The Ethics Committee at Archaeology: ‘Think ahead before starting your research, that’s the point’
In the past decade many academic journals have started to require that researchers provide evidence of ethical review when submitting papers, for example when working with human participants or human remains.. In order to support researchers to ensure their projects are able to meet these expectations, , the Ethics Committee has been founded. We speak with two of our Faculty’s members, Dr Amanda Henry and Dr Martin Berger about the role and working of this committee.
The Ethics Committee serves both the Faculties of Archaeology and Humanities. ‘It was founded with two main purposes in mind,’ committee chair Amanda Henry explains. ‘The first being to provide a review of projects that deal with human subjects or human remains. The second aim is to foster a more ethical research community at Leiden University. To create awareness of the implications of research, both within as well as outside University.’
‘Personally I think it is a very important role to take on.’ Martin Berger notes. ‘I was the secretary of the the Ethics Committee of the National Museum of World Cultures before, which also included substantial work on human remains and looted archaeological material. While the work done at the Faculty of Archaeology is of course slightly different, the issues are similar. It is all about dealing with other people.’
While there is a vast difference between contemporary societal research and archaeological investigations, the principles of ethics are the same. ‘What does archaeology of the past mean in the present?’ Martin ponders.
To make things concrete, there are many things the Ethics Committee can help researchers with. ‘Part of our role is that we can assist with GDPR/Privacy Regulation.’ Martin states. ‘The Privacy Officer has a seat on the committee. That is helpful, since none of us really understand these legal frameworks.’
So what would happen if I were digging up a burial mound? ‘Well, before starting your dig you should go to our website and take a look at the checklist.’ Amanda grins. ‘First of all you start with a self-assessment which will help you decide whether you need to send in a full application. There is a form to fill out to describe your project.’ The Committee will check whether you have accounted for potential ethical issues, like who would be responsible for excavated human remains. ‘These forms are primarily meant to help the researcher reflect upon issues before starting a project. Think ahead, that’s the point.’ In the end, every project should do the self assessment, and apply to the Ethical Committee if necessary.
The other goal of the committee is fostering an ethical community within the university. ‘We have started raising awareness of ethical issues within our Faculty, but we hope to do more. There’s a lecture on ethics in the BA3 course Designing Archaeology Research, but we also would like to roll out a checklist document so that students and supervisors can consider these issues for the master’s theses,’ Amanda elaborates. ‘Being an ethics-minded academic is important to focus on in education,’ Martin adds. ‘And not only the part of plagiarism, but more broadly what constitute ethically acceptable forms of research.’
About the Ethics Committee
The Ethics Committee promotes ethical research by providing advice on ethical issues and reviewing all new research conducted by staff in which ethical issues might occur. Are you starting a new research project? By using the checklist, you can determine whether your research needs to be presented to the committee for an ethics review and Statement of Ethical Clearance.