Rethinking ethics review from a decolonial perspective

A- A A+

It is broadly agreed that scholars bear ethical responsibilities for their research. While formal standards in academia are primarily concerned with the integrity of research outputs (plagiarism, data manipulation) and direct safety risks facing researchers and their subjects (as in medical trials), some scholars advocate moving beyond Eurocentric standards in research ethics.

Critical scholars, in particular, warn against extractivist research. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, an indigenous scholar and artist (and member of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg nation), equates it with stealing: “taking without consent, without thought, care or even knowledge of the impacts that extraction has on the other living things in that environment.” Recognising this, critical scholars foreground the ethics of care and reciprocity and the responsibility to maintain meaningful, empowering relationships with communities. They embrace self-reflexivity and collaborative praxis, acknowledging that a researcher’s positionality (being white, say, or being a woman) influences interactions with interlocutors.

In most cases, however, ethics review processes—which anyone working on ‘human subjects’ must typically undertake—do not address questions of reflexivity or relationality. Strongly informed by medical research, ethics review in social sciences tends to adopt a clear separation between researcher and participants, and a highly rationalised understanding of ‘informed consent’—but also of which sites are safe or unsafe to work in, and which communities are trustworthy.

In spring 2023, the EUI’s Decolonising Initiative launched a workshop series, Rethinking Ethics Review: Decolonial Thinking in Praxis. The takeaways summarised here challenge Eurocentrism relating to risk assessment, consent, and knowledge co-production.

Challenging assumptions: Who is at risk and why?

Who is typically at risk in academic projects, and who should assume responsibility for potential risks? Invited speaker and political scientist Ester Sigillò noted first that risk assessment is processual and ought to move beyond the one-size-fits-all approach and the mere completion of forms. Because a risk assessment is subject to socio-political changes, constantly open to contradictions and iterations, it should be treated as a ‘living document’. She urged researchers to think of fieldwork as made up of many relationships—with participants, institutions, translators, assistants, among others. Researchers must constantly assess how their role, access, and positionality may vary in such a dynamic setting, an exercise that Sigillò calls “stakeholder mapping”. It is also useful to differentiate between a threat—concrete harm to a person or property—and a risk—the likelihood that such threat could materialise and the potential consequences.

EUI Ethics Committee member Sarah Nouwen questioned the misleading assumptions that inform the process of identifying who is at risk in academic projects. As a rule, she noted, people of colour, the economically disadvantaged, and the Global South(s) are rendered as sources of risk, while white researchers from Western universities are rendered as being at risk. These Eurocentric assumptions then translate into administrative forms, which remain far removed from reality. This approach ignores other, no less important, risks that should be integral to such assessments, such as the risk of extractive research that exploits global inequalities. In this sense, researchers can themselves be sources of risk, depending on the research topic and field strategies.

Furthermore, risk should not simply be equated with travelling to ‘dangerous’ places to conduct research. As EUI Ethics Committee member Fatma Sayed noted, risks can arise in desk research—for example, in digital fieldwork on the black market or extremist groups.

Rather than an administrative burden, scholars can treat the risk assessment as an opportunity to clarify the scope of the research and the ethical responsibilities of researchers and their institutions. As ethical considerations often differ in theory and practice, ethics review and risk assessment are ideally a collective effort, shared by the researcher, their institution, their funder, the participants, and others. Moreover, ethics concerns accompany the researcher before, during, and after fieldwork.

In addition to separating likelihood from impact, it is useful to distinguish among direct, indirect, and contextual threats. To lower the risks, one can focus on reducing their likelihood and their impact, through prevention and mitigation. Then anticipated risks can be matched with mitigation strategies—for example, using encrypting recording device to minimise risks of confidentiality breach.

Consent and reciprocity in the researcher–participant relationship

Interviews take place in social spaces inhabited by power imbalances, as invited speaker Fanny Badache put it. Badache, who has conducted research on conflict, development, and peacebuilding at the United Nations as well as in conflict zones, highlighted that a researcher might feel both dominating (owing to education and expertise) and dominated (due to lack of experience in active conflicts). Interviews conducted online can impact the researcher–participant relationship, potentially dehumanising it and amplifying the researcher’s privilege to conduct fieldwork from a safe place. Moreover, virtual interviews may exclude some participants and impose Western bureaucratic processes on others, especially interlocutors from the Global South, intensifying one-sided researcher–participant dynamics.

It is established practice for interviews to involve a consent-taking procedure, but researchers wishing to avoid Eurocentric standards should seek consent beyond the individuals interviewed. In indigenous communities, this can mean collective consent, obtained through the elders or in the presence of the community. Drafting consent forms in local vernaculars, opting for verbal consent (with variously literate populations) or exempting at-risk people from the consent procedure can be a way to show respect and build trust with the researched communities. As Noora Arajärvi from the EUI Data Protection Office noted (speaking in her personal capacity), to strike a balance between Western and local cultural norms, ethics review boards must become more inclusive in terms of academic background, approaches, and positionalities.

Turning fieldwork into knowledge co-production

While knowledge is a public good, in practice academic publications might further the researcher’s career but provide no meaningful benefit to participants. It is important for researchers to consider how they can ‘give back’ to the communities they study, but what is acceptable practice is situation dependent. Recognising participants in a publication’s acknowledgements can be meaningless for interlocutors, or even risky for those wishing to remain anonymous. Monetary compensation to research participants is appropriate in psychology, for example, but considered taboo and as indicative of subjects’ bias in political science. As a compromise, it may be acceptable to offer non-monetary benefits—paying for coffee or lunch or for the internet connection that a participant needs to take part in the interview.

Researchers can also share their findings with the community, in the form of a policy brief, a translated summary in the local language, organising a workshop with research participants about the findings, or sharing qualitative data. At the same time, the very formulation ‘giving back’ can be problematic, as it is (re)produces a (Eurocentric) transactional approach to research. A better alternative is to think of research as co-production of knowledge, something that is possible when researchers form sustainable alliances with their interlocutor communities and support them in ways that do not directly benefit their research.

Data protection pitfalls

The ethics of actual fieldwork encounters can diverge from or even subvert legal frameworks for the protection of personal and sensitive data. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) translates into practices such as ethics review clearance, submitting a privacy statement, or obtaining consent via consent forms. However, as Arajärvi explained, the GDPR does not exempt researchers from complying with local ethical standards at fieldwork sites. For instance, in Uganda, national authorities prescribe their own ethical assessment procedures. Conversely, lower data protection standards in the country of research are not an excuse to relax compliance with data procedures.

Some data protection challenges are discipline- and context-specific. For instance, while opinions alone do not qualify as private information, the context in which the opinion is voiced might point to a participant’s role in an organisation and thus identity. Or, the researcher and her academic community may have an interest in making private details visible, so as to excavate identities of indigenous peoples erased by colonial archives. In a final example, masking through pseudonymisation, while necessary, can sometimes conceal socially meaningful information or imply that a single case is generalisable.

Despite the limitations of a workshop organised by mostly European or ‘Western’ scholars, we feel that the participants’ reflections offer productive ways forward for both researchers and institutional actors. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  To echo the title of the workshop, in order to decolonise ethics, we need to decolonise knowledge production as a whole. Only by questioning our own preconceptions and those of the academic system, and by nourishing closer collaborations, will we be able to produce more equitable research.


Raghavi Viswanath (LAW), Anastasia Prokhorova (SPS), and Ophelia Nicole-Berva (SPS) are members of the Decolonising Initiative and PhD researchers at the EUI.