Ethics Roundtable


Ethics Roundtable

We developed this section of PA to respond to questions about co-authorship that have come to the forefront in response to our commitment to community engagement through publishing. Some authors have raised these questions about co-authorship that are timely and important for consideration. We have solicited manuscripts for PA that include multiple authors to adhere to this commitment. This Q&A roundtable includes thoughts from three people who have different views on the questions of co-authorship including engagement, regulatory, and military research concerns. We sent them the following questions based on conversations with prospective authors: 1) In some cases, researchers worry that co-authorship with community members might be dangerous for research participants in politically unstable or violent situations, even when research participants would like to use their real names. How do you respond to this concern? And, 2) what ethical considerations are raised by co-authorship by non-anthropologists who have participated in research who then contribute to published work? Below you will find their thoughts on the questions and a bio for each of them. We will also post this discussion on our blog. Please weigh in with your own experiences and thoughts there.


Sandhya Ganapathy: The PA Ethics Roundtable asks us to consider the ethical implications of co-authorship—specifically between anthropologists and non-anthropologist research collaborators. This type of co-authorship has the potential to transform the practice of anthropology and the epistemologies underlying it. But it also presents ethical challenges that must be addressed.

My take on co-authorship is from one who is a formally trained anthropologist, and my thinking on the matter has evolved. As of yet, I have never co-produced works with people who are also the focus of research inquiries. While it would be easy to chalk this up to my writing and thinking process (I’m most productive alone and at odd hours), it would be more pertinent, revelatory, and honest to acknowledge assumptions I once held about what constituted valid anthropological writing. For years, it had never occurred to me that this type of co-authorship—where research consultants play a central role in analysis, interpretation, or authorship—was an important and valid form of communication, scholarship, and practice. I was not exposed to examples of this as a student. And as a newly minted Ph.D., I felt compelled to create work that academic gatekeepers would deem legitimate. I have long recognized the importance of research collaborators’ knowledge, expertise, and truths, and I have never had qualms about critiquing the discipline and its past and present missteps. However, I confess that I operated under the assumption that anthropological ways of knowing were better suited to interpretation and analysis. I know I’m not alone in this. Acknowledging this is an important step in decolonizing the discipline.

Co-authoring with research collaborators, especially for audiences of other anthropologists and practitioners, can help to reorient anthropological epistemologies and practices. It can inform the types of questions one asks, how one frames research inquiries and deploys theory, and how one applies knowledge generated through research. In some instances, questions that were thought to be of crucial importance to anthropologists and practitioners may need to be rethought or disbanded. Not all anthropological writing need be co-authored. More conventionally written theoretical essays and research reports also have value in their ability to inform, inspire, provoke, and challenge their audiences. However, I am eager to foster platforms whereby research collaborators’ ideas and experiences inform theory (with authorial credit and acknowledgement) rather than just being used to illustrate theory.

There are also ethical considerations to this type of co-authorship, as indicated through this PA Ethics Roundtable. One needs to be cognizant of gradients of power and how writing (co-authored or not) can impact community members, especially in situations of political instability or violence. When research consultants are interested in co-authorship despite political instability or violence, the researcher must also consider the ethical quandary of personally or professionally benefitting from publications that might endanger one’s co-author. In such circumstances, it would be patronizing to try to censor or anonymize research collaborators, especially if they are aware of potential repercussions and want their names and voices to be heard regardless. A possible solution might be for the researcher to make use of institutional ties and social capital to help the research collaborator publish their words independently (rather than co-authored with the researcher). Such ethical quandaries are not easily resolved, but they should not stop us from pursuing co-authorship.


Kerry Fosher:[1] Within our context, one of the primary considerations in co-authoring applied reports or scientific publications is that our research participants are working with a different set of constraints than we are. For example, while I am protected by academic freedom policies, military or civilian employees from a different organization may not be. We offer research participants and other collaborators a range of different ways their work contribution can be acknowledged. Sometimes, they choose co-authorship; sometimes they are listed as a contributor or in some other way. It has taken some time to carve out a range of different options that are acceptable to participants and publishers, but the effort has been worth it.

Conversely, we also are careful about co-authoring work where the primary author is one of our research participants. They are at times understandably interested in having a researcher lend weight to a publication or report. However, given the number of ways in which government publications can be reshaped or edited prior to release, we have learned to proceed with caution so that our names are not used to legitimize an idea or proposal we don’t fully support.

While our research participants don’t face these specific types of dangers, there can be risks for their current or post-military careers. We do something similar to a second informed consent process where we talk them through the potential risks. This is especially important when the individual is young or in a junior position. There have been times when we have advised against co-authoring on controversial pieces. In such cases, we try to find an alternative product the participant can co-author.

As with all complex ethical questions, I think the keys are consultation with colleagues and careful conversations with the potential co-author. There is a difficult boundary between looking out for the well-being of a research participant on the one hand and stripping away agency on the other. Ultimately, if the research participant’s contributions to the publication are substantive, it should be her/his call. However, researchers do have a responsibility to ensure the decision is informed by conversation about risks.


Paula Garcia McAllister: From a regulatory point of view, activities that are classified as “scholarly and journalistic activities…that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected” (46.102.l.1) are not required to be overseen under human subjects protection because they do not fall under the category of “research.” For anthropologists, this means that oral histories and interviews with individuals are not subject to the human subjects protection rules, such as IRB review, of the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP). For the participant, this means that the individual’s information is not protected under OHRP rules and regulations.

Ethically, this makes the protection of informants the responsibility of the researcher. As long as a participant understands the risks of having his/her identity revealed in co-authored work, then the researcher should honor the participant’s wish and include it. In such cases, the informed consent form, if there is one, should state the possible risks of having their identity revealed and include a specific sign-off from the participant that he/she understands the risks and accepts them.

Anthropologists should keep in mind that some methods, such as participant observation and ethnography in which investigators gather information from individuals in order to understand the beliefs, customs, and practices of a community or group, DO fall within the scope of the definition of research according to the Office of Human Protections and may require IRB oversight. This is because the information is generalized to the larger population and not just the individuals from whom the information was obtained, thus necessitating IRB oversight, depending on the level of risk.


Kerry Fosher ( is a cultural anthropologist who focuses on issues of science consumption in government organizations and the challenges of professional education institutions. She currently directs the Translational Research Group at Marine Corps University. The group conducts research on Marine Corps organizations and personnel topics, generally in collaboration with military personnel. She was a member of the AAA commission that examined the ethics of working with military and intelligence organizations and continues to speak and publish regularly on ethics and practicing anthropology.


Paula Garcia McAllister (, Ph.D., CIP, has worked in research administration since 2006. She has over ten years’ experience managing institutional review boards in academic and clinical settings. She serves on the PRIM&R Education Committee and Mentoring Program, and she has presented nationally-distributed webinars on the changes to the Common Rule. In addition to having done her own research on the needs of research personnel, she has taught graduate-level courses on research methods and assessment. Her current interests focus on facilitating successful collaborations among diverse research partners from health care, academic, and tribal settings. In all her work, she is committed to assisting researchers and practitioners in the ethical achievement of their research goals.



[1] The perspectives provided here are the author’s alone and do not represent the position of the United States Marine Corps.