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Research Ethics Workshop Summary

On Monday 20 May, CRC TiME held the 'Understanding the human ethics process and how to overcome challenges in approval online workshop' presented by Associate Professor Mandy Downing from Curtin University. Below is the summary of the workshop.

Sadly, there is a history around researching Indigenous peoples, which has proven to be negative and the cause of ongoing fear and hesitation of research by Indigenous people. Researchers of the past created this harm through inappropriate practices which is why there are strict policies today around research involving humans and particularly the Indigenous population. Researchers are often asking how best to engage with Indigenous people through projects and how they can collaborate or co-design research with the Indigenous community. 

Associate Professor Mandy Downing, Dean of Indigenous Futures from Curtin University and Ngarluma Yindjibarndi woman, was approached to provide an online workshop about the difficulties and challenges with submitting proposals through an ethics review process.  Mandy is the Co-Chair of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies National Research Ethics Committee and the Senior Indigenous Facilitator for the National Environmental Science Program’s Sustainable Communities and Waste Research Hub.  

Ethical considerations are a crucial part of responsible research, however, for many researchers, the process of ethics review and approval can be frustrating and time consuming.  Mandy gave an overview of why we have ethics review processes, how they have developed and how they work in practice.  

Drawing on the AIATSIS Code of Ethics Mandy explained from the AIATSIS guidelines what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research is. It is research that involves Indigenous peoples, their culture, land or waters, even if the research is not explicitly about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but has a high number of this population in the study through the geographic location of the research.

Refer to the Australian Institute if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Code of Ethics for further information on how to conduct appropriate research whilst respecting and protecting the participants and their knowledge. 

Members of ethics committees come from a range of backgrounds (not only researchers), so it is important that non-technical language is used in all ethics applications (not only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research). It is also crucial to give clear answers and stipulate how ethical principles will be addressed, including how the research team will respectfully manage and store data.  

Mandy advised that the applications need to be clear about the methods that are being proposed. Allowing time is a key factor and, where possible, it is recommended that researchers discuss their applications with the ethics office in their host institution ahead of time. 

Overcoming common issues that arise with ethics applications 

Researchers should ask themselves these questions: 

  • Is the research a priority for Indigenous people? 
  • Does it have Indigenous leadership? 
  • Are those people listed aware or in agreeance with the roles and responsibilities? 
  • What evidence is there for community support or engagement? 
  • Demonstration of how and who you will engage with and how you have selected these participants. 
  • How will data sovereignty and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property be managed? 
  • Is it truly co-designed? – Will partner Indigenous people and organisations make decisions on important matters concerning the research, conduct of the research, analysis of the data, interpretation of the findings and communication of the data? If not, maybe it is not co-designed. 
  • Codesign is something you start in the ideas stage, not after. The Indigenous partners need to be part of the constructing of the proposal. 
  • How will you identify cultural sensitivities and what will your policy on those be? 
  • Reciprocity – what can you give back and how can the community benefit? 

“I thought that I had a good understanding of ethics in relation to Indigenous engagement in research, but Mandy’s presentation gave me new insight into the subject. Her explanation and examples provided expert real-world experience coupled with practical applications. Many thanks, Mandy!” Jim Walker, Chairperson CRC TiME First Nations Advisory Team. 

“Many thanks to Mandy (and CRC TiME) for a generous and incredibly informative webinar. I did cringe a little when I realised the clumsy – albeit best-intentioned – mistakes I’d made on previous applications. I would highly recommend anyone undertaking the AIATSIS ethics process – which is no small undertaking – that your time is very well spent listening to these sage words first.” Comment from Dr Jess Reeves, Federation University. 

Further information: 

AIATSIS Code & Guide

National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research

Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (plus subsidiary guidelines (e.g. data management and research misconduct)

The Foundations for Effective Indigenous Inclusion

First Nations Inclusion Strategy

United Nations Declaration On the Rights of Indigenous Peoples