Towards a reconceptualisation of ethics in educational research: the challenge of multiple paradigms and inclusiveness

Dr Neil Béchervaise

The University of Sydney


Dr Dasia Black-Gutman

Australian Catholic University, Sydney


At the National Meeting of Directors of Research in Education in Canberra in July, we were asked to prepare a position paper for the AARE on ethical guidelines for conducting research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

We began with a brief to develop a Code of Ethics for research using indigenous people. We accepted the brief because we work in the field, because we have empathetic relations with many of the stakeholders in the field and because we felt that the development was overdue. Prior to our initial meeting, however, we had arrived, independently, at the point of recognition that the brief was already too narrow.

Our first step was to consider the issue of whether it was advisable to develop a separate Code of Ethics related to the special needs and historical experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or whether the present AARE Code of Ethics for Research in Education should be modified to make it more inclusive. The latter seemed the more equitable way to proceed, since many other groups may argue that they too are entitled to a separate Code of Ethics because of their special needs and sensitivities, be they based on disability and/or racial/ethnic background or other marker. Indigenous cultural groups represent only one among the highly complex multicultural mosaic which the Australian culture has become. And each major cultural group can be seen to have developed its own complex of subcultures. The economic refugee influx from Hong Kong is not equable with the political refugees of Tibet or Northern Vietnam. The racial/cultural differences between Korean and Japanese, Taiwanese and Thai are each transected on parameters as diverse as wealth, gender, class, disability, education or language. The indigenous groups may be urban, rural, Cocos, Christmas or Torres Strait Islanders, western desert, rainforest or pastoral.The inclusive position was taken after consultation with other colleagues who had worked in 'specialised' areas including Aboriginal research.

Having examined a cross-section of ethical guidelines developed by different tertiary institutions and Centres to ensure that Aboriginal and Islander educational research is sensitive to relevant ethical issues, is culturally appropriate and non-exploitative, we turned to the existing AARE Code of Ethics to see what modifications would need to be made to make it more inclusive. What became immediately apparent was that a modification would be quite inadequate - in fact, impossible.

The underlying assumptions of the existing Code have their roots in the traditional Western paradigm where "expert" researchers carry out empirical research on a groups of "subjects" for the direct or indirect benefit of the human good and generally to expand a field of knowledge. We found that though the Code uses some of the language of the collaborative and consultative paradigm which it advocates, such as referring to "participants" rather than "subjects", the basic spirit remains the traditional one of expert-subject, up-down approach as shown in a reference to "research on a group". We recognise that the Western paradigm is one which has enabled much valuable research to be carried out and to which many of us would prefer to cling. It appears to be less time-consuming, allows one to meet grant deadlines and fits in with our workloads.

However to be truly ethical, the AARE Code of Ethics need to recognise the existence of multiple paradigms within Australia's diverse society and question the validity of the existing paradigm for any research even with the so-called Western, "mainstream" (are there any?) participants.

Underlying Paradigm for Research with Indigenous People

The most significant aspect of the NHMRC guidelines for research with indigenous peoples (NHMRC, 1991) is the essentially collaborative nature of the research paradigm.

Codes of ethics and guidelines for conduct of research among indigenous communities (eg Finnane 1987; Wadsworth, 1991; Atkinson, M., Brabham, W. & John Henry, 1994; Koori Centre 1993; Yooroang Garang 1996; et al) each stress the expectation that the research process will result in an advance in employment and self determination for indigenous people. This sine qua non is articulated in a variety of different forms dependent on the dominant discourse used to articulate the guiding research principles. Notwithstanding the variation in wording, however, the intention is clear.

Research with indigenous groups and, we would argue, with all groups, communities and cultures, must be predicated upon an agreement between stakeholders that the intention of the research is the empowerment of the group.

Underlying Paradigm in Existing Code of Ethics - A Critique

In contrast to the above, essentially collaborative and empowering intention, the paradigm underlying the published Code of Ethics for Research in Education of the AARE (1995) is based on a linear, deconstructive model with substantial Aristotelian overtones. In consequence, it is well suited to the medical model from which it feeds and to which Australian Higher Educational Institutions must currently pay obeisance. [It is noted that the NH&MRC Guidelines have recently been reviewed]

The current Code of Ethics, as a document informing the nature of educational research in a multicultural, as opposed to a polycultural modern Australian society, has been overcome by more significant ethical and philosophical considerations. [Polyculturalism is seen here as the cohabitation of a country by a number of culturally discrete groups operating independently of each other and, therefore, possibly seeing each other as appropriate subjects for research].
Recognition of the plethora of research models and the hybrids appropriate to educational research has already generated a number of isolated protectionist statements into the existing Code of Ethics. More significantly, recognition of the range of individuals, institutions, groups and communities who might benefit from research in education has quite overrun the needs and intentions of the document we are addressing in this paper.

