Research Monitoring

Someone recently sent me a link to the Australian Indigenous Law Reporter‘s 2003 Guidelines for Indigenous Research. These are not IRB guidelines; they have no legislative power (as far as I know), they apply to research done through the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (note that research project here has no technical definition).

The first paragraph is striking:

It is ethical practice in any research on Indigenous issues to include consultation with people who may be directly affected by the research or research outcomes whether or not the research involves fieldwork.

This would seem to imply that if I go to my local library and use published materials to write a paper on some aspect of Indigenous languages, I would need to obtain the permission of those groups (who? the person who talked to the original researcher and their family? the community council? the Land Council?) in order to publish it.

Section 7 contains the following guideline:

Research on Indigenous issues should also incorporate Indigenous perspectives and this is often most effectively achieved by facilitating more direct involvement in the research.

Does this imply that research which may be contradictory to “Indigenous perspectives” is inethical? For example, is research in Australian prehistory inethical, since a hypothesis of mid-Holocene expansion of Indigenous groups in Australia is in contradiction to traditional belief systems which either place people on the land since the beginning of time or have languages placed there by culture heroes? How does one sensitively and appropriately incorporate perspectives which are based on an incompatible set of assumptions? (At some level this guideline seems to me to be not all that different from requiring research on evolution to incorporate perspectives on creationism.)

Finally, these guidelines appear internally contradictory by simultaneously requiring recognition of individual differences while (in several different sections) demanding public acknowledgement of participants. They demand consensus, negotiation and inclusion of indigenous participants as researchers while at the same time requiring research participants to defer at all times to an undefined group of people. That also seems to be contradictory.

The intent of the guidelines is clear; the guidelines seem to guard against the type of exploitative, generalistic and unethical research which indigenous people (particularly in Australia) are justifiably angry about and eager to prevent. Does a set of guidelines like this achieve that?

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