduct research. CIOMS guidelines 9 and 10 give explicit direction concerning informed consent and, consistent with many other guidelines, prohibit research without consent unless the benefit is very great and the potential risk very small. On this basis, direct research involving asylum seekers in detention cannot be carried out.

More particularly, Calvin Ho suggests the guidelines do not go far enough in addressing situational and structural contributions to vulnerability[6]. These leave researchers working in situations where there is great structural as well as personal vulnerability for participants to find creative ways to uncover, record and analyse injustices that might otherwise be hidden from public view, and from mechanisms of accountability. We encourage researchers to find ways of creating and utilising all forms of data, such as published reports, newspaper articles, and interviews with those who have knowledge but are less vulnerable, without ever compromising the importance of informed consent.

How should both researchers and those engaged in ethics review think about these complex issues? The first issue relates to informed consent, especially when asylum seekers are incarcerated, and speaks to whether or not powerless people, even when fully competent, can give informed consent. We also encourage researchers to find a way to fulfil research imperatives that promote justice for highly vulnerable populations wherever possible, through gathering data in ways that do not compromise those who are already highly vulnerable[7].

For our own part, over 14 years we collected a considerable number of interviews from healthcare providers, including rich descriptive accounts of detention life and the way in which the right to health was, and continues to be undermined. These were matched with every other source available. We have built up a very complex picture of life in onshore detention as well as on Manus Island and Nauru. While things continue to deteriorate, it is not possible for people to pretend these events did not take place.

There were two other important outcomes. The first was that healthcare providers could utilise our work when making decisions about whether to work in asylum seeker detention and, if so, the ethical implications of their choice. The second was that those who spoke to us became witnesses to the suffering they had seen. Their participation therefore became an act of solidarity for those who could not speak for themselves. As David Robertson et al. state:

[Witnessing] entails being with people who are victims of injustice or violence and thereby showing that they have not been abandoned… it entails testifying to the outside world about the injustice or violence observed, and advocating that the world community bring about change. Bearing witness can thus facilitate and fuel human solidarity in the face of tragedy, and contribute to focussing international attention.[8]


[1] CIOMS, International ethical guidelines for health-related research involving humans, 2016.

World Medical Association, Declaration of Helsinki – Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects,2018.\

[2]  World Medical Association, ibid.


[3] CIOMS, ibid.


[4] NHMRC, The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, 2007. Updated 2015.


[5] Such guidance is provided elsewhere, for example by the European Commission in its Guidance Note on Research on refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. See


[6] Calvin Ho, CIOMS guidelines remain conservative about vulnerability and social justice, Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, June, 2017.


[7] Such strategies might be included in submissions to the NHMRC’s consultation on the National Statement Part 4. See


[8] David Robertson et al. What kind of evidence do we need to justify humanitarian medical aid? The Lancet, 360, no.9329, 2002, pp.330- 333. DOI:


Disclosure of interest
I declare I have no conflict of interest.

See above

This post may be cited as:
Zion D. (30 March 2018) On the Problem of “Wordlessness”. Do The Declaration of Helsinki and the Council for International Organizations of Medical Science Guidelines Protect the Stateless in the Research Context?. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

Disaster Research and its Ethical Review1


Disaster research ethics is a growing area of interest within the research ethics field. Given the lack of a universal definition of disasters, it should not be a surprise that disaster research ethics is defined in various ways. Early approaches focused on ethical issues in conducting research in the acute phase of disasters (O’Mathúna 2010). Given the similarities of some of the ethical issues, it came to include humanitarian crises and emergencies. A recent review combined mental health research in natural disasters, armed conflicts and the associated refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) settings (Chiumento et al. 2017). Each of these settings raises distinct ethical issues, as well as practical challenges for those ethically reviewing disaster research. The 2016 revision of the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) research ethics guidelines included a section on disaster research ( This blog will highlight a few of the practical challenges and note some efforts to respond to these.

One issue is how some disasters happen suddenly, while research ethics review takes time. The 2016 CIOMS guidelines call for innovative approaches to research ethics review, including ways to pre-assess protocols so that they can be reviewed rapidly once a relevant disaster occurs. As committees develop ways to adapt to disaster research, other review practices can be examined to identify innovative approaches to the challenges.

A key ethical issue to address with disaster research is whether a particular project should be conducted at this time with these particular participants. In the most immediate phase of an acute disaster, resources and energy should be focused on search and rescue. Researchers could hinder this, or divert scarce resources. At the same time, data should be collected as soon as possible to contribute to the evidence based for first responders. Ethics review committees should ensure justifications are provided for why a project needs to be done during the acute phase. Questions also need to be asked about whether disaster survivors have more important needs than to participate in research. For example, some have questioned whether children who survive war should be asked to participate in research when there are few resources available to help them with the mental health challenges of surviving war (Euwema et al. 2008).

