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Ethical Concerns on a Research Project

Sarah Parkinson

The challenges:

  • How to decide when to remove oneself from a research project due to ethical concerns
  • How to informally report on policy processes and retain policy relevance even while disengaging from a specific project

The background and policy setting:

Parkinson earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago in 2013. She researches organizational behavior and social change during and after war, with a regional focus on the Middle East and North Africa. Of note for this reflection is her research on humanitarian organizations and community reconciliation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

Parkinson engaged with a major US-based humanitarian NGO operating in the KRI and the Nineveh Plains region of Iraq during and following the Mosul operation. She had a longstanding positive relationship with the Middle East regional lead for the organization. Parkinson agreed to a research and consulting exchange through embedded work on the ground in Iraq office of the NGO. She spent a total of 7 weeks on the project: 2 weeks observing in 2016, and 5 weeks embedded with teams on a specific project in 2018. Parkinson’s role in the 2018 project was to help with interview design, site selection, and the incorporation of more robust research methodology for the NGO, to support its goal of shaping how the organization behaved and thought about how it worked in the region.

Parkinson would consult on the project and have access to baseline, midline, and endline survey data from the project on peace and reconciliation in the Nineveh Plains. In exchange for the data access, she administered a methods workshop on how to interview, how to do observations, and how to do site research. An established goal was to give local aid workers a particular skillset they could use across projects and throughout their careers. An important part of this exchange was that Parkinson operated within multiple levels of consent. Her research design was situated within overlapping IRBs. The original IRB allowed her to ask local policymakers and humanitarian program implementers how they worked, and the second IRB allowed her, among other things, to work embedded with teams on specific projects. As part of the second IRB, Parkinson got consent from the country office head and from the Middle East regional office; however, the local Project Manager refused consent for Parkinson to observe the project work. Parkinson felt—and was straightforwardly told by another Project Manager—that this refusal was not based on intellectual principles but, instead, motivated by the manager’s own political, professional, and personal goals. Parkinson gave briefings on site selection and provided methods training to uphold her end of the exchange, but ultimately, the relevant Project Manager did not provide the data or consent. So, Parkinson did not conduct research.

The engagement:

In 2018, Parkinson spent 5 weeks in Iraq. She was sponsored by the humanitarian aid NGO, which arranged for her to stay in safe places given the heightened security context, but she paid for her own flights, housing, and visa. Her understanding with the regional head was that she would accompany humanitarian workers on projects, observe them, and give feedback. The larger project studied ethical communities of practice in conflict zones and asked, “How do humanitarian workers, journalists, and academics negotiate the everyday ethics of working in conflict zones?” This was meant to assess both what issues arise day to day, and how workers negotiated them.

Parkinson was able to talk and write about the groundwork for US and Europe based humanitarian organizations through her first IRB, and ground level local employees were willing and interested in participating in the research and talking with her. In 2018, she was able to conduct follow-up work on the 2016 IRB, but she was not able to conduct the embedded project work included in the 2018 IRB per refusal of consent.

Upon arrival in Iraq, Parkinson recognized the Project Manager had no Middle East experience, in terms of language or demographic understanding. The Project Manager had been hired to apply a project from Southeast Asia and Northern Africa and implement it in the Nineveh Plains, despite the fact that the former project was not implemented in a conflict area. The community sites selected for project implementation in the Nineveh Plains were intended to be those communities that needed it most, namely those looking for reconciliation. Parkinson prepared briefings on various communities, their populations, their economies, and their histories, based on instructions from the Regional Head. The Project Manager, however, selected sites reflecting US and local political incentives. Parkinson proposed alternative sites and was refused by the Project Manager. Beyond the project manager’s interference, Parkinson noted a rigging of the system to ensure the project would be seen as successful, the prioritization of personal organizational politics, and basic failures in design such as inadequate language provisions. Parkinson assumed she would be able to observe and collect baseline, midline, and endline data as agreed. She was told at the start of the project that she could add questions to these survey measures and proceeded to choose 3 open-ended questions. When she delivered the questions to the team, she was informed that open-ended measures were unnecessary because they already knew that the project would succeed. Parkinson’s assessment was that the answers to the research questions and the results of the project were being determined by asking questions that necessarily led to specific answers. In part, this may have been due to the duress that the Iraqi aid project felt during the Trump administration as they were constantly under threat of being cut off. Additionally, Parkinson noted that organizational and personal politics got in the way when local workers attempted to change measures to better reflect appropriate research design. Humanitarian organizations needed to show success, but there was a core disagreement over whether this project could be successfully carried over into a new space. This played into site selection and organizational politics. Parkinson also noted that regardless of these factors, local communities were attuned to the financial structures of humanitarian aid and were aware that providing certain answers to closed questions would get their communities money. This was reinforced by the survey design itself. The project intended for the community reconciliation surveys to be conducted in English and Arabic, but Parkinson argued that these languages did not comprehensively represent the languages spoken in the communities, such as Assyrian, Kurmanji, and Sorani.

