13.5 Ethical practice in research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Ethical research practice ensures that research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is done in collaboration with relevant communities in a culturally sensitive way. Historically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been the focus of inappropriate and disrespectful treatment by non-Indigenous researchers, including treatment as sub-human specimens of study. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were described as a physically and intellectually inferior ‘race’ and their remains displayed in museums in Australia and abroad (Malin, Franks & CCRE Research Course Development Committee 2007, pp. 16–17).

13.5.1 Critical success factors

Critical success factors include:

  • research is led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and involves community partnerships
  • collaborative relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are established and inform all stages of research activity, including conception, design, conduct and application
  • intellectual property rights are recognised, which includes a culturally safe research environment, a commitment to equal partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and a demonstrated benefit from the research activity for participating communities.

13.5.2 Key challenges

Key challenges include:

  • developing the systems and resources to embed ethical research principles and practice, including governance and cultural competency of researchers
  • overcoming negative perceptions and gaining the trust of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • dedicating the time and resources necessary to build and maintain quality relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

13.5.3 Examples

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies – Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies

In 2011, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies released the Guidelines for ethical research in Australian Indigenous studies following sector consultations. The guidelines outline good practice to assist researchers to conduct research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The guidelines identify 14 principles for ethical research and incorporate recent legislative changes relating to the cultural rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Eleven principles of practice are articulated:

  • consultation, negotiation and free and informed consent are the foundations for research with or about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • responsibility for consultation and negotiation is ongoing
  • consultation and negotiation should achieve mutual understanding about the proposed research
  • Indigenous knowledge systems and processes must be respected
  • there must be recognition of the diversity and uniqueness of peoples as well as individuals
  • the intellectual and cultural property rights of Indigenous peoples must be respected and preserved
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers, individuals and communities should be involved in research as collaborators
  • use of, and access to, research results should be agreed
  • a research community should benefit from, and not be disadvantaged by, the research project
  • negotiation of outcomes should include results specific to the needs of the research community
  • negotiation should result in a formal agreement for the conduct of a research project, based on good faith and free and informed consent.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies reports that the guidelines are used in some form within a number of universities, some research agencies, and groups such as professional associations and government departments. The guidelines can be downloaded via the AIATSIS website..

National Health and Medical Research Council – Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research and Criteria for Assessment of Proposals

The National Health and Medical Research Council Guidelines for ethical conduct in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research assist researchers to develop research proposals relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The guidelines supplement the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. Together these documents provide an authoritative statement on ethical research practice involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on health issues. They provide guidance to researchers and human research ethics committees on the conception, design and conduct of research.

The guidelines identify six core values:

  • spirit and integrity
  • reciprocity
  • respect
  • equality
  • survival and protection
  • responsibility.

The guidelines provide advice for human research ethics committees, particularly non-Indigenous committees, and help to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research proposals are assessed and conducted ethically. This includes referring research proposals to a properly constituted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research ethics committee, and creating an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander subcommittee or advisory group with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members.

Examples of ethical research practice in universities

RMIT University

RMIT University demonstrates a commitment to ethical research practice targeting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities by ensuring that all research proposals involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are reviewed and approved by its Human Research Ethics Committee. This is a mandatory requirement of the university’s research process regardless of the level of perceived risk. Proposals are also viewed by the university’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Researcher Network, a subcommittee of the ethics committee. Members of this network include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics and academics with expertise and experience in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research. The university employs a coordinator at the academic Level B to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher degree by research students and improve their understanding of ethical research issues.

Charles Sturt University

Charles Sturt University has processes in place to guide ethical research including a university research code of conduct, an intellectual property policy and a Human Research Ethics Committee. These policies and processes address all research management and administration, including that relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research. The university ensures senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation on the ethics committee to drive accountability and culturally safe and ethical research practice relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research. The university is currently establishing an Indigenous Research Ethics Committee as a subcommittee of the Human Research Ethics Committee, and developing an Indigenous Research Strategy to provide an overarching framework for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research policies, protocols and procedures.

CQUniversity and the Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research

CQUniversity is involved with two Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander initiatives that are underpinned by ethical research practice and demonstrate the benefit of ethical research practice. The Family Behavioural Intervention Program and the annual Indigenous Family Violence Prevention Forum are focused on providing intervention and support to families in the region that are experiencing family violence or youth offending. The initiatives also deliver important employment and higher education opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants.

The Family Behavioural Intervention Program is managed and led by a CQUniversity professor in partnership with a local youth justice service, a community organisation and a school-based consortium. A central pillar of the initiative is ethical research practice, as evidenced by linking research to local community issues, engaging the community directly in the development, operation and evaluation of the program and providing opportunities for staff and clients to undertake higher education including research. The program has been evaluated and findings point to important, long-term benefits for participating communities.

In 2003, the Mackay-based Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research, jointly funded by CQUniversity and the Queensland Government, established an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reference group to guide its domestic and family violence prevention research, professional development and community education initiatives. Another key achievement of the partnership is an annual Indigenous Family Violence Prevention Forum which brings practitioners and researchers together to discuss key issues associated with family violence in Queensland. The work of the reference group and forum has linked research development and implementation with community-based ‘grassroots’ practitioners and issues. It has helped to break down barriers between academia and communities and provided a safe place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers, practitioners and representatives to share ideas. The local community benefits in a range of ways from this research activity, including through education and employment opportunities available to researchers and workers.