4.2 Knowledges and Traditions

Jemma Llewellyn; Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Tina Bebbington; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt

When you think of the word “research,” what kind of images come to mind? Rows and rows of books? A person, perhaps a student, wearing glasses, sitting at a mahogany table, piled with books and notebooks, pen in hand, ready to take notes? There is some truth to these stereotypical images, but the origin of much of the research you use in your assignments often involves real human subjects participating in complex studies. Other types of research involve observing phenomena or tracking outcomes. Yet other forms of research test facts for accuracy or fill a social or cultural need.

Our point here is that research involves gathering data, which often requires researchers to interact with human subjects. If they are doing this type of research, then researchers have to apply for permission to study human subjects through what is often called an Ethics Office, which every university in Canada has and which operates under the strict direction of the federal government. If a researcher or research team violates codes of research ethics, they can lose their funding or worse. You may have already received official looking letters asking you to fill out a survey or participate in interviews or some other method of data collection! These letters often contain a statement that the study has been given approval by the Ethics Office. This means the study follows strict protocols (explained more fully below). Once the data has been gathered, then researchers write up what they found and publish it after rigorous review processes. These publications are the articles and books that you look up in library databases and catalogues. So far so good, this all seems pretty benign.

The truth is that research has the potential to be highly invasive, unethical, and occasionally criminal. Prior to intervention, protest, and resistance predominantly by unrepresented academic communities (such as, Black-Canadian, South Asian, or Indigenous scholars whose communities often suffered from unethical research practices), academic research did not undergo the type of rigorous scrutiny and review that it does now. This lack of intensive oversight meant that certain research projects caused serious, long-lasting damage. One horrific example of such crimes were the nutrition experiments performed in Residential Schools between 1948 and 1952.

Please note that this story contains details that may be upsetting. These experiments used Indigenous children as subjects to study the effects of malnutrition. Residential School survivor Russel Moses described his experience as being in constant hunger to the point where children hunted for food in pig swill.[1] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission discovered that the Federal Government endorsed this research, and the consequences for Indigenous health have been far-reaching and inter-generational:

The full cost of that decision has yet to be reckoned. Take the diet described by Russel Moses which, we estimate, describes a maximum of 1260 kcal/day. The same is true of other survivor accounts we have analyzed, which suggest that well-fed students were the exception — not the rule — at these schools and that, for most of their history, the average daily caloric intake tended to range between 1000 and 1450 kcal/day at a typical residential school.[2]

There are other examples of academic research violating research ethics. Famous cases include the government funded Tuskegee public health study[3] that left Black men in the U.S. infected with syphilis and untreated without their knowledge or the Milgram obedience studies[4] that did not brief participants fully enough on what to expect. These abuses caused public outrage and as a result, strict ethical guidelines have been established to ensure that such abuse does not happen again.

The following are the minimum guidelines that all researchers, including you, need to know and adhere to whether you are conducting research with human subjects or not [#1]:

Researchers shall strive to follow the best research practices honestly, accountably, openly and fairly in the search for and in the dissemination of knowledge. In addition, researchers shall follow the requirements of applicable institutional policies and professional or disciplinary standards and shall comply with applicable laws and regulations. At a minimum, researchers are responsible for the following:

  • Rigour: Scholarly and scientific rigour in proposing and performing research; in recording, analyzing, and interpreting data; and in reporting and publishing data and findings.
  • Record keeping: Keeping complete and accurate records of data, methodologies and findings, including graphs and images, in accordance with the applicable funding agreement, institutional policies, laws, regulations, and professional or disciplinary standards in a manner that will allow verification or replication of the work by others.
  • Accurate referencing: Referencing and, where applicable, obtaining permission for the use of all published and unpublished work, including theories, concepts, data, source material, methodologies, findings, graphs and images.
  • Authorship: Including as authors, with their consent, all those and only those who have made a substantial contribution to, and who accept responsibility for, the contents of the publication or document. The substantial contribution may be conceptual or material.
  • Acknowledgement: Acknowledging appropriately all those and only those who have contributed to research, including funders and sponsors.[5]

