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Looking up to research ethics

Please Note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that the website to which the following story refers may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs and printed material. I have not referred to the communities discussed because I did not want to inadvertently invite distress. Visitors to the website should be aware that some material may contain words and descriptions which may not reflect current understanding and be considered inappropriate in today’s context. A link to the site is included via a reference at the end of the story.

The AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research will soon be released and will shape the next chapter of Australian Indigenous research. The Code dictates the conventions and principles that will ensure research has a positive impact for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Written guidelines for Indigenous ethical research have a short history (Humphery, 2003) but – as the following case demonstrates – they are vital to ethical review and good outcomes.

In 1995 Simon Pockley published the first fully online doctorate, a hypertext transmission of his father John Pockley’s written, physical and photographic records of an expedition into Central Australia in 1933 and a later return trip in 1977. John Pockley’s account of the 1933 expedition includes observations and photographs of his encounters with Aboriginal people on the colonial frontier. Simon’s research involved refashioning these records into an online ‘networked narrative’ called the The Flight of Ducks that would remain viable and accessible into the long term. As he carried out his research and worked to build the site, people discovered and started engaging with it and would write to him with questions and comments. Some correspondents protested the ready accessibility of photos of Aboriginal people, places and objects. Simon acted on some of these concerns and began publishing all conversation about the site as satellite stories to his research, where they are still available to view.

In late 1997, Simon submitted his electronic thesis for examination. The University of RMIT Human Research Ethics Committee promptly requested that the site be removed from the University server, concerned that the research might be culturally offensive and that its publication online was ‘at odds with the values associated with material collected from Australian Aborigines in 1933’. The HREC delayed submission and the thesis examiners withdrew. Simon’s subsequent appeal and reckoning with the judgement of the HREC are recorded on the site. The HREC would later permit the assessment to go ahead but the work was so contentious that the thesis was examined in the USA by examiners at UCLA and MIT.

The story of the site’s emergence, morphosis and survival is an extraordinary one. It is an early example of the issues that arise when working with and publishing material in an online and academic setting – particularly material that concerns or impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is remarkable that we can see the rush of correspondence between Pockley and the HREC as it happened and his flurry of requests for advice from other academics, professional staff and practitioners in both research and collecting institutions. We can read the essays of Pockley as he grapples with the complexity of telling a story involving non-Indigenous representations of Indigenous people and culture, as well as his efforts to consult with relevant communities – whose voices remain absent. Pockley and the HREC didn’t have much precedent to work with, and the availability of guidelines, principles and ethical research protocols was limited.

The RMIT HREC reached for the National Health and Medical Research Guidelines on ethical matters in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research (1991) as a standard to appraise Pockley’s research. The Guidelines on ethical matters directed that consultation should be active and ongoing throughout the research process, and that the community should be involved in decisions about the ownership and publication of data. But it was too late, according to one of the committee members, ‘the horse had already bolted’. Pockley reached for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information and Resource Network’s (ATSILIRN) Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services (1995) to make the case that he had actively consulted and had considered the sensitivity of the material he had published. Pockley’s response to the ATSILIRN Protocols are available on the site. The responses represent an uncommon level of engagement with the Protocols (Garwood-Houng & Blackburn, 2014), but the Protocols were never supposed to be used as a compliance checklist. They don’t adequately address the needs of researchers, research participants, ethical review bodies or those involved in research governance. Nor do they support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people engaged in or with the research. Thankfully, today’s researchers, HRECs, Indigenous research participants and communities have more guidance available to promote and drive the ethical and responsible conduct of research in Australia. Research ethics has changed considerably for the better in the twenty-odd years since Pockley began his doctorate.

The upcoming AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research outlines the principles of ethical Australian Indigenous research as well as a guide to applying those principles. It is a revamp of their original guide to the ethical and responsible conduct of research, the AIATSIS Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies (GERAIS). The AIATSIS Code of Ethics will accompany the Australian Code for Responsible Conduct of Research and the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australian Research Council and Universities Australia). All research that concerns or impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must comply with these three documents and any relevant sector specific codes or guides. Guidance is also available for researchers and stakeholders in Ethical conduct in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities (NHMRC) and AH&MRC Ethical Guidelines: Key Principles (2020) V2.0 (Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council). Guidance specifically designed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities engaging with research is available in Keeping Research on Track II (NHMRC).

The AIATSIS Code of Ethics elevates the interests, values, perspectives and wellbeing of Indigenous people in the design and conduct of research. It emphasises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the right to be ‘fully engaged’ in any process, project or activity that relates to them. About what engagement means in practice, the Code’s Guide is definitive: ‘engagement is different from consultation’, instructing that different types of research require different kinds of engagement. For research that involves a particular community, engagement may be realised by e.g. co-designing the project; negotiating a research agreement together that best meets the needs of the community and the project; jointly representing or communicating the project; or joint leadership and/or authorship. Whatever the type or scale of the project, engagement should be viewed as a co-production that is always an ongoing conversation. The Code is clear that Researchers should strive towards ‘a negotiated partnership based on strong decision making and governance’.

Simon Pockley’s research at RMIT may have run different course with the guidance available today. That’s because the AIATSIS Code of Ethics specifically recommends that researchers using collections, archives and datasets that concern or impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should seek guidance from an ethics review committee with experience in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research. The draft Code goes on to say that “It is the responsibility of the researcher and the responsible institution to ensure that any research not submitted to ethical review meets the requirements of the National Statement and this Code, and is ‘ethically acceptable’” (AIATSIS Code of Ethics, page 9). Pockley’s research and the conflagration it caused within RMIT is a circumstance that the draft Code would have helped regulate. The draft Code will push future researchers and research organisations to improve the quality and extent of engagement with relevant communities and improve research outcomes by centering the interests, leadership, consent and involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


AH&MRC Ethical Guidelines: Key Principles V2.0 (2020). Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council.

AIATSIS Code of Ethics. (2019, July 9). Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Garwood-Houng, A., & Blackburn, F. (2014). The ATSILIRN Protocols: a twenty-first century guide to appropriate library services for and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Australian Library Journal, 63(1), 4–15.

Humphery, K. (2003). Setting the Rules: The Development of the NHMRC Guidelines on Ethical Matters in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research. New Zealand Bioethics Journal, vol. 4(1),1419.

Pockley, Simon, “The Flight of Ducks,” ADELTA, accessed May 15, 2020,