Consider the research we are promoting when we find it necessary to contemplate "legitimate and therefore normally acceptable moral reasoning" in determining the conduct of "secret research into adolescent dating behaviour [which] might (our emphasis) be seen as wrong because it is spying, and a breach of privacy. It might be seen as wrong because it will diminish the willingness of young people to speak freely to each other of their feelings. Or it may be objected that it is not directed towards the good of the adolescents being studies....[it] may do them harm... [it may be] pursued for intrinsic reasons." (p1)

Following on, our existing code suggests that "the position roughly is that research should support, and should not harm, human flourishing...where an action is itself intolerable, it cannot be justified by its consequences". (p1)
These quotations from the first page of the AARE Code of Ethics most surely ring alarm bells. The purpose of the Association is educational research not covert operations reminiscent of Caucaescu's Romania or Pol Pot's Cambodia. We are not involved in the treatment of chronic cancerous lesions with chemotherapeutic drugs, we are not selling offal fed beef to the European Union we are researching in the field of Education. As the Code of Ethics maintains, on page 5, "enhancement of the general good and indirect benefit to the participants are adequate reasons for doing research" (p5). "Adequate reasons"?? What are "good reasons"? We will return to this question in due course. In the meantime, it is useful to take several more quotes from the documents to establish that those already identified are not being decontextualised, that the general principles of "enhancing the general welfare", respecting the dignity and worth of persons and students" and "recognition that educational research is an ethical matter" are indeed "the general principles".

A quick glance across pages 1 and 3 identifies a number of specific principles. It reveals "harm", physical damage or pain, loss of privacy, provision for the remedying of harm, physical damage to minors, "minors may not be asked to consent to risks of harm that cannot be remedied", "social and personal consequences of publication", not exploiting populations, deception, temporary deception and unwilling participation.

The Code of Ethics has been established to prevent the unscrupulous, immoral and incompetent from masquerading as researchers in education. This national association has responded in good faith no doubt, to a system and a situation which are neither its mandate nor its mission. The existing Code of Ethics looks more like a set of council by-laws for the prevention of footpath desecration by unrestrained pets than the Code of Ethics binding a national association of professional educational researchers. And carrying the analogy only slightly further, the bylaws are designed to restrain the pet owner researchers - but what is the implicit role of the research participants in such a metaphor?

Yes, there was a need to restrict unscrupulous research and publication practices. There was, and still is, a need to protect the participant partners in educational research. These are historical needs and they have been identified both nationally and internationally as the acknowledgments published on the back of the "Code of Ethics" established.

The pragmatic short fall between the currently published Code of Ethics and the needs of contemporary research derives from a more dynamic force, however. As we previously suggested, both the dominant research paradigms, the socio-ethnic composition of Australia and the demands placed upon both education in general (as an agglomeration of bureaucratic imperatives) and educational researchers as explorers, surveyors and theorists have changed significantly over the past quarter century.

Changes in each identified area have generated quiet revolutions in the lifetime of educational research. The Code of Ethics, however, like too much of education at the institutional level perhaps, has been revised rather than rewritten to accept the changed realities.

To develop a culturally responsive Code of Ethics for AARE requires a complete rethinking and redefinition of the current meaning of the term educational research and its intentions and a reconceptualisation of the term cultural sensitivity. The remainder of this paper proposes some preliminary thoughts on this perhaps dramatic reconceptualisation or beginning with a brief discussion of what we believe are the immediate implications of such a move.

Implications of Reconceptualisation

As has previously been discussed, the need for a Code of Ethics derives from a need for self regulation; a recognition that current practice is flawed and that practitioners need to be brought to acceptance of a morally reasoned socio-legally defensible code of practice.

The establishment of the NHMRC guidelines as an industry standard and as a defence against unscrupulous practice in the field of medical research has been accepted, largely uncritically, by the AVCC as an "industry standard" for human ethical research. Its close alignment with similarly developed codes of practice in the USA has presented a supportive mantle of authenticity to the adoption which has been hard to counter or even to amend (We note with approval the proposed and overdue review of this practice).

If and when educational research is reconceptualised as a shared pursuit of common good between the researcher and the individual or community involved in the research, ethics codes and committees will become effectively redundant. This is unlikely to meet with institutional approbation as it has a spin off effect onto competitive funding bodies and to institutions dependent for funding on the singular power of these bodies.

