The ethics of research, part I: Introduction

Research on suicide is a delicate matter and involves many ethical issues. The history of suicide may be a delicate matter too, but since in my own study I am concentrating on sources that were produced in the 12th to 14th-century Iceland and are all publicly available as they consist of archived material and academic editions, the first reaction concerning my “test subjects” and “informants” – medieval people who died hundreds of years ago – is usually not ethical concern as it is usually understood in science. For instance, I don’t need to provide support to the “participants” of my project – individuals that appear in medieval sources, who may be either fictive or real depending on the source – or respond sensitively to their needs, or ensure that help is available should the questions I ask from my sources have caused them distress. Nevertheless, ethical issues are of great concern in historical research.

To summarize very roughly, the ethical guidelines of the American Historical Association to historians, for instance, encourage sharing the standard values of the discipline with other historians (e.g. by avoiding ethnocentric analyses), striving for critical dialogue, acknowledging assistance and support – both financial and intellectual – avoiding plagiarism, participating in the transmission of historical knowledge and so on. I will continue addressing the issue ethics & historical research in my later posts, but at the moment I want to start with concerns that especially have to do with this blog of mine, which is, after all, part of electronic and social media, and the policy of open access publication, which has become fairly popular within the academic world in the past few years. And I’m definitely in favour of open access publication since it enables democratic access to academic knowledge, which in many cases is publicly-funded (although for my own part, I am funded by private funds and foundations, i.e. the Ella and Georg Ehrnrooth Foundation and Otto A. Malm donationsfond).

What made me particularly concerned about the ethics of my research with respect to what I write in my research blog or publish in open access journals was the realization that although my role is not similar to media and my blog cannot make a similar impact as the media does, there are “googles” and other search engines that may spread my words to places and destinations I could not realize they could reach. For this reason, I became interested in the guides and recommendations for reporting suicide in media, which have been widely discussed in the media e.g. in connection with celebrity suicides. (See, for example, the examples in the Guardian and BBC News) The main point in the discussion has been that reporting and portraying suicide in media requires great sensitivity since suicides (especially celebrity suicides) may engender copycat behavior – although, on the other hand, responsible and sensitive reporting may reduce the stigma of suicide and prompt people to seek help. Various guides and recommendations produced by institutions and organizations that aim at preventing suicides are available for the media, such as those at Samaritans.org, reporting on suicide.org and euregenas.eu, the latter published by Euregenas (European Regions Enforcing Actions Against Suicide), a three years project that was funded from the European Union under the Public Health Programme in 2008–2013.

In a nutshell (I’m here referring to the Euregenas Toolkit for Media Professionals now), it is recommended that the reporter only sticks to facts, does not place the news item in a prominent place, e.g by mentioning the word “suicide” in the title, points out that suicides are preventable and multi-factorial, respects people who have been bereaved by suicide and gives information about support centers, does not give excessive details concerning e.g. the method, avoids normalizing suicide, or glorifying or dramatizing it, e.g. by suggesting that there is a suicide epidemic, and does not publish any images that can be considered sensational.

For a historian, the requirement “sticking to facts” sounds reasonable. To put it simply: we aim at truth, but simultaneously struggle to define what is truth, but even if ten historians worked on the same problem they could arrive at different conclusions. To cite the “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct”, section 2 by the American Historical Association:

“We honor the historical record, but understand that its interpretation constantly evolves as historians analyze primary documents in light of the ever-expanding body of secondary literature that places those documents in a larger context.”

Scholars who study the history of suicide usually also follow the contemporary discussion on suicide and research done in other disciplines, and accept their views of suicide as a multi-factorial, preventable phenomenon that should not be glorified, normalized or dramatized. If needed, most of us would probably do our job as a fellow human being and help people in finding support centers, should we arrive in a situation that requires such action. Most of us would probably not publish any sensational pictures either.

But: sometimes the sensational is precisely what the historians are studying, and as we scrutinize the historical record we aim at finding as many details as possible. Historians often study what actually happened and when and where, but their research and results may also help us to interpret similar phenomena in our modern world. The past helps us to understand the present. But sometimes the past too can be scary, sensational, horrific, even repulsive.

Although as historians we shouldn’t need to compromise our scholar’s independence, we have to concern ethical issues as we write about and disseminate the results of our work. Toolkits for media professionals are helpful in finding appropriate ways of dealing with the issue in social media, for instance, but the scholar’s independence poses some questions that require pondering. These are questions that I intend to return in my forthcoming posts, along with other questions that come up during my research process.

Sources referred to

Alberti, Fay Bound. “Democratic Access to Academic Knowledge.” Open Democracy, 23 June 2010, https://www.opendemocracy.net/fay-bound-alberti/briefing-on-open-access-and-policy-reform

Allen, Liam. “Robin Williams death: How should the media report a suicide?” BBC News, 13 August 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-28772923

Boseley, Sarah. “Robin Williams death: media has duty to report suicide responsibly.” The Guardian, 13 August 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/13/robin-williams-media-report-suicide

Euregenas (European Regions Enforcing Actions Against Suicide), http://www.euregenas.eu/

Lipscomb, Suzannah. “A Question of Interpretation.” History Today, 28 January 2016, http://www.historytoday.com/suzannah-lipscomb/question-interpretation

reporting on suicide.org, http://reportingonsuicide.org/

Pardi, Paul. “What is Truth?” Philosophy News, 29 January 2015, http://www.philosophynews.com/post/2015/01/29/What-is-Truth.aspx

Samaritans, http://www.samaritans.org/media-centre/media-guidelines-reporting-suicide

“Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct.” American Historical Association, https://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/statements-and-standards-of-the-profession/statement-on-standards-of-professional-conduct

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “The ethics of research, part I: Introduction.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 January 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/01/31/the-ethics-of-research-part-i-introduction/  >

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