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The importance of ethics in Indigenous research

Marlene Longbottom

Research ethics are part of the swag of outputs I am required complete in my day to day job of being a researcher.

Human research ethics are vital to ensuring the proposed research is done with integrity and, in a practical sense, applies methods that ensure potential negative experiences to the participants are minimised.

Historically, research has often had a negative, traumatic and racialised impact upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where research of the past has caused harm and been exploitative.

Many Indigenous researchers have written at great lengths about research ethics and the possible ways in which community need to be protected, as well as why, in addition to ensuring participation is voluntary, not coercive nor conducted under duress.

As a researcher I am required to apply to at least one, or for the work that I do multiple, Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs). The research projects I am part of, are in partnership with communities in various parts of Australia, in addition to international communities.

Ethical assessments are completed for review by HRECs that are based within research institutions such as universities, Aboriginal community controlled organisations for example the NSW AH&MRC HREC, and government agencies. HRECs assess the research to ensure that the project utilises methods that are safe and will not cause harm to participants within the proposed study.

Furthermore, HRECs ensure that research participants are not exploited and participate freely without coercion, based upon prior informed consent. As a researcher I have to detail the recruitment, sampling, methods, feedback to community along with a dissemination plan. The HRECs utilise national and state guidelines that provide information when assessing research projects. This is common knowledge to every researcher and is the basics of what you learn in your research training. Basically, this is research ethics 101.

Many Indigenous researchers have written at great lengths about research ethics and the possible ways in which community need to be protected

Recently I became aware of the call for participation in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS). I have concerns in relation to the methods proposed to be utilised by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the NATSIHS.

Reading the recruitment information on the ABS website, I believe the proposed methods contradict the preamble of National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) National Statement of Ethical Conduct of Research which states:

“ethical conduct’ is more than simply doing the right thing. It involves acting in the right spirit, out of an abiding respect and concern for one’s fellow creatures”

Every researcher must comply with this statement.  Furthermore, the NHMRC calls for research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples that is based on the principles of reciprocity, respect, equality, responsibility, survival and protection, spirit and integrity.

I do not believe that the ABS are acting in accordance with the National Statement nor the principles of ethical conduct research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

My concerns are related to the methods of selection of the sample for the NATSIHS. According to the information on current house hold survey section a computer generated sample selects households to be part of the survey.

Okay, this is a typical Western method of randomly selecting potential households to participate. Identification of potential households is unclear. Thus, I assume the Indigenous households will be identified through the utilisation of the data from the census for this process. Furthermore, upon reading the NATSIHS survey information, there is a clause (section 8 and 9) in which applies the Census and Statistics legislation of 1905 to the NATSIHS survey.

This is a major red flag.

The NATSIHS is not the Census. The Census legislation should not be utilised for the collection of the NATSIHS survey.

I argue that, if this is in fact the case, the inability to opt out places Indigenous people and other participants in a position of participating under coercion, duress and removes the informed consent process for which we as researchers must follow.

ethical conduct’ is more than simply doing the right thing. It involves acting in the right spirit, out of an abiding respect and concern for one’s fellow creatures

Additionally, I question why the Census and Statistics legislation is being applied for this survey in the first place? In a practical sense, this legislation comes with a penalty by way of a fine to be charged daily for non-completion of the survey.

As a researcher, I cannot understand the logic nor the justification for the use of this piece of legislation that could potentially cause further negative impact upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants and the ever increasing incarceration rates as a result of fine infringements.

To me, this approach is highly unethical.

According to the ABS, consultation with community occurred and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers.

I question whether the application of the Census and Statistic legislation has been discussed. I know many Indigenous researchers would have issues with the punitive measures and ethical factors that are important to keeping the community safe as well as not causing harm.

I find it difficult to believe that Indigenous researchers would support such methods and the linkage of the Census and Statistics legislation to the NATSIHS.

I utilise the NATISHS in my work and it is a vital piece of national data that we need. However, I appeal to the ABS to urgently review their sampling processes.

There are many organisations for which they can approach, such as Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, whom can advise appropriate recruitment strategies that will ensure the research conducted is based upon respect and prior informed consent. These principles should always be at the forefront of any research.

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