Don’t let this list intimidate you. And especially do not let the opening discussion of research violations dampen your enthusiasm for research. We all conduct research each and every day—from looking up where to eat to investigating the latest game console. Academic research is a more specialized form of research where the stakes can be quite high, but the rewards—both personally and socially—are many. The standards listed above should add clarity to your work as an undergraduate student. All researchers, at every level, are expected to follow responsible conduct for research, such as giving credit through accurate citational practice and honest representation of research.

Ethical research practices mean that academics and students, like the authors of this textbook, need to listen when scholars tell them (us) how to engage with not only Indigenous scholarship, knowledge, research, history, language, and understanding but also any knowledge outside of our own communities.[6] To explain by way of example, when the late and much missed editor and scholar, Dr. Greg Younging, a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, explains why Canadian publishing needs to consult with Indigenous peoples when they are going to be represented in various academic and non-academic genres, the academy needs to listen:

Indigenous writers, editors, and publishers have asserted that the experience of being an Indigenous person is profoundly different from that of other people in North America. Many Indigenous Peoples and authors have cited cultural appropriation, misrepresentation, and lack of respect for Indigenous cultural Protocols as significant problems in Canadian publishing. Indigenous Peoples have frequently taken the stand that they are best capable of, and morally empowered to, transmit information about themselves. They have the right to tell their own story. When an author is writing about them—even in established genres such as anthropological studies, history, and political commentary—Indigenous Peoples would at least like the opportunity for input into how they are represented on the page.[7]

And when Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Ngāti Awa Ngāti Porou, explains that Indigenous ways of knowing are not vanishing or of the past, rather, myths about communities and culture disappearing were largely spread through academic research, all non-Indigenous peoples need to listen:

While Western theories and academics were describing, defining and explaining cultural demise, however, indigenous peoples were having their lands and resources systematically stripped by the state; were becoming ever more marginalized; and were subjected to the layers of colonialism imposed through economic and social policies. This failure of research, and of the academic community, to address the real social issues of Maori was recalled in later times when indigenous disquiet became more politicized and sophisticated.[8]

As settler academics, librarians, writing centre staff, and university administrators, those of us who have created this textbook are listening (and still learning to be effective allies to students, our own communities, and those from communities other than our own). As you work your way through this chapter, your course, and even your life, remember that research of any kind is not innocuous and benign. It’s an ever evolving process and you are now a part of this process as a researcher.

  1. Ian Mosby and Tracey Galloway, “‘Hunger was never absent’: How Residential School Diets Shaped Current Patterns of Diabetes Among Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” CMAJ 189, no. 32 (2017): e1043, https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.170448.
  2. Mosby and Galloway, “‘Hunger was never absent’,” e1044, https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.170448.
  3. “The Tuskegee Timeline,” U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last reviewed March 2, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm.
  4. Stephen Behnke, “A Classic Study, Revisited,” Monitor on Psychology 40, no. 5 (May 2009): 76, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/05/ethics.
  5. Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Tri-Agency Framework: Responsible Conduct of Research (Ottawa: Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research, 2016), https://rcr.ethics.gc.ca/eng/framework-cadre.html.
  6. While we are specifically focused on including in a respectful manner Indigenous ways of knowing, we also recognize that any culture other than the one you belong to requires you to be respectful and thoughtful. If you are not Black, for example, but you are studying the history of Black-Canadian culture in Nova Scotia, then you should turn to scholarship by Black-Canadians and/or scholars who are cited by and respected in the Black-Canadian community. This is where chatting with your instructor and a relevant research librarian is a good idea.
  7. Greg Younging, Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples (Edmonton: Brush Education, 2018), 2.
  8. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London, UK: Zed Books, 2012), 161.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada by Jemma Llewellyn; Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Tina Bebbington; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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