Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Research Ethics

It’s been a week of ethics, which is not always that same as an ethical week, but I would like to think it was both. I put in the first human ethics approval application I’ve ever had to do for my own research yesterday. Working on medieval literature where the authors have been dead for 700 years or so – and are mostly anonymous anyway meant that there were some things I just didn’t have to think about. But now I’m working on contemporary fiction, written by people who are (mostly) still alive there are new dimensions to consider. Interviewing authors, people who are public figures and have engaged with the issues I’m interested in either through their work or by commenting in public, officially comes under the category of “low risk.” If I weren’t planning to go overseas to do some of the interviews I wouldn’t have had to apply to my university Human Research Ethics Committee at all. It was a long and fiddly process (have I ticked ‘no’ in all the right boxes – are you secretly taking photographs of or recording subjects? No). 25 pages of form, plus attachments. It was also an interesting one in some ways because it started me thinking about research ethics more broadly.
For most of my academic life, ethics has been about issues like plagiarism, not about what and who get included in my research, and how. I’ve mentioned in earlier psts that part of my research is looking at fan-forums, blogs etc (Twitter is becoming a big part of it now as well) to find out what makes people talk about race in relation to fantasy texts, what they say, and how. In a project like this it’s very important to include the voices of people of colour, but one of the challenges is how to do it. And, on sites where almost everyone uses pseudonyms and doesn’t have information about their background or identity, it’s often impossible to know who is speaking. One of my research questions asks what information people will give about themselves in online conversations about a topic like, say, “Is [insert name of MMPORG] racist?”[1] So it is sometimes possible to know who has said what – people will quite often say something like “I’m Chinese and…” or “I’m African-American and…” or on the other hand “I’m a straight white male and…” Then there are blogs, which often give personal details. The important (an important) thing then is not assuming that one person of colour speaks for every person of colour. And not assuming that because someone is from a Chinese or Caribbean or Malaysian or Indigenous or any other minority background that they are only interested in ‘minority’ issues, or that their voice only has value when those topics are raised.
The second part of my week of ethics was a flyer in my inbox about an inter-university “Ethics and Human Research” seminar in Melbourne at the start of August. I’m hoping to get travel approval to go down for it. Social media research is such a new field – and it changes so quickly – that the sorts of ingrained assumptions about how to do ethical research that we now have aren’t necessarily sufficient. And the ideas many of us have about the web can be problematic too if we don’t think about them carefully. I read this article in The Economist a little while ago on how one of the problems with psychology research in universities is that it often relies on undergraduates participating in experiments for results – they tend to get course credits. As the article points out, this means that what gets defined as ‘normal’ tends to be young, white, people from middle-class, reasonably well educated backgrounds. Some researchers are now ‘crowd-sourcing’ their psychology surveys online in attempts to get a much more diverse sample. This makes a lot fo sense as far as it goes, but as with any internet research, its important to remember that not everyone has equal access to the internet, or to any given site.
I’ve taught the concept of ‘digital divide’ to undergraduates for years at more than one university, and it’s very difficult for people from educated western backgrounds to understand the concept. My students could grasp the idea, and accept that there were some parts of the world where internet access was not a given – “in the African desert” was a favourite – but struggled with the idea that it might be an issue in western countries, or that something like ethnicity might be a factor. They loved to say “anyone can write anything” on the internet, but had a lot of trouble with the idea that not everyone has access. And the concept that not everyone has equal power online was an even bigger struggle - I mentioned earlier that a lot of fan-forum discussions of racism get locked or taken down by site moderators. How do we, as researchers, taken into account these kinds of issues? I’m hoping that the seminar in Melbourne will help me figure out some answers.

[1] These kinds of topics tend to get locked if they are on the official websites of game publishers, but the dynamics of what’s locked and what’s not is another post.

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