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.

Laying the Foundations for Collaboration in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Laying the Foundations for Collaboration in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Gavin Davies

University of Kentucky

Although the goals of the collaborative archaeology paradigm are clearly something that we should all aspire to, I think it is important to note that for many early career archaeologists, particularly those beginning projects abroad, “true collaboration,” i.e. collaboration from a project’s inception, may simply not be possible. This is because archaeologists at early stages in their research will likely not yet have received the funding required to spend the time building the necessary partnerships. In such cases, should we simply ignore the heartbreaking destruction of cultural heritage in the area we have become so passionate about? My response to this question was “decidedly not”, and I argue here that with the aid of a community-insider, simply being open and honest (see statement 2), and putting community interests first, can go a long way towards allaying indigenous people’s fears and concerns about archaeologists and their practices.
In my research area, the Lake Atitlán Basin of highland Guatemala, I was acutely aware that several previous archaeological projects, had been prematurely terminated for incurring the suspicions and mistrust of the indigenous Tz’utujil Maya. Beginning with the ejection of the Carnegie Institution’s Samuel Lothrop from the site of Chuitinamit in the 1930s and extending up until the recent expulsion of the Samabaj crew by the leaders of Santiago Atitlán , the Tz’utujil have repeatedly declared their refusal to be overlooked in matters pertaining to their cultural heritage. Given this checkered history and the cautionary warnings of regional experts such as Barbara Arroyo, concerns about causing no harm (see statement 1) were at the forefront of my mind as I embarked on my investigations. Fears that I would not be able to identify, let alone appease, all of the relevant stakeholders, or that I would inadvertently anger one or more landowners, however, led me to expend considerable effort, in the months leading up to the project, soliciting public opinion via a project Facebook page and searching for a local advisor who could help me negotiate the complexities of the local politics and permissions processes.

My search for an appropriately qualified advisor eventually led me to contact a mathematics professor named Domingo who had lived in the area all his life and had recently self-funded the construction of a community center dedicated to the promotion of science, culture and the arts. Domingo quickly committed himself to the project, scheduling a meeting with the mayor of San Pedro Atitlan on my second day in town and arranging an opportunity to explain our mission in an interview on a popular local TV station. Domingo played a crucial role, helping us to arrange all of our official meetings and ensuring that we followed established local protocols. This extended to making sure that all of our important meetings were conducted on propitious days in the Mayan calendar and that our first day of fieldwork was preceded by a blessing from a respected local aj kij (daykeeper). And while Domingo’s powers to influence the decisions of individual landowners were more limited, his insider community-knowledge quickly helped us to deduce why some land-owners had refused us access, thereby helping us to refine our permission strategies as we went forward.
As the project progressed, we adopted a simple ethos based on three basic principles: respect, communication and transparency (see statement 2). These principles reminded us to always put the community’s needs before our own or those of the archaeology by: a) restricting our investigations to where we had permission, b) clearly explaining our mission to the public whenever we had the opportunity and, c) inviting landowners and the public to visit our laboratory to see how we processed and analyzed the recovered artifacts. Armed with these guiding principles, Domingo’s insider knowledge, and our workers’ ability to communicate our mission in the local dialect we found that the majority of the landowners we encountered were not only accommodating but openly appreciative of the interest we were taking in the history of their community. And although, we fell short of achieving the desired full-coverage survey, the resultant random sample survey covered portions of all of the major sites in the project area and generated over 30,000 ceramics, covering the entire prehispanic sequence. More importantly, however, the project achieved the far more valuable goal of laying a stable foundation for long-term collaboration and research in the area.
My experiences directing the Proyecto Arqueológico Lago de Atitlán taught me that when collaborative partnerships are not forthcoming at the inception of a project, it may not only be acceptable, but desirable for western archaeologists to take the lead. This is certainly true of highland Guatemala, where the Maya themselves simply do not have the luxury of worrying about their own cultural heritage, being forced by dire economic circumstances to devote themselves entirely to the unending task of providing for their families. Early career archaeologists should be aware, however, that even with a local advisor on board, gaining the trust of a community and acquiring all of the required permissions takes time (two months in our case) and needs to be taken into account at the budgeting stage. Archaeologists should be heartened, however, that while often tedious and frustrating, these slow-moving administrative processes nevertheless force us to engage with the community on their own terms and learn the culturally appropriate ways of doing things. Attempting to circumvent such processes by using clandestine survey strategies, on the other hand not only risks alienating the local community but sealing the fate of the cultural heritage we so desperately seek to preserve. As discussed in statement 2, such practices are simply no longer ethical or acceptable.

Necessary Permissions…From Whom?