What were the implications of the engagement?

Parkinson chose to abandon the project and disengage for ethical reasons after she and the Project Manager visited a site that Parkinson evaluated as non-viable, and that the Project Manager wanted to portray as viable. The town was in a sensitive area, demographic changes meant it no longer technically fit the project’s scope, and local employees of the organization noted its inappropriateness. The Program Manager articulated that the organization would implement the program at the site regardless.  

Parkinson decided to disengage from the organizational component of the research project entirely. To disengage from this research project, Parkinson wrote to the Regional Head summarizing her work experience and left Iraq before the baseline survey was conducted. She does not consider her work with the organization as research. This was reinforced by a managerial member of the project calling her a “volunteer,” specifically revoking the category of research, and asserting that they viewed her as an unpaid consultant. Parkinson reflected that there were deep structural issues and one individual – the Project Manager – that served as gatekeepers to research. She thinks that without the Project Manager’s involvement she would have had better safety, better access, and accurate professional representation of her contributions, but that the project generally would not have moved forward differently.

Only select conversations that fell outside the project’s organizational component were covered by Parkinson’s IRB and could be used for research. An important part of this project was that it was designed as a quid pro quo exchange. It was very clear that this was an exchange, rather than just an extractive research process. The refusal of consent was important for the exchange because Parkinson could not embed in the project without the manager’s consent. The exchange structure limited what she could do in terms of research, and it was only through other provisions of both her IRBs that she was able to do research in this context at all.

This in combination with the ethical concerns Parkinson had over site selection, survey design, and project management led her to walk away from the project as she initially conceived of it and choose not to pursue publications based on her work with the organization. She reflects that this is not an option most scholars have in academia, due to the structure of the field in terms of personal academic projects and grant budgets that further one’s career through prestigious involvement.

She shifted her mindset to other possibilities, such as informing engagement with humanitarian policy circles in Washington D.C. through a comparative lens. Parkinson reflected that there are built environments of humanitarianism that shape how you interact in countries as an affiliate of an organization. Being in these spaces that are unfamiliar does allow researchers to leverage their experiences through things like taking daily field notes. Parkinson reflects that in projects and engagement such as her experience in Iraq, one must ask, “What are the things you can do to be constantly generating data even when you don’t think you are, or it’s not the data you are after?” Even when experiences like this might not be publishable in academic journals, they are often still useful to policymakers.

Parkinson notes that policy relevance can be about stepping away and disengaging from projects and informally reporting on policy and research instead. In the Middle East and policy spaces where collaboration as described is incentivized, there are good reasons to do research with questions that are closed-ended or Lichert Scale with open-ended responses and asking how surveys are understood versus interviews in order to gather valid data. Yet sometimes a researcher must decide to remove themself from a project due to ethical concerns, despite the funding and publishing incentives that exist in academia and act as barriers to ending a project early. In Parkinson’s case, local workers noted how her research expertise was being used as free consulting and how her work was being deliberately misrepresented. Ultimately it was through her extensive relationships in the area and prior information from fieldwork that she identified the problems that made research impossible and could move to more productive endeavors. Parkinson consulted with the head of the Johns Hopkins University Homewood IRB before sharing this experience.

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