Building Ethics Tools for Research-Creation

Bryn Williams-Jones describes the field of research-creation and shares his experience with building ethical tools to support responsible conduct in research-creation.

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In bioethics we have the opportunity to build practical tools that raise awareness and help people make decisions and address the challenges that arise in their professional lives. Over the years, I’ve developed tools for managing conflicts of interest, for my Faculty and University, amongst others, work that was anchored in a research process. In 2016, I headed-up a “Concerted Action” grant from the Quebec Research Fund (FRQ) for a project dealing with the responsible conduct of research in the context of “Research-creation”. What made this initiative so exciting is that it was focused from the start on producing concrete deliverables; and unlike traditional grants, the objectives were oriented by the partner, i.e., the research funder and their Office of Ethics and Legal Affairs.

When I first saw the call for applications, I had no clue what “research-creation” was! I nonetheless jumped at the opportunity because dedicated ethics research funding is a rare creature. I reached out to graduate students and colleagues who were active in this area, and we built an interdisciplinary team that was ultimately successful.

Research-creation is a hybrid field at the interface of academic research and creative activities that is increasingly receiving funding from federal and provincial granting agencies. Researcher-creators come from various fields and disciplines (e.g., fundamental and applied sciences, architecture, design). Their work may include “1) Artistic or creative activities… and 2) The problematization of these activities” as a means of “producing new esthetic, theoretical, methodological, epistemological or technical knowledge.

Photo Credit: Pixabay. Image Description: Creative art portraying human faces.

Research-creation raises some challenging issues about what constitutes responsible conduct. The norms in the arts may involve practices that push or even transgress accepted boundaries; for example, the copying or re-using of material which might be viewed as plagiarism. Research-creation might result in events or exhibitions instead of scientific articles, and so would be very different from the practices of “normal” research. These differences can lead to misunderstandings and even conflict, which if left unaddressed, can undermine the integration of research-creation into the university environment and lead to practitioners being treated unfairly.

To help address these issues, our two-year empirical ethics research project, entitled Responsible Conduct in Research-Creation: Providing Creative Tools to Meet the Challenges of an Emerging Field (2016-2018), sought to understand the perspectives both of researcher-creators and those involved in evaluating their work, such as review or evaluation committees, or research ethics boards. Our project aimed to develop practical tools to promote responsible research conduct in research-creation. We started from the premise that existing norms and ethical guidelines in research ethics and responsible conduct of research, while relevant, would not fully map onto challenges experienced by researcher-creators. To ensure that the resulting tools would be pertinent and useful, they had to be empirically grounded; so we conducted a scoping review of the academic literature, an international online survey, a group discussion with researcher-creators, and a review of relevant institutional policies regarding their integration of creative practices in research. We also hosted a workshop with the research-creation and responsible conduct in research communities to get their help in co-designing the tools.

Initially, we oriented the project around traditional research ethics concerns such as conflicts of interest, or data management, dissemination and evaluation. However, our empirical research showed that the main obstacles encountered by researcher-creators and evaluators emerged from the definition of research-creation itself and from the postures adopted by researcher-creators, and the diversity of practices this encompasses. In light of these findings, we developed a practical Toolbox designed to accompany both the research-creation and responsible conduct in research communities in a shared reflection. We believed that mutual dialogue and shared learning about each other’s perspectives would be more beneficial and help to build greater understanding.

Thinking creatively, and paying attention to issues of design and usability, our Toolbox could be used as a whole, but also as separate pieces for different user-contexts: 1) a responsible conduct in research checklist aimed at researcher-creators; 2) institutional recommendations for improving evaluation practices; 3) twelve misconduct case studies to stimulate reflection; and 4) a podcast on conflicts of interest and commitments.

While these tools explore issues specific to research-creation practices, they are also generalizable to other areas of research. Moreover, instead of adopting a top-down approach that started with institutional policies, we showed the utility of taking a bottom-up approach for promoting practice-specific reflection about responsible conduct in research, as well as considering the best “creative” practices as pathways to responsible conduct in research.

This project is, in my view, a perfect example of how to combine robust empirical ethics research with the development of practical awareness and decision tools. This enthusiasm was shared by the academic responsible conduct in research community at the World Conferences on Research Integrity, where for two years running our project won Best Poster Awards (2017 and 2019)! This project is one of many innovative initiatives being encouraged by Canadian funders to promote the production of practical ethics tools.

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Bryn Williams-Jones is Professor and Director of the Bioethics Program at the School of Public Health, Université de Montréal, heads the Research Ethics and Integrity Group, and is Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Journal of Bioethics/Revue canadienne de bioéthique. @BrynWJones

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