Scott Hutson

A critical point in the beginning of archaeological field projects and a necessary one according to the AAA statement on ethics (see statement 3) is getting permission from landowners. Yet sometimes this step is not as clear as it may seem. In an instance from my own fieldwork where a community rift threw doubt into the question of who could rightfully give permission, backing off from doing part of the research seemed like the solution. Before getting to the details, I provide some background.

In Mexico, where I work, the ownership of ruins is already tricky because of a distinction between the archaeological remains themselves (artifacts, crumbled buildings, etc.) and the land in which they are embedded. The buildings and artifacts are cultural patrimony of the nation as a whole, administered by the federal government, but the ground on which these remains sit can pertain to communal land-holding groups (ejidos) or private individuals and companies. The ancient palace of Zaachila, located in the center of the town of Zaachila in the state of Oaxaca, presents an example of conflicts that the distinction between federal ruin and local land can create.  Two of the most decorated figures in Mexican archaeology, Alfonso Caso and Ignacio Bernal, each initiated research at Zaachila under the authority of the federal government but could not reach an agreement with a vocal group of Zaachila residents. In 1947, these residents ran Caso off the ruin, throwing stones in his wake. In 1953, Ignacio Bernal needed the protection of the federal army to re-start work at the site.

Getting local approval in addition to federal permission is therefore indispensable, but identifying the critical local stakeholders can be problematic. In cases where land is communally held by an ejido, the most common strategy is to begin by consulting with the ejido’s elected president and the officials he or she appoints. Yet the elected official often does not reflect the voice of all the ejido members, and conflicts within ejidos are common.  For an outsider to such local politics, the best way to proceed may not be clear. The case I present from my own fieldwork in Yucatan (the Uci-Cansahcab Regional Integration Project) illustrates some of the contingencies that can come into play.

In the pseudonymous ejido of Chakche, most ejido members claim exclusive right of use to a small parcel of the ejido’s land. My goal as an archaeologist was to make a map of the ruins scattered across a rectangular block comprising more than a dozen of these parcels. My plans were presented and approved at an ejido meeting, but, as I found out the next week, one of the ejido members not present at the meeting—Jose—objected to the mapping. Soon afterward, Jose gave me a tour of the boundaries of his parcel so I would know where NOT to map. While walking with Jose I showed him some of the ruins we had mapped on adjacent parcels and talked to him about our goals, hoping he would change his mind about letting me on his land once he had a better sense of what we were up to. Jose finally suggested I could go on his land for a fee. As a counteroffer, I suggested I could hire him or a friend as part of the field crew. We could not reach an agreement.  The next day, both the current ejido president as well as a former ejido president wanted to know whether Jose had given me permission. When I told them he did not, they suggested that I could in fact enter Jose’s land without his permission because the real title-holder to that parcel of ejido land was Jose’s recently deceased father. Since the title had not been formally transferred to Jose, the ejido president could act as the final authority.

Amidst this lack of clarity over who was authorized to give permission, I chose to stay off the land claimed by Jose. Though this decision puzzled the past ejido president, it does not appear to have had a downside. Sure, it meant that my map would have a hole in the middle of it (see figure), but such a hole does not necessarily compromise the research. Richard Blanton and Stephen Kowalewski’s Valley of Oaxaca survey was a success even though it has a 40km2 hole in it, resulting from the ejido of Ocotlan’s refusal to let the archaeologists walk their land. To try to make up for Jose’s hole (as well as a divit in the north edge of the map boundary), my team surveyed some extra hectares in the northwest corner of the block, beyond the bounds of our original rectangle.  This proved successful since what we found significantly expanded our understanding of the survey area as a whole.

Principle 3 of the AAA Statement on Ethics holds that anthropologists working with cultural resources, such as ruins, “have an obligation to ensure that they have secured appropriate permissions or permits.” The situation described above shows that it is not always clear who has the authority to grant such permission (see also Daehnke 2007). I end with two questions. When people in a community have conflicting ideas over whether cultural resources should be documented, what should anthropologists do? When we choose not to document the resources in question, are there ways to continue the investigation without “inappropriately changing the purpose, focus or intended outcomes” (see principle 4)?

Figure caption: Map of a portion of the area surveyed by UCRIP, in Yucatan, Mexico. The grey polygon represents the area that was surveyed. The colored items represent ancient features documented. The white “hole” at lower left is the area that we left un-surveyed.

Figure caption: Map of a portion of the area surveyed by UCRIP, in Yucatan, Mexico. The grey polygon represents the area that was surveyed. The colored items represent ancient features documented. The white “hole” at lower left is the area that we left un-surveyed.


Daehnke, J. D.

2007       A ‘strange multiplicity’ of voices: Heritage stewardship, contested sites and colonial legacies on the Columbia River Journal of Social Archaeology 8:250-275.