Monday, August 8, 2016

Will TCPS2 Improvements Reach Researchers?

Canadian oral historian Nancy Janovicek applauds the ways that TCPS2 improves over TPCS’s treatment of oral history, but she warns that historians still must devote time to bureaucratic strategy that might be better spent exploring ethics and interviewing narrators.

[Nancy Janovicek, ,“Oral History and Ethical Practice after TCPS2,” in The Canadian Oral History Reader, ed. Kristina R. Llewellyn, Alexander Freund, and Nolan Reilly (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2015), 73–97.]

In 2003, Janovicek co-authored the Canadian Historical Association’s comments on TCPS, and in a 2006 article that became one of the first items mentioned on this blog, she warned that TCPS imposed anonymity on narrators who wished to be named, and that it suggested that Band Councils be allowed to censor indigenous narrators who might want to speak critically to historians. As she puts it in the new chapter,

The original TCPS did not reflect historians’ ethics and professional concerns. It presented new dilemmas and criteria based on the policy’s emphasis on reducing harm, which had little to do with the moral issues that historians face in the field, REBs’ strict interpretations of the policy made it difficult to pursue projects on sensitive issues and often ignored the methods that are practised by oral historians and which are proven measures for balancing the reputations of their informants with the requirements of the discipline. (79)

Canada proved more nimble than the United States in revising its guidelines, and the 2010 TCPS2 addressed Canadian historians’ concerns. The revised policy, Janovicek explains, recognizes that “in oral history, anonymity is the exception,” that “destroying evidence conflicts with what historians do,” that overprotection is a problem, and that “the interpretation of the policy must not impede research on controversial subjects in First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities.” So far so good.

But such wisdom does not instantly filter down to local REBs, which for twelve years under TCPS were trained to restrict research. As Janovicek concludes,

Unfortunately, after the implementation of  the TCPS, historians were compelled to focus on bureaucracy; and since the introduction of TCPS2 this situation has not changed. Discussions among historians often turn to sharing strategies to ensure a successful application to the REB rather than examine deeper questions about balancing academic honesty with ethical considerations. Even though the revised policy incorporates many of the ethical issues that inform oral history practice, procedural questions continue to dominate historians’ conversations about ethics and research. There is reason for concern. In informal conversations at conferences some graduate students have admitted that they avoid oral history because they are concerned that ethics administrators will delay their research and make it impossible for them to complete their graduate work in a timely manner. At a workshop on oral history practice that I attended at Concordia University in 2011, which dealt with the ongoing ethical negotiations that influence relationships between scholars and research participants, graduate students spoke about difficulties with REBs. This was an international conference. The similarities among the graduate students, who were working under ethics policies in different countries, underscore the continued need to monitor the implementation of ethics policy at the institutional level.

Despite improvements in the policy, the apprehensive climate created by TCPS continues to inform how we think about ethics policy and how REBs implement the policy. It is the implementation of TCPS2 at the institutional level, rather than the policy itself, that creates barriers to research. Researchers should be able to use the policy to defend themselves from obstructive REBs and university administrations that are more concerned with legal liability than ethical responsibility. The TCPS2 clearly states that REBs “need independence in the decision-making process to … properly apply the core principles of [TCPS2] … to their ethics review of research projects.” It advises against overprotection of research participants because it impedes justice, a core principle of the document. Academics should use the document to defend ethical research strategies. We need to be especially vigilant in defending graduate students whose research is scrutinized by research boards and advise them to use the policy to defend their research principles. Teaching ethics policy and practice is essential to mentorship in the field. (89)

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