Ethics of creation 

By Karen Herland

Magnifying glass

The ethical considerations involved when researchers depend on the participation of other people in their projects are many.

Ensuring that the research results are obtained without coercion, with informed consent and with a clear understanding of risk for all involved is paramount.

How those concepts are applied to research-creation, where participation may include audiences, or researchers might rely on the personal stories or images of others to develop their vision, raise different concerns about representation, vulnerability, potential for harm and the meaning of art.

These were just some of the questions pondered by a group of researchers, graduate students and professors at an all-day study session on ethics and research-creation held on Jan. 16 at Concordia.

The event developed when Ethics Compliance Advisor Brigitte Des Rosiers started discussing the issues with Sandeep Bhagwati, Canada Research Chair for Inter-X Arts. The day of reflection was presented by Hexagram, the Faculty of Fine Arts and the Office of Research.

“We were really happy to initiate this dialogue,” said Acting Director of the Office of Research Carole Brabant. “The timing is good because there is a revised policy statement being introduced by the Tri-Council [CIHR along with NSERC and SSHRC] on the treatment of human participants in research.”

Changes in the policy will necessitate changes in Concordia’s own decade-old policy.

The Tri-Council’s policy was originally based on a fairly strict bio-medical model presuming participation would involve medical experiments, pharmacological research or some form of invasive intervention. Researchers were required to provide strict explanations of their hypotheses, proposed actions and expected outcomes.

That perspective was expanded to address the social sciences research practice where research questions might be addressed collaboratively with community members with less-defined methods and outcomes anticipated at the outset.

Brabant defines the purpose of an ethics policy as providing tools to identify and weigh the potential for benefit or risk to those involved in research projects, and to determine ways to minimize risk. No risk, no need to deliberate. Even if a project is not funded directly by the Tri-Council, once universities enter into agreement with them they are expected to apply their standards to all research projects involving human participants. These standards apply regardless of whether projects receive any funding at all. “It’s a collective responsibility.”

Mary Blackstone, who participated in a working committee on ethics in research-creation commissioned by the Tri-Council, was one of the speakers invited to the Jan. 16 study session. Over 70 research-creators from the Faculty of Fine Arts and the Department of Communication Studies arrived with copies of former and proposed policies and a reading list of related documents and reports.

“I was really satisfied. There was a good turnout and those who were there understood the issues and raised good points of discussion,” said Bhagwati. He shared the day’s facilitation role with educator Devora Neumark, a self-identified artist-activist and current Humanities PhD candidate at Concordia, who he credits as the organizing force behind the event.

Along with Blackstone and Des Rosiers, Université Laval law professor Georges Azzaria touched on legal definitions of what constitutes an artistic work, how authorship is defined (and protected) and the legal definition of consent in terms of participation in artistic projects.

“Sometimes ethical rules and laws just don’t match. You can be very ethical and go against the law and vice versa,” he said.

His comments also addressed how traditional concepts of citation of other people’s work might be applied in situations where the work being incorporated is visual or aural (as in collage or sampling).

“We’ve already moved from discussing human ‘subjects’ to ‘participants’: That’s an indication of how the philosophy is changing,” said Brabant. Des Rosiers added whereas ethical questions used to be limited to the safety and dignity of those involved, especially those deemed vulnerable, in recent years, “the concept has evolved to new levels of vulnerability related to community.” In other words, if an individual consented to being depicted in a stereotypical or unflattering light, can the community or population represented be seen to suffer harm?

Bhagwati pointed to the need for Concordia, with a large fine arts Faculty, to provide perspective in the discussion. Des Rosiers suggested it would be counter-productive to opt out of a debate that has already begun. “It would make better sense to make sure that ethics in research policies take into account the specificity of art-based research.”

The Faculty’s Associate Dean of Research and International Relations Lynn Hughes suggested raising ethical concerns in Concordia’s graduate-level fine arts classes. “We could take a leading role, no one else seems to be discussing ethics in relation to creative practices in university curricula in Canada, or in the broader artistic community.”

She saw numerous subtle questions abut the role of artists implicit in the discussion, “The question is how to have an ethical practice without shutting down artistic practices that, for example, choose to be provocative in order to focus and stimulate public debate.”


Concordia University