Guidelines for development of inclusive and culturally sensitive educational research

1. Negotiating rights to research with individuals and/or a community

As has previously been discussed, the term 'community' has become as complex as the multicultural situation of Australian society itself. Notwithstanding, the need of educational research to be undertaken in collaboration with, and for the benefit of the community identified by the educational researcher or research body, must remain paramount in the development of a new code of ethical practice.

Redefining community to require communication between the researcher, directly and personally, and all of the individual stakeholders, individually and collectively, demands an initial and personal registration of entry to the research site or community. It involves the expenditure of research time in negotiation and of community time in establishing the credentials of the potential researcher, the precise nature of the research, the procedures by which collaboration between community and researcher will be established and maintained, the members of the community who will be working in collaboration as part of the research team,the ownership of the research and the level of benefit which might reasonably accrue to the community as a consequence.

2. Collaboration with Community in Research

Success in gaining access to a community research site is determined in small part by establishing the credentials of the principal researchers. Of increasing consequence is the reasonable community demand for a detailed accounting of the benefit to be drawn by the community from involvement with the research project (ABC Life Matters, 6 Nov 96).

The difficulty involved in establishing an effective collaborative, non-disruptive research presence in a community - whether it be institutional, cultural, religious or general (or a mix of all of these) suggests that a collaborative research agreement involving community members as key members of the research team is integral to success and essential to ethical procedure in educational research.

The existing Code of Ethics required the need to "avoid disruption of institutional processes". It has long been acknowledged that a participant observer disturbs the exploration site (eg Deutcher, Strauss, et al). More recently, it has been acknowledged that the presumption of cultural homogeneity between observably similar sites is more likely is more likely to be an artefact of researcher insensitivity than reality (eg Glover & Black-Gutman, 1996).

3. Ownership and Publication

Assumptions of ownership necessarily engender notions of power. Ethical research in education seeks the empowerment of the community with which it collaborates. In consequence, the research data, findings and publication decisions remain the possession of the research team. As the team is a collaboration between community and researcher, the research itself is a possession of the team.

Publication decisions must necessarily derive from the collective consciousness of the team. Contrary to the existing Code of Ethics wherein "all those and only those who have made substantial creative contributions to a product are entitled to be listed as authors of that product", the product is, instead, the property of the collaboration. Permission to work with the community for its own "general welfare" is implicitly based on the presumption that publication within the community is the only publication necessarily sanctioned by such a collaboration.

This complicates the position of the researcher as we have traditionally defined it. The "secret research into adolescent dating behaviour" may be secretly published (from an adolescent viewpoint) in a journal of social or psychological educational research and have no direct impact on the "willingness of your people to speak freely to each other about their feelings". On the other hand, publications of the same data whether gained secretly or collaboratively (as described above) may have a devastating effect if published within the adolescent community from which the data derived. Questions of privacy, taboos and rights of disclosure become paramount in such a discussion.

The recent "Hindmarsh Island Bridge" affair can be seen as an iceberg exemplar of the ethical problems surrounding community ownership and publication of research findings. Women's business cannot be revealed to men but bridge construction, political decision making and financial benefit, in this case, are men's business. Similarly women's health in an Islamic community is not men's business as the training of health professionals and research into health trends among Islamic women as a gendered community concern. The publication of findings from such research must be seen, again, as a community responsibility - a community which now involves the researcher(s) in a necessarily gendered collaborative team. What was simple enough in the 1995 Code of Ethics is no longer adequate if an inclusive and culturally sensitive code is to be established.


Research may well be "directed towards the enhancement of some human good or goods" but the subject of this paper is educational research. The issues arise from consideration of cultural sensitivity in a complex multicultural society and from the need to redefine research in terms other than the linear deconstructive paradigm with its connotations of empowered researcher and supplicant "participant". Instead we need to see research as a negotiated enterprise seeking to empower the community or enhance its educational good by investigation of a problem identified within the community.

The researcher(s) having personally gained permission to enter into collaboration with the community (individually and collectively) to research the agreed problem will negotiate the terms and conditions of data collection, data treatment analysis and publication with the community. Ownership of the research will reside with the community through its representative in the research team and publications will be negotiated to the common good of the researcher and the community.

What we propose is that the 1995 Code of Ethics be rewritten as a set of inclusive guidelines, recognising the rights to self-determine one's participation in all phases of the research process of any individual or groups in our increasingly diverse society.

Paper prepared for Australian Association of Educational research in collaboration with Dr Dasia Black-Gutman, Australian Catholic University, Sydney, 1997. Presented to Australasian Research Conference in Singapore, 1997.


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