Joining Someone Else’s Research Project? Check Their Ethics Protocol!

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors

This post is a reflection on the role that IRBs and other institutional gatekeepers can play in protecting informants and researchers from unethical actions committed in the course of large research projects. It tells the (highly condensed) true story of a team project focused on helping refugees resettled in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, a project with such progressive, socially ambitious goals attracted researchers from several subfields of anthropology, including a couple of graduate students from the department where the project was hosted. A recently arrived refugee worked as a research assistant on the project to liaison with the refugee population.

As an anthropologist hired in as a postdoc to work on the project, I began to feel that some things were “off” when I observed that the refugee who worked for the project was never invited to the team meetings or given a key to the office. After getting to know the person working in this role, I learned that s/he was being paid hourly, barely above minimum wage, and had no health insurance or benefits of any kind. Soon, the uncomfortable feeling of finding myself working for a project that was “all talk and no show” turned into something much worse when researchers on the team were asked by the project director to do things that we felt were serious violations of anthropological ethics. Highly sensitive personal data were being collected, handled, and stored in the most careless way. Informed consent was barely an afterthought. During the months I worked for the project, I witnessed how disrespectfully the project director treated the one refugee employed on the project. In the employee’s own words, s/he felt better and freer at the refugee camp than working for this project! I also noticed that the observations we had made were manipulated at community events and professional meetings. The project director once admitted knowing that the project was “way out of compliance”. But all that seemed to matter to the director was that we appeared to be making progress so the grant could be renewed.

While I worried about the unprofessional and unethical ways in which we were being pushed to conduct research, I also feared being fired. Like others working on the project, my contract was “at will,” and everyone who expressed the slightest difference of opinion to the project director was threatened with being let go. To complicate things even further, the project was being conducted at the same institution where the project director had received their PhD, which made me, as a relative newcomer, wonder if such practices were supported (if not fostered) by that department. Hence I had to ask myself: who can I report to in this institution that will not automatically disregard my testimony?

My first instinct was to take these matters directly to the project’s advisory board. I was extremely lucky to get guidance from my mentors at my alma mater, whom I asked for help. They advised me not to go to the advisory board, as they may have had conflicting interests (for example, the project director’s dissertation advisor was a member of that board). So I contacted the university’s office of research compliance and IRB instead. Upon reviewing the documentation presented, the compliance director and the IRB immediately opened an investigation on the project. After interviewing several team members, the IRB decided to shut down the project until further notice. In addition to the problematic way in which the research was being carried out, I learned that no researchers (other than the project director) were even mentioned in the IRB protocol; hence none of us were technically authorized to be doing this research in the first place. In retrospect, I am shocked at how naive I was, not asking to see copies of the IRB protocol before starting to work on the project. A few months later our contracts were up. Needless to say, the grant was not renewed.

In this situation, the refugees we were working with were vulnerable, but so were the researchers, who found themselves with their backs against the wall: doing research the project director’s way, or “the highway.” What I would like to underscore is that it was the IRB and the university’s research compliance office, not the anthropology department, who were the ones to tell the project director that research could not be conducted in that way. By suspending the project and seizing all the data collected by the team, the IRB not only effectively protected participants’ rights, it also protected the researchers from being pushed to engage in unethical practices. Ironically, it also protected us from having to publish the data that we had collected. As bad as it is for a postdoc not having any publications to show for a year’s work—especially while on the job market—it is better than publishing something that would later have to be retracted.

We sometimes think of anthropologists as sympathetic saints who know more than their IRBs about “research with human subjects” and who would not, by the very nature of their professional commitments, violate the rights of participants in their research. But the fact is that such violations have happened in the past and continue to happen today. It is good and necessary, if at times tedious, to have to show someone that our work complies with federal regulations and the ethical guidelines those regulations aim to implement. Finally, a word of caution to anthropologists moving into postdoctoral positions: never embark on a project without first checking with the project director about their approach to research ethics. Ask to see the ethics protocol. It may be an awkward thing to ask at the time, but it is better than finding out later that you are implicated in an unethical project that renders all your professional efforts totally worthless.