One reason for the recent hiatus in my posts on here is that, a little while ago, I fell down a metaphoric rabbit hole.
What literally happened was that I received an e-mail informing me that, if a grant application for which I was in the process of applying was successful, I would have to complete an ethical review before the project began because (and I quote) the project ‘involves any personal stories (even if the person is no longer alive)’. This prompted me to enquire whether this review was necessary because the project’s outputs* were to be broadcast rather than published or if this was true of all projects involving personal stories. It turns out that this requirement is true of all projects involving personal stories of all, including those who have been dead for less than 100 years. I was completely unaware of this fact and, as a result, have been scrambling to apply for a retrospective review for my research project which has formally been running for 18 months (ethical reviews are supposed to occur before the project actually starts).
The result has been that I find myself tangled in something of a surreal mess. How, for instance, do I answer the question ‘Will participants be taking part in the research without their knowledge and consent?’? The subjects of my research are dead. They are, by definition, unable to give consent of any sort, let alone informed consent. Is the archiving of the material I am using enough to presume consent on the part of the subject? Even when the donor of the material is a descendant rather than the creator of the material? I have always assumed this to be the case, not because of any ethical review carried out into my research methodology but because archived material comes under intellectual property (IP) protocols. As a result, I need to get the necessary copyright clearance to actually publish anything I use from archival sources and copyright passes on to the descendants of the creator of the document. This is why so many acknowledgements in historical monographs contain phrases like ‘Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders of the materials quoted’. The further away from the date of donation we get, the more tenuous are links with the copyright holders and many archives have lost touch with the holders over the years. Most archives have in place a system whereby material can be used even if direct permission has not been gained but every effort has been made by the author to gain it. Such efforts can be quite complex. For instance, the copyright of personal letters held by the National Archive (NA) remains with the descendants of the writer. Official documents (anything written for a government department or agency) comes under Crown Copyright. So a letter from a disabled ex-serviceman to the Officers’ Awards branch of the Ministry of Pensions has a private copyright holder who must tracked down, while the response from the official is easily cleared through Crown Copyright.
All of which is possibly fascinating but a matter of IP, not ethics. And while it helps to address concerns over the misrepresentation of archived material, it doesn’t answer the question of how informed consent to participate in a study is to be given by the dead. All the protocols I have read around the subject (data protection, informed consent, verbal informed consent, reimbursement and low-risk observation) deal with living subjects only, raising issues which certainly have relevance for those using oral histories but having little to say to someone whose work is entirely archive-based. So I am going to have to send my form off to the review committee and hope for the best. And start seriously considering shifting my research focus to the Napoleonic Wars, or possibly surreal children’s literature.
*Apologies for the use of bureaucratic language. A month of writing grant applications has had a bad effect on me. Normal service should hopefully resume shortly.