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Univ of New Mexico
- Posts: 16
- Joined: Wed Apr 06, 2016 9:20 am
In addition: 2) How can researchers uphold ethical obligations to their subjects that go beyond IRB requirements, particularly in authoritarian regimes or situations of political violence (Monroe, 2015; Parkinson & Wood, 2015; Shih, 2015; Tripp, 2015)? Shouldn’t editors and reviewers recognize that researchers are in the best position to make ethical judgments about data access?
Of course I agree that subjects in conflict settings and authoritarian regimes can face especially grave dangers. But I worry about carving out exceptions to DART that only apply to research that poses a clear, direct risk of physical harm to subjects. As Wood and Parkinson point out, it is impossible to know what information might endanger subjects in the future, when circumstances have changed in ways that a researcher did not envision.
Furthermore, having done in-depth interviews and participant observation in both violent and non-violent settings, I think we also need to take seriously non-physical threats to subjects in more stable, peaceful settings. I don't want to see us to create a "hierarchy of subjects" or a "hierarchy of data," where some data (collected in peaceful settings) must be shared, while other data (from conflict zones) can be kept confidential.
For example, in some of my interviews in New York City, subjects have shared very personal stories about the deaths of their children and other relatives, subsequent conflicts within their families, and mental health issues. The disclosure or distribution of these full interview transcripts could obviously have dire personal, social, and professional costs for the subjects. So although bullets may not be flying, subjects who share intimate details about their lives still deserve our utmost respect and protection. A relative lack of conflict or political violence should not diminish their rights.
Elisabeth Jean Wood
- Posts: 2
- Joined: Wed Apr 06, 2016 7:16 am
I too am deeply troubled that the editors who signed the statement believe that it is the editor -- rather than the researcher -- who should judge which data concerning human subjects must be shared with reviewers and posted online. This is not an abstract concern. In several instances, reviewers have insisted on seeing sensitive human subjects material, and editors did not deflect these requests. (In others, editors eventually supported the researcher.) It is the researcher who knows best the context and the threat that inadvertent disclosure might pose. Moreover, in the APSA Guide to Professional Ethics in Political Science, it is the individual researcher who is responsible for the ethical conduct of research.
I note that two possible ways to address this first problem are not adequate.
First, what if editors were to require the researcher to share with reviewers and post all data that is not explicitly named as confidential in the researcher’s IRB protocol? That is problematic because the procedures approved by the IRB at the beginning of a project should always be understood as the minimum of ethical requirements, not the total. Contexts change, subjects sometimes misjudge the consequences of disclosure, protection of data repository sites is uneven at best, and so on. The researcher is best positioned to make the necessary, contextual judgments.
Second, what if editors were to require that qualitative data be de-identified? That would render some qualitative data meaningless (it is the specificity and richness of the data that is the source of insight) and would pose an extreme burden on the researcher in many cases.
I also want to draw the reader’s attention to the just published Comparative Politics Newsletter, which has a symposium on DA-RT that includes source documents, essays by critics, a response by DA-RT advocates, and reflections by editors (particularly excellent is that by Deborah Yashar). See http://charlescrabtree.com/files/newsletter_spring2016.pdf.
Elisabeth Jean Wood
- Posts: 2
- Joined: Thu Apr 07, 2016 11:16 am
- Posts: 6
- Joined: Fri Apr 08, 2016 10:46 am
University of Missouri
- Posts: 8
- Joined: Wed Apr 06, 2016 3:38 pm
1) The language of DA-RT overlooks the fundamentally important point that political scientists often have equal ethical obligations to people who are simply not covered by the IRB's narrow definition of "subjects." These could include research assistants, interpreters, archivists, colleagues at host institutions, etc. Reliance on an IRB protocol (or the phrase "human subjects") to judge whether transparency is appropriate is incredibly problematic on these grounds alone.
2) I have at times given interviewees more protection than required in my written protocol because of unexpected changes to the political conditions in my country of research. Again, reliance on what's written in an IRB to assess whether information can and should be made "transparent" is problematic because it is a minimum, often not what is safe or ethical.
3) I often do not know what information in my notes might compromise a subject. If a scholar is under surveillance, even the date of a meeting in the notes could be enough to compromise their interviewees' identity. So might a story that I do not recognize as uniquely identifying information. In many research contexts, there is simply no way to ensure confidentiality unless notes are redacted so much that they are equivalent to the information already provided in the text, in which case the value added of notes provided via the DA-RT process is negligible at best.