With the move towards a more evidence-based approach to humanitarian work, international and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are increasingly engaging in research and other evaluation programmes. Some of these organisations may have little experience with research or research ethics, and hence need additional support in developing and conducting projects. Much debate has occurred over what ‘counts’ as research and is therefore required to undergo formal research ethics approval. Rather than asking if a project is research or not, it is more important to identify the ethical issues in the project and ensure they are being addressed as carefully and thoroughly as possible (Chiumento et al. 2017). Needs assessments, projects that monitor or evaluate programmes, public health surveillance, and many other activities raise ethical issues whether or not they are formal academic research studies. At the same time, every project does not need to submit the same sort of detailed research ethics application as a randomised control trial of an experimental drug. Some sort of ethical evaluation should be conducted, and here again there is an opportunity to be innovative. Different formal and informal review mechanisms could be developed to support groups conducting different types of projects. The key concern should be that the ethical issues are being examined and addressed.

Also key here is that people in the communities from which participants will be sought are involved from the design of the project (O’Mathúna 2018). Too many ‘parachute projects’ have been conducted (some with ethical approval) whereby the project is designed completely by outsiders. Once everything has been decided, the team approaches the community only to identify a lack of interest in participating or that certain ethical challenges have been overlooked. Research in other cultures, especially in the midst of armed conflicts, is especially prone to such challenges. Review committees may need to encourage exploratory discussions between researchers and participant communities, or seek evidence of how such discussions have gone.

Unexpected ethical issues often arise in disaster research given the instability and complexity of its settings (O’Mathúna & Siriwardhana 2017). An approach where ethics review bodies give approval to projects and then have little or no engagement other than an annual report is especially inadequate in disasters. Researchers may be forced to make changes in fluid settings, or may encounter unexpected issues. Submitting amendments may not be practical or fast enough, when what is needed is advice and direction from those with research ethics expertise. Thus, initiatives are being developed to provide “on call” ethics advice.

This points to how disaster research often requires additional support and protection for researchers than other types of research. Researchers may enter danger zones (natural or violent) and may see or learn of horrors and atrocities. Researchers can be subjected to physical dangers or traumatised psychologically.. In addition to the normal stresses of conducting research, these additional factors can lead to mistakes and even ethical corner-cutting. Therefore, review committees need to carefully investigate how the physical and mental well-being of researchers will be protected and supported.

These are some examples of how research ethics needs to go beyond approval processes to mechanisms that promote ethical decision-making and personal integrity during research. One such project in which I am involved is seeking insight from humanitarian researchers into the ethical issues experienced in the field ( We are also conducting a systematic review of such issues and collecting case studies from researchers. The goal is to produce a practical tool to facilitate learning lessons from disaster researchers and promote ethical decision-making within teams.

The world is increasingly experiencing disasters and conflicts and huge amounts of resources are put into responses. Some of these resources are put towards evaluating disaster responses, and developing evidence to support disaster responders. We can expect disaster research to increase and to be increasingly seen by research ethics committees. It is therefore important that ethics committees prepare themselves to respond to the ethical challenges that disaster research raises.


Chiumento, A., Rahman, A., Frith, L., Snider, L., & Tol, W. A. (2017). Ethical standards for mental health and psychosocial support research in emergencies: Review of literature and current debates. Globalization and Health 13(8). doi 10.1186/s12992-017-0231-y

Euwema, M., de Graaff, D., de Jager, A., & Kalksma-Van Lith, B. (2008). Research with children in war-affected areas. In: Research with Children, Perspectives and Practices, 2nd edition. Eds. Christensen, P. & James, A. Abingdon, UK: Routledge; 189-204.

O’Mathúna, D.  (2010). Conducting research in the aftermath of disasters: Ethical considerations. Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine 3(2):65-75.

O’Mathúna, D. (2018). The dual imperative in disaster research ethics. In: SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics. Eds. Iphofen, R. & Tolich M. London: SAGE; 441-454.

O’Mathúna, D., & Siriwardhana, C. (2017). Research ethics and evidence for humanitarian health. Lancet 390(10109):2228-9.

Declaration of interests

Dónal O’Mathúna has been involved in research ethics for over twenty years. He was chair of the Research Ethics Committee at Dublin City University (DCU) for six years. In addition to his joint position at DCU and The Ohio State University, he is Visiting Professor of Ethics in the European Master in Disaster Medicine, Università del Piemonte Orientale, Italy. His research interests focus on ethical issues in disasters, in particular disaster research ethics. He was Chair of the EU-funded COST Action (2012-2016) on Disaster Bioethics ( and is the Principal Investigator on the R2HC-funded research project, Post-Research Ethics Analysis (

Dónal O’Mathúna, PhD
Associate Professor, School of Nursing & Human Sciences, Dublin City University, Ireland
Associate Professor, College of Nursing, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA
Dónal’s DCU
Twitter: @domathuna

This post may be cited as:
O’Mathúna D. (2018, 26 February 2018) ‘Disaster Research and its Ethical Review’. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from

What’s at risk? Who’s responsible? Moving beyond the physical, the immediate, the proximate, and the individual0


Building the Conversation

This month’s addition to the Building the Conversation series reflects upon how we approach risks beyond those that are physical, harm people other than a project’s participants and harms that are not immediate.

