Reviewing Work by Indigenous Scholars

Indigenous methods booksA year ago I launched my book on research ethics which draws on the work of Indigenous researchers from around the world, setting the Indigenous research paradigm and literature side-by-side with the Euro-Western research paradigm and literature. I state in the book that I am not an expert on Indigenous research or ethics. And I never will be – I am a student of the literature, aiming to decolonise my own thought and practice. When I was writing the book I realised that after it came out, Euro-Western institutions would try to position me as an expert by offering invitations to speak about and review the work of Indigenous scholars. And indeed they have.

I have turned down all invitations to speak that would constitute me speaking for Indigenous scholars, and I will continue to do so. I tell whoever has invited me that Indigenous researchers and scholars need to take these assignments, and give them pointers on how to contact suitable people. I can, and do, speak about Indigenous research and ethics in the keynotes and workshops I give. For example, when I was asked to focus on the history of creative research methods in my keynote for the recent Manchester Methods Fair, I included what I know of the history of Indigenous research. I know some Indigenous scholars think I shouldn’t speak on this topic at all, while others call for inclusion of their work in Euro-Western scholarly spaces. I am working to respond to these calls because my own view, currently, is that dialogue is more important than segregation.

Reviewing written work is a different matter. I have been asked, by prominent Euro-Western academic journals, to review articles by Indigenous scholars. Here is an example of actual email correspondence I have had with such a journal (which I will not name as that seems unfair):

Me: Hi. I can review this if you can confirm that at least one of the other reviews will be done by an Indigenous scholar/researcher. I’m not sure COPE has caught up with the ethical aspects of Indigenous scholarship, research, and publishing. Essentially, it’s not ethical for non-Indigenous people to make pronouncements about anything to do with Indigenous issues without Indigenous input. I’m hoping you’re already aware of this and have one or more Indigenous reviewers lined up – in which case, I’m in.

Journal editor: We understand the importance of this and I have forwarded your concerns on to the internal editorial team to ask them for further information. However, please be aware that we do operate our external peer reviews on a largely blind basis in terms of names, background etc. For example, when the authors receive the reviewer’s comments they do not see the names of the reviewers. I only receive the names of the reviewers from the editorial team who are the ones with the in depth knowledge concerning the reviewer’s research specialties etc. Thus, at this point I’m unsure as to the backgrounds of the reviewers we have invited as I only communicate with them through the manuscript and e-mail system we use.

Me: I take your point about blind peer reviews. This of course is in direct opposition to the Indigenous ethical principle of accountability which I expect your author has addressed in their article. My own engagement with the Indigenous methods literature, plus a small amount of work directly with Indigenous researchers and scholars, has brought me to my current position. This is that I won’t act as any kind of authority on Indigenous issues unless I know for sure that Indigenous people are involved at the same level. And ‘authority’ includes peer reviewing.

Having solely non-Indigenous people act as authorities on Indigenous issues is analogous to having solely men act as authorities on women’s issues. I’ve fought against the latter all my life. It would be hypocritical of me then to take an equivalent stance in another arena.

Internal editorial team rep: Thank you for this, and for the important point you raise. Supporting and finding a space for indigenous scholarship and methodological discussion is something that, as a new editorial team, we take seriously and are currently discussing. We will endeavour to recruit an indigenous reviewer (with the recognition with all that is bound up with this category and how often it is a little too broad for each context) and will be reviewing policy on this matter at our next meeting.

This did nothing to reassure me so I declined to review.

From dr.whomever on Instagram, aka Em Rabelais from the University of Illinois in the US, I have recently learned that the preoccupation of Euro-Westerners with the ‘evidence base’ is colonialist and gets in the way of a lot of anti-oppressive work. Many Indigenous peoples have a different view of evidence: for example, if someone has lived through a phenomenon, event, or relationship, they know about it and so can provide evidence. In Euro-Western cultures, we accept this kind of evidence to convict people of crimes and call it a ‘witness statement’, but we will not accept it in research where we dismiss it as ‘anecdote’. This seems to me an anomaly, and one I have never understood.

Imposing this approach to research on people from other cultures who take a different view, as dr.whomever says, is epistemic violence. Last week I spotted this tweet by Grieve Chelwa from the University of Cape Town in South Africa:

I’m now wondering whether I should accept invitations to review because at least I understand this and have some knowledge of Indigenous ethical principles. But I’m also aware that the little knowledge I have can be a dangerous thing. And I don’t want to end up being seen as “an expert” on Indigenous scholarship, or even “a go-to person”.

In an ideal world, I would like Euro-Western and Indigenous scholars to review each other’s work with a good understanding of each other’s perspectives. I was very grateful to receive a review of the draft manuscript of my book on research ethics from Indigenous scholar Deborah McGregor from York University in Canada, who waived anonymity to enable dialogue, and was helpfully constructive with her criticism and generous with her praise. However, in our far-from-ideal world, I recognise that Indigenous scholars have higher priorities than reviewing the work of a privileged Euro-Western scholar.

