What You Can and Cannot Do With Data: speech by Mary Muldowney, Founding Member of the Oral History Network of Ireland

What You Can and Cannot Do With Data: speech by Mary Muldowney, Founding Member of the Oral History Network of Ireland
Realising the Opportunities of Digital Humanities conference
Day 2: Wednesday 24th October 2012
Panel 1: Intellectual Property, Licensing, Copyright
Royal Irish Academy, Dublin
Watch video of panel speeches

Mary Muldowney is speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the OHNI or any organization

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What You Can and Cannot Do With Data

Chair: Seathrún Ó Tuairisg, NUIG PI for the Digital Repository of Ireland:
My name is Seathrún O Tuairisg from NUI Galway and I’ll be chairing this particular panel. I concur with all the previous speakers – I thought yesterday was lovely. I thought there were times when I felt I was floating on bubbles of endless optimism. And for this panel we’re going to be talking about IP: Intellectual Property and Copyright- What You Can and Cannot Do with Data and hopefully we won’t be brought suddenly back to Earth.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to introduce the speakers as they come on and then we’ll have some time for questions at the end. And so without further adieu I’d like to introduce our first speaker, Dr. Mary Muldowney, she’s a research and training consultant. She’s a member of The National Consultation Panel on Cultural Heritage and Global Change at The Heritage Council. She’s also a founding member and director of The Oral History Network of Ireland whose aim is to promote the collection, preservation and use of recorded memories of the past throughout Ireland. She also asked me to mention that they’re undergoing a project at the moment where they’re collecting stories about the legacy of the 1913 lock-out and that they’d be more than willing to listen and collect anything you may have about that particular occasion. So…Mary, thank you.

Speech by Mary Muldowney:

I just want to make sure I’ve got the right presentation. While this is loading can I just say thank you to Sandra and Natalie for the invitation to speak this morning.

I feel I may be slightly misplaced in this incredibly expert panel but I do know what I’m talking about in relation to oral history and as a result of yesterday’s wonderful presentations an area lies that actually that a lot of what we generate is “born digital” data so it’s kind of changed my terms of reference somewhat about what we do in recording interviews.

As Sharon said I’m here primarily as an oral history practitioner but in The Oral History Network we are trying to work with people who use interviews to collect data across social science as well as history. So it’s about trying to promote best practice but also thinking about in particular the ethics of what we do. And to some extent the ethical framework has changed by the digital possibilities that there are out there and I’ll come back to that later.

When I started during Oral History in the 1990’s I read about it quite a bit and I thought well it would be very useful for expanding on the archival sources because my training as an historian from a primary degree perspective was to look at the archive and the documents.

And I realised that because my primary interest is labour history that there were enormous gaps In fact, ordinary, working people generally didn’t appear in a lot of the archival records except as statistics.

We get hidden facts about the past from oral history and we can access individual viewpoints and expertise that wouldn’t be available otherwise.

And of course the whole process of doing oral history collection can allow you to think about the formation of collective memory and what that means for society.

Now as I say here: so far, so safe….and so potentially arrogant because as soon as I actually started doing interviews I realised a very crucial lesson that it was not all about me as the researcher that the interviewee had their own input and of course that should be what directs what we are doing as researchers.

So in terms of the evolution of my own oral history practices was to come to accept at least the shared authority of the interviewee. Actually at this stage I would prioritise the authority of the interviewee because, particularly where you’re using people’s life experience — well that is their life you’re asking them to share with you and ultimately with a public audience they may not be able to identify — so there are ethical dilemmas arising from that.

Mostly we get around it with asking them to sign research consent forms. They’re supposed to be informed about what they’re going to be doing and what they’re taking part in but I have to say in my own practice I think where I’ve erred on the side of caution it would have been in protecting the interests of the interviewees and honouring their wishes. And I’ve occasionally advised people to leave things out of what they’re giving me permission to use because they could be potentially be I suppose dangerous to them in a labour context.

Embarrassing? I tend not to notice but occasionally I have been refused permission to use interviews and to this day I don’t really understand what the problem was but you have to honour the interviewee’s wishes because ultimately best practice in oral history and social science interviewing is based on trust. It’s got to be a collaborative relationship. And it has to be that you establish the trust, you establish rapport but that the interviewee knows that you will go to whatever lengths are required to protect that relationship.

So making recordings available whether they’re digital or otherwise (and they are all digital now really) should be within an ethical and legal framework that protects the interests of the interviewees.