4) Asking editors to assess whether the protocols followed for a project places them in the position of rendering judgment on a process that is required of universities and scholars under federal law. Has anyone at DA-RT/APSA examined the legal implications of putting this burden on editors? If I were an editor, I'd be extraordinarily nervous about this.
5) Many journal editors do not work with human subjects, field research, or qualitative data. (I checked the list of journals that had signed on as of the last APSA meeting, and the percentage of editors who appear to do so is in single digits.) This heightens the risk that editors will not understand the issues raised above. I think this also places an as-yet undiscussed ethical responsibility on journal editors to educate themselves to ensure that they are adequate gatekeepers; yet I see no discussion of how this standard will be achieved.
While I agree with all that has been said above with regard to trusting researchers rather than editors on security questions, we also need to take seriously the fact that inexperienced graduate students are increasingly encouraged to undertake fieldwork in contexts they know little about. If we are to develop professional guidelines regulating data access at all, these should first and foremost emphasize the principle of "do no harm" and ensure that even those who do not know what they are doing are not encouraged or incentivized in any way to place the security of their subjects and support staff at risk.
Johns Hopkins University
- Posts: 12
- Joined: Mon Apr 18, 2016 4:32 pm
Northern Arizona University
- Posts: 1
- Joined: Thu Apr 07, 2016 10:28 pm
My comments are based on my field research experiences. I discuss my access to human-subject and non-human-subject data, and sensitive and non-sensitive data.
I understand that, among other things, journals signing the JETS document require (1) that by the time an article is published, the author makes his or her sources available to other researchers through a digital repository, and (2) that if the author wishes to obtain an exception to this rule, he or she must request that exception from the journal at the manuscript submission stage.
I believe that I could not have complied with this standard and also accessed a great deal of data that have been crucial for my research up to this point.
Central here is a specific type of transparency that is important in my work: a commitment to telling my contacts in the field how I will manage the human-subject and non-human-subject data they give me.
MY ACCESS TO DATA THUS FAR
My contacts have shared with me their personal experiences and expertise during candid interview sessions, and they have also given me documents to help me with my research. They have trusted me—a researcher they know through mutual contacts, my writing, and/or multiple conversations with me—to analyze and place into context the information. They know that I directly maintain and control access to my interview notes and to documents they give me.
MY ACCESS TO DATA UNDER A JETS REGIME
Under a JETS regime, the situation would be different. When I met with people, I would inform them that my notes from the interview and the other information they provided me would be uploaded to a digital repository and made widely accessible to others unless I received a waiver.
Even if I promised to de-identify the information prior to uploading it, with the data-sharing possibility in place, I believe my subjects would respond guardedly to my questions, knowing that the otherwise full content of their responses could be viewed out of context by members of an unknown population. I think this challenge would apply to interviews about highly technical topics, for example my discussion with a former consultant in Bolivia about the implications of alternative natural gas pipeline designs for water contamination. I would also confront the challenge when seeking information about more sensitive issues, such as transfers of material compensation from private oil companies to local Ecuadorian army units in exchange for the units’ security services.
I believe that under JETS my contacts would refrain from offering me helpful documents out of concern that those materials could be made widely available. Had JETS been in place previously, an indigenous community member and publicly known expert in consultations in Bolivia may not have shared with me detailed timelines and descriptions of community consultations about new Bolivian natural gas projects. A Peruvian officer might not have provided me statistics on insurgent attacks maintained by the military joint command. An Ecuadorian human rights organization may not have granted me access to their statistical archives on abuses. None of these sources was categorized as sensitive, formally or informally.
Yale University & University of Sheffield
University College London
- Posts: 1
- Joined: Wed May 11, 2016 5:16 am
One issue that has arisen in one or more of the discussion threads is how to handle interview material gathered--either for a long-term research project, or employed years later in a subsequent, related project--well before this entire debate arose in U.S. political science. The terms that a researcher offers to an interviewee (anonymity or not, for example) must always be respected, and no conscientious researcher can alter or break those conditions (by, for instance, divulging an interviewee's identity) simply because a journal editor may "now" decide that transparency is the overriding consideration. The individual researcher should always be the responsible party in such decisions.