I think waiving anonymity would help a lot in these situations. I would be happier to review the work of Indigenous scholars if I knew they were happy for me to review their work, and that we could have a dialogue to ensure mutual understanding.

Having said all that, I definitely want to support Indigenous researchers (and other marginalised researchers) whenever I can do so ethically. But figuring out when and how to do that is not straightforward. If you have any ideas or suggestions to contribute I’d love to read them in the comments.

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I Finished The Book!

Research ethics in the real world [FC]For the last three-and-a-quarter years I have been writing a book on research ethics. It has been like doing another PhD, only with reviewers instead of supervisors. Four sets of reviewers: two sets of proposal reviews and two sets of typescript reviews. I have to thank my lovely publisher, Policy Press (part of Bristol University Press), for giving me so much support to get this book right.

This has been the hardest book I’ve written and I hope never to write another as difficult. On the plus side, I’m happy with the result. It is different from other books on research ethics in three main ways. First, it doesn’t treat research ethics as though they exist in isolation. I look at the relationships between research ethics and individual, social, institutional, professional, and political ethics, and how those relationships play out in practice in the work of research ethics committees and in evaluation research. That makes up part 1 of the book.

Second, it demonstrates the need for ethical thinking and action throughout the research process. In part 2 there is a chapter covering the ethical aspects of each stage of the research process, from planning a research project through to aftercare. There is also a chapter on researcher well-being.

Third, the book sets the Indigenous and Euro-Western research paradigms side by side. This is not to try to decide which is ‘better’, but is intended to increase researchers’ ethical options and vocabularies. I am writing primarily for Euro-Western readers, though the book may be of use to some Indigenous researchers. There is a sizeable and growing body of literature on Indigenous research and ethics, including books, journals, and journal articles. Using this literature requires care – as indeed using all literature requires care (see chapter 7 of my forthcoming book for more on that). But Indigenous literature, as with other literatures by marginalised peoples, requires particular care to avoid tokenism or appropriation.

Many Euro-Western researchers are completely ignorant of Indigenous research. Some know of it but are under the misapprehension that it is an offshoot of Euro-Western research. In fact it is a separate paradigm that stands alone and predates Euro-Western research by tens of thousands of years. Some Indigenous researchers and scholars are now calling for Euro-Western academics to recognise this and use Indigenous work alongside their own. My book is, in part, a response to these calls.

It was so, so hard to cram all of that into 75,000 words – and that includes the bibliography which, as you can imagine, is extensive. There was so much to read that I was still reading, and incorporating, new material on the morning of the day I finished the book. I’ve found more work, since, that I’d love to include – but I had to stop somewhere.

I awaited my final review with great trepidation, aware of the possibility that the reviewer might loathe my book – some previous reviewers had – and that that could put an end to my hopes of publication. Was I looking at three-and-a-quarter years of wasted work? I was so relieved when my editor emailed to say the review was positive. Then the reviewer’s comments blew me away. Here’s one of my favourite parts: “In my view the author through excellent writing skills has covered very dense material (a ton of content) in a very accessible way.”

I was even more delighted because this review came from an Indigenous researcher. She waived anonymity, so I have been able to credit and thank her in the book. I will not name her here, as I do not have her permission to do so; you’ll have to read the book if you want to find out.

Finishing a book feels great, and also weird. It’s like losing a part of your identity, particularly with a book you’ve lived with for so long. Though there’s still lots of work to do: I have to write the companion website, give input on the book’s design, read the proofs, start marketing… publication is due on 1 November, which feels a long way off but I know how quickly five months can pass.

I think this book will be controversial. A senior and very knowledgeable academic told me that one reason I could write such a book is because I’m not in academia. I’m glad if I can use my independence to say things others cannot say – as long as I’m saying useful things, at least.

More than anything else, I hope the book helps to make a difference. In particular, I would like to make a difference to the current system of ethical regulation which is too focused on institutional protection and insufficiently focused on ethical research. It is also terrible at recognising and valuing the work of Indigenous research and of Euro-Western community-based or participatory research. When I was preparing to write the book, I interviewed 18 people around the world and promised them anonymity. Some were research ethics committee members and others had sought formal approval from ethics committees (or institutional review boards in the US). I heard tales of people completing ethical approval forms with information that committees wanted to see rather than with actual facts; people teaching students how to get through the ethical approval system instead of teaching them how to conduct ethical research; people acting ethically yet in complete contravention of their committee’s instructions; people struggling to balance ethical research with Indigenous communities with the inflexible conditions set by ethics committees. Although many of the people who serve on ethics committees are highly ethical, the system within which they are forced to work often prevents them from acting in entirely ethical ways. It seems to me that this system is not currently fit for purpose, and there are many other people who think the same. I hope the evidence I have gathered and presented will help to create much-needed change.

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