Back in March in this very room The Oral History Network organised a seminar about the ethics and best practice and the law. And Andrea Martin gave an absolutely wonderful presentation which you can read on the website of The Oral History Network. But she referred to the legal framework and the constitutional right to freedom of expression, for a start: the constitutional right to privacy, the law of confidentiality, image rights protection and copyright law and performer’s rights and data protection legislation.

Now I was both awed and intimidated by the range of what I should have been considering but what Andrea also said which really struck me was that conscientious observation of ethical norms will generally protect the researcher in the legal context. And for the most part that is true.

However, can I just remind people who’ve already read this but also others who haven’t: that in oral history practice one of the seminal textbooks, manuals, is Paul Thompson’s Voices of the Past which first came out in 1978 and at that stage what he was doing was challenging the academic establishment and defending the practice of oral history mainly for its legitimacy and its reliability.

And he explained all sorts of aspects of the nature of memory and how it can be useful in doing research. I’m not even going to go into any of that now because I think subsequent experience has totally vindicated the practice of oral history. But an important point that he made was that oral history practice and social science investigation through interviewing really facilitates the social and political purpose of recording history which is to understand the past in order to make changes in the present.

And at another Oral History Network event in Ennis a few weeks ago Anthony McIntyre gave a presentation. Now Anthony McIntyre was one of the researchers on The Belfast Project which is more familiarly known as “the Boston College case”. And he was talking about his own experience in The Belfast Project with forty-odd interviewees –- who came from both sides of the sectarian divide — some of them political activists, some of them paramilitaries, some of them both over a period of years, gave interviews to the three interviewers there.

And the intention at the time was that their interviews would be put aside until they either died or gave permission for them to be made public. Now in his presentation, which you can read in full on The Pensive Quill website, he said that:

…it was envisaged that the material would be of benefit not merely to historians but also to people involved in conflict resolution and policy making right across the board. If the causes of politically violent conflict can be better understood and anticipated in advance then it stands to reason that the potential for averting such conflict increases.

Now Voices From the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland was a publication that was issued by Boston College in 2010 and it featured interviews with the late IRA activist Brendan Hughes and the late David Ervine, who had been both an Ulster Volunteer Force activist and later was leader of the Progressive Unionist Party.

And as I said the original agreement had been to hold the interviews but because both of these men were dead Boston College got Ed Moloney, one of the interviewers, to write up the interviews and present them in this book which also later became a documentary film.

And so far I have to say so very unsafe. That is a very problematic arrangement because it didn’t take account all of the other 40+ interviewees.

The British government subsequently issued a subpoena against Boston College for the release of the Dolours Price interview in particular. Because Brendan Hughes had implicated Gerry Adams in the Jean McConville disappearance. And then Dolours Price is said to have given an interview in which she implicated both herself and Adams again.

So after lengthy court cases which Anthony McIntyre explains in his paper, it was agreed that that interview could be released to British authorities. It’s still subject to legal wrangling and I’m not going to go into that now.

But what it underlines is what Anthony McIntyre was saying and I fully agree with him in this: is that the guarantees that were given to the people who took part in that project in the first place were to protect them and that protection should have been maintained, that that is part of the researcher’s obligation to the research participants.

Now in his presentation McIntyre referred to two Canadians researchers who’ve done a huge amount of work on research and ethical frameworks for trying to set up legal protection in Canada.

I’m going to quote from them here because I do think it sets out much more cogently than I would what I believe is the position of a researcher collecting data, digital or otherwise, that is going to be made public.

Pragmatically pledging or maintaining strict confidentiality provides the foundation of trust and rapport that allows researchers to gather valid data to promote understanding of the human condition and provide the basis for rational social policy. In some cases information shared with the researcher may so sensitive and its disclosure so potentially damaging that the fate of the individual may literally rest in the researcher’s hands. In such situations both the researcher’s ethical obligations and the need for a solid bond of trust are clear. If people do not trust researchers they will not share sensitive information and the value of research to society will diminish.

Now I have to say I have been fortunate in never having had an ethical dilemma of the type experienced by the researchers in The Belfast Project. But it could well be, and there have been many instances throughout the world, where researchers have faced threats to their freedom or safety. But I have to say that the bottom line still has to be, and I hope I would have the fortitude if the situation ever arises, to understand that you have to go “the whole hog”. And Anthony McIntyre is saying he’s willing to go to jail to protect his sources even though Dolours Price herself has already gone public on the issue.

But at the end of the day what you have to say as a researcher, if you make an agreement with your research participant, you must honour it regardless of the consequences to yourself. Now that may be legally dodgy and I rely on the