Thursday, March 24, 2005

On research ethics

The Mobile Digital Commons Network (MDCN) blog recently highlighted some posts from a favourite blog of mine, networked_performance, as well as from PLSJ, and in re-reading Marc Tuter's On Locative Media's European Reception, as well as my comments on it, I think I should clarify a few points.

I've always been a bit confused by those who consider me contrary, but it seems I have no problem being polemical! (I imagine not a few people laughing their asses off at this realisation ;)) At February's PLAN event, I allowed myself to become annoyed with a particular political position that I believe over-simplifies the biases of corporate research and over-idealises the justness of artistic practice. And most unfortunately, when I become annoyed I also tend to become a little glib, or oversimplify and overstate things.

So here's the deal: in my research I have been forced to re-evaluate my own assumptions about how ethics and accountability manifest themselves in corporate, academic and artistic research contexts.

For example, the use of publically available documentation does not require university ethics approval, but before I was able to begin any empirical research which would involve me interacting with other people, I had to apply to, and obtain ethics approval from Carleton's Research Ethics Committee. This process involved submitting a PhD committee-approved research proposal to the Ethics Committee, which was then evaluated according to the ethical standards articulated by Canada's Tri-Council Policy. And since my research is funded by a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship, I am also required to adhere to the SSHRC Statement on Research Integrity. My obligations involve things like ensuring varying degrees of confidentiality and anonymity for my research subjects, maintaining data security, and sharing my research findings. This included getting informed consent (signed documents) from my case history participants to use information obtained in formal interviews and questionnaires - and making it clear that participants may withdraw this consent at any time without penalty.

In doing my research, I learned that my case history participants are not subject to the type of formal, institutionalised ethics and accountability that I am. However - and here's the important bit - that does not mean that their research is unethical or that mine is more ethical. In fact, what ended up intriguing me the most was how all these researchers - without any formal obligations - nonetheless applied their own guidelines for ethics and accountability. And because of differences within and between project teams, it quickly became impossible for me to make any sort of useful generalisations.

Now returning to the comments I made at the PLAN event regarding corporate research ethics. In my fit of polemicism, I appear to have given the impression that I believe all corporate research is more ethical than, say, artistic research. That sort of claim seems absurd to me precisely because of its lack of contextual precision, and I did not mean to suggest anything of the sort. So, if anyone reading this was offended or confused by my comments, I apologise. (I only wish we had had the time to actually discuss such things, because it seems that when people aren't given the chance, or are not inclined to ask questions, all sorts of assumptions are made and misunderstandings occur!)

I believe I said something to the effect that the corporate researchers I interviewed are rather effectively held accountable in ways that the academics and artists are not. And my point was that we cannot assume that corporate research is any less ethical than other research because it can embody particular values and concerns that may not be present in other research contexts. But really, the question should be what kinds of ethics and accountability are we talking about here? And who gets to decide? Individual researchers? Some sort of multi-disciplinary community? Funding or support agencies? These are highly charged emotional and political questions - and all I know for sure is that different research cultures, communities and practitioners understand their sense of autonomy and accountability quite differently.

The challenge ahead, I have gleaned from recent conversations with a variety of interested folks, is not to ignore these differences but to avoid setting up straw dolls and making generalisations about any given type of research practice: academic, artistic or corporate, European or North American. As I said in my original comments to Marc's article: "Clearly, we all share an equal ability and responsibility in keeping potential collaborations open and just, and this is no time to crush the diversity of cultures at hand." But because I am an academic with particular political interests, I prefer to have these debates in public forums where we are all held accountable and, as one colleague put it, "we can work together to keep the temperature up without losing out in the intelligence stakes". I think that panel discussions at the PLAN event went a long way towards accomplishing these goals, and I look forward to future opportunities to do the same.

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