The Ethical Responsibility of Researchers in Community Informatics

Posted on March 11, 2011


As both an academic (and research) discipline and a community (and policy) practice, Community Informatics links a variety of communities and many with a widely varying degree of resources and opportunities.

As a research and academic (teaching) discipline CI draws extensively from the creativity and generosity of communities in sharing their experiences and knowledge as a basis for undertaking research and for providing learners with the opportunity to gain directly from the knowledge and experience of those working directly in and with communities and ICTs.

The relationship is however, often or most generally not an equal one. University teachers and researchers have access to income levels, research supports and infrastructures which are well beyond those available to those working in and with communities. Communities of course, gain from having access to the results of research, being able to draw on the skills of academics and senior students, particularly graduate students who are often able to bridge communities into technologies and resource environments which would otherwise be denied to them. However, their participation and contribution to CI research efforts often represent a considerable drain on already over-strained resources to the point where a number of communities have basically said that they no longer wish to cooperate with outside researchers.

The difficulty also is that research resources and particularly research funding generally is restricted to direct use by researchers (senior or junior) and cannot be used for example, to pay for time on the part of community members who may be participating as “partners” alongside paid researchers or academics who are conducting research as part of their normal academic responsibilities (and compensation schemes). These are significant challenges both for communities and for researchers who with the best of intentions may end up once the research is completed leaving little behind and rendering the communities little better or even worse off than previously or in other instances failing to even acknowledge or contribute to the local communities in ways which are available to them.

Perhaps the worst circumstance is when researchers build up expectations within communities as part of their research efforts and then for whatever reason (often because the funding runs out or because personal research priorities/interests change); and the communities and particularly those most identified with the projects are left high and dry with expectations and often even personal responsibilities within the communities which they have no means of satisfying. This kind of situation can be extremely disruptive and even damaging to communities since they involve the reputations and standing of individuals within their communities.

Since many of those undertaking research within communities are graduate students who may have little experience in these areas, it is incumbent on more senior researchers to be aware of these possibilities and of their ethical responsibilities to their community counterparts and partners including to ensure that they are fully aware of the limitations of the research, that wherever possible they are appropriately compensated (in means meaningful within the community and not simply through, for example academic “acknowledgment”) for their participation and overall that these senior researchers recognize the asymmetry in their relationship with communities and make adjustments to their behaviours accordingly.

Addendum: 13.3.2011 I should have included a pointer to the extremely valuable and comprehensive presentation of ethical issues for CI researchers in Averweg, U. and O’Donnell, S. (2007) “Code of Ethics for Community Informatics Researchers” Special Issue: Community Informatics and System Design, Journal of Community Informatics, Vol 3 No 1