Requiring that the researcher produce documentation stating that research has been conducted in fulfillment of a university's code of ethics (as, I believe, the current editors of the APSR now do) will not necessarily resolve the problem of long-term protection of sensitive sources for the simple reason that some researchers change institutions over the course of their careers. The current employer could not attest in good faith to a researcher's conduct years before, and a prior employer would have no incentive to produce the required documentation in a timely manner even if the evidentiary basis for doing so has miraculously survived.
Kevin J. Middlebrook
Institute of the Americas
University College London
University of Edinburgh
- Posts: 3
- Joined: Mon May 09, 2016 7:37 am
Ideally, the system works through checks and balances, wherein the IRB, on the one hand, and journal editors/peer reviewers (and other professional institutions), on the other, help reinforce various best practices by researchers. On any given piece of work, however, the researcher is the 'executive'. It falls to us to protect our informants and other sources, to cite and acknowledge them appropriately, to build a cohesive and competent body of work, and to maintain a reputation that enables continued professional success in both our sites of research and our sites of teaching and publication. I'd like to see this better reflected in JETS/DA-RT. Access and transparency need to fit within our broader set of obligations, and not distort or commandeer any given dimension of our work.
A few 'human subjects protection' issues that have been on my mind and which I haven't seen elsewhere on the discussion board (apologies if I've missed them in the rich debates):
1. Many have noted the need to balance costs and benefits of transparency and access. Underpinning much of this discussion, but not made explicit, is just how valuable high-risk data are to our work, particularly on violence/victimization and on elites.
Some of my best, most valuable sources - both found archives and interviews - are things I could never grant reviewers full access to, for both legal and ethical reasons, to protect myself and my informants. They are almost literally smoking guns. If we expunged the highest risk - or most poignant - interviews and sources from our work to protect them from invasive DA-RT measures, the research would *disproportionately suffer*.
2. On the flip side, DA-RT has the potential to be a boon for human subjects and vulnerable populations in particular. I've long been concerned with the extractive nature of research in post-conflict settings (my field of work) and the over-saturation of certain places with fieldwork projects (e.g. refugee camps, urban areas in newly stabilised post-war zones, etc.).
In the worst cases, victims of conflict and displacement end up being repeatedly interviewed about the same topics, with little aggregation of the copious narrative data they provide ever making its way into the public domain. The same is true of quantitative data. Literally hundreds of thousands of systematic survey interviews have been collected in Eastern Congo (e.g.) and we have used an iota of the data that have been generated. This has serious ethical implications for who bears the burden of research and whether the benefits accrue proportionally to the costs.
It is unfortunate that from an ethical perspective, DA-RT seems poised to disincentivize the context-driven, lighter footprint research that should be best practice, while encouraging or facilitating the scaled up data collection efforts than can be more easily anonymised and shared.
Ideally, data access should be as committed to fostering ethical research as it is ensuring to replicable scientific standards of research. If DA-RT is to set a new standard for data sharing, it needs to demonstrate meaningful engagement with the power inequalities and unstable contexts discussed in this thread and elsewhere on the forum, and throughout months of debate. JETS, as the long-arm extension of DA-RT, demonstrates little to no engagement with how these concerns inform for many of us everything from question identification, to data collection, analysis, dissemination, and ultimately, transparency.
3. A way forward...
I agree with Sarah Parkinson's summative contribution on political violence-related issues (16 May), which notes that many scholars address ethics, access, and transparency [EDART?] issues through a corpus of work and not just in a single article (meaty footnote/data repository/narrative appendix/etc.). The question we ask in reading each other's research is not whether we can personally access each datum pointing toward the author's claims, but whether the claims made could reasonably follow from the known/available evidence and methods.
It seems what's needed is more explicitly articulating - and cultivating - a subjective suite of best practices, rather than brittle standards, and acknowledging that at the heart of many current sub-field norms is in effect a 'balance of probability' test. Used in civil trials and for administering reparations, it applies a lower evidentiary standard than that used in criminal trials.
Others have called elsewhere for clearer articulation of minimum standards, rather than maximal best practices; a balance of probability approach would make this a sliding scale appropriate to a given piece of research. (Conveniently, this fits the claims of many DA-RT supporters that standards will be 'sensible' and not overly onerous, and that journal editors are committed to epistemic and methodological pluralism (some more than others).)