To some extent, when researchers reflect upon those harms associated with a project, they may well limit their assessment of risk to the here and now and to identifiable individuals. In addition, for projects in the medical sciences, those risks were long understood as predominantly physical in the form of injury, infection or disability and related to direct participants (e.g. persons who received an experimental pharmacological agent). This limited vision is not particularly surprising. One of the perverse consequences of requiring researchers to reflect on whether the potential benefits of research justify risk to participants is that some researchers are dissuaded from looking too carefully for risks and therefore avoid developing strategies for minimising these risks and mitigating possible harms. Even more perversely, this reluctance can trigger in human research ethics committees an unrealistic level of risk aversion.

It is vital that we remember that it is primarily the responsibility of researchers to identify, gauge and weigh the risk. Research ethics review bodies have the role of providing feedback to researchers to facilitate projects, not catch out researchers and chastise them for neglecting a risk. This is especially true if we do not have resource material to assist researchers with regard to this wider focus.

We need to improve our understanding of the complexity of risks, extending our vision to look beyond the physical, the immediate, the proximate, and the individual risks. At the same time, we need to review our understanding of on whom the responsibility for the identification, mitigation ad management of all of these risks should fall.

In recent decades, national human research ethics frameworks, such as the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (National Statement) (NHMRC 2007a) have augmented their original interest in physical harm with a much broader set of psychological, legal, economic and social harms. Documents such as the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (NHMRC 2007b) cast this net wider still to include societal and environmental risks. However, the likelihood of incidence, the significance of the harm and the timing of such harms can be harder to predict, quantify and mitigate.

We are fuelling the potential for an adversarial climate (Israel et al., 2016) if we fail to provide researchers and our research ethics reviewers with guidance on how to approach such matters.

Human research ethics committees, guided by the frameworks in which they function, focus on immediate risks directly to the participants in a project. For example, the National Statement requires committees to be satisfied that “the likely benefit of the research must justify any risks or discomfort to participants.” (NHMRC, 2007, 10). Committees can feel less equipped to tackle risks that can affect participants after the active phase of a project, such as harms to the reputation and standing of a group that can come from the research output that is distributed long after data collection and perhaps years after the research ethics review.

Harm can also impact upon populations and social/professional/community groups much wider than the actual participants. For, example, research into the academic performance of children from schools in a low socio-economic area if reported insensitively by researchers or, indeed by the media, can further stigmatise the kids, and harm the reputation of the schools and teachers. Again, work on the informal income of members of marginalised communities might be used subsequently by government to target tax avoidance by the already vulnerable. Lastly, research on the attitudes of residents in coastal communities to climate change and rising sea levels can detrimentally effect the value of surrounding land. Indeed, some review processes require researchers to consider the possibility of adverse findings (both medical and non-medical in nature). Although the National Statement, (NHMRC, 2007 p.13), recognises risks of this kind, it leaves unclear whose responsibility they are.

Focussing on the rights of individuals from a Western liberal democratic perspective is unlikely to be helpful in other contexts, such as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, in a cultural context where a Confucian approach would be more appropriate (Katyal, 2011), or even in some organisational settings where accountability is partly achieved through openness to external scrutiny in the form of research and evaluation. As a result, there have also been prompts to consider risks to identifiable third parties, groups, institutions, communities (Weijer et al., 1999). Values and Ethics and the Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies (GERAIS) do recognise such matters might be considered by some potential participant pools on a collective basis and perhaps with an knowledge of a history of research abuse and exploitation of their communities and this attention to collective interests can be echoed in other work on research ethics and Indigenous peoples around the world (Israel, 2015).

This is perhaps one of the reasons why some minorities have produced their own research ethics guidance documents (for examples, see Hudson et al. (2010), Nordling (2017) and Islamic Council of Victoria (2017)). The value of this kind of guidan this on some for the moments that it clarifies that it is on researchers that the important responsibility lies to foresee, mitigate and manage these risks.

Another example of deleterious impacts from research that might not be immediately obvious to researchers, research ethics reviewers or research office staff arises in the category of ‘dual use’ research (Miller and Selgelid, 2007). This where a technique, technology or an apparently non-military discovery can be used for military or terrorist purposes – sometimes with devastating effect. Initially, the concern of biomedical scientists, the issue has also troubled anthropologists, geographers, sociologists, political scientists and international relations experts in the face of overt or covert funding by military or intelligence agencies (Israel, 2015). One of the growing challenges for a significant proportion of such work (e.g. quantum computing, computer security/intrusion/hacking, smart materials, computer vision and energy storage) is the work will not typically require research ethics or any other form of independent review. The existing model of human research ethics review is initially attractive as a response, but some reflection will quickly show that ethics committees are not likely to possess the expertise/information to identify the dual use and the work may be occurring in disciplines that have not built their capacity to think through the ethics of working with human participants.

Australia has a strengthened export control framework with regard to security classification, Defence Department permits/approvals and other requirements (e.g. data security). Many Australian universities have established dedicated teams and processes for this particular area of concern. It remains an area of community concern (see Hamilton and Joske, 2017). Such controls involve balancing academic freedom, a commitment to open science and the value of scientific discovery against (inter)national security, trade and diplomatic interests. Such a balancing exercise is plainly beyond the capacity required for human research ethics review, so that the responsibility needs to rely on another mechanism.

The implications of all of this are not trivial. This all requires a change in thinking for researchers, institutions, funding bodies, learned academies and regulators. Our attention to the potential harms from a project needs to encapsulate research outputs, impacts upon communities, persons who were not direct participants in the project as well as national interests. At the same time, the consideration of a project vis-à-vis the ethical principle of research merit needs to include broader societal benefits and contributions to knowledge that might also involve a much wider group and a longer timeframe than the ones to which we are accustomed. However, in order to reach a more sophisticated analysis of the balance between potential harms and benefits, we need to more clearly allocate responsibility for such risks and devise mechanisms that reassure the community that these responsibilities have been fulfilled.

In our view, merely widening the scope of the responsibilities of human research ethics committees to address all these risks could not only exacerbate the propensity for risk aversion, but could also distort their important focus on the welfare of research participants. The current review system needs to find ways of working constructively with other processes that build the capacity of researchers and their institutions to work with these broader risks and benefits.

Institutions must have resource materials for researchers and research ethics reviewers that have the primary objective of resourcing reflective practice and building expertise in risk assessment and mitigation. Researchers must recognise these matters as their primary responsibility and research ethics reviewers must focus upon facilitation not enforcing compliance. We have written about how institutions can implement such an approach (Israel and Allen, in press).

In short, we cannot afford to ignore these challenges. Instead, we should take innovation seriously and seek constructive solutions.


Allen, G. and Israel, M. (in press, 2018) Moving beyond Regulatory Compliance: Building Institutional Support for Ethical Reflection in Research. In Iphofen, R. and Tolich, M. (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics. London: Sage.

Hamilton, C. and Joske, A. (2017) Australian taxes may help finance Chinese military capability. The Australian. [accessed 31 December 2017).

Hudson, M., Milne, M., Reynolds, P., Russell, K. and Smith B. (2010) Te Ara Tika. Guidelines for Māori Research Ethics: A Framework for Researchers and Ethics Committee Members. (accessed 29 December 2017).

Islamic Council of Victoria (2017) ICV Guidelines for Muslim Community-University Research Partnerships. (accessed 29 December 2017)

Israel, M. (2015) Research Ethics and Integrity for Social Scientists: Beyond Regulatory Compliance. London: Sage.

Israel, M., Allen, G. and Thomson, C. (2016) Australian Research Ethics Governance: Plotting the Demise of the Adversarial Culture. In van den Hoonaard, W. and Hamilton, A. (eds) The Ethics Rupture: Exploring Alternatives to Formal Research-Ethics Review. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pp 285-316.

Katyal, K.R. (2011) Gate-keeping and the ambiguities in the nature of ‘informed consent’ in Confucian societies. International Journal of Research & Method in Education 34(2): 147-159.

Miller, S. and Selgelid, M. (2007) Ethical and philosophical consideration of the dual use dilemma in the biological sciences. Science and Engineering Ethics 13: 523-580.

NHMRC (2007a) National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. (accessed 29 December 2017).

NHMRC (2007b) Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. (accessed 29 December 2017).

Nordling, L. (2017) San people of Africa draft code of ethics for researchers. Science, March 17. (accessed 29 December 2017).

Weijer, C., Goldsand, G. and Emanuel, E.J. (1999) Protecting communities in research: Current guidelines and limits of extrapolation. Nature Genetics 23: 275-280.

Dr Gary Allen
Senior consultant | AHRECS | Gary’s AHRECS

Prof. Mark Israel
Senior consultant | AHRECS | Mark’s AHRECS

This post may be cited as:
Allen G. and Israel M. (2018, 1 February 2018) What’s at risk? Who’s responsible? Moving beyond the physical, the immediate, the proximate, and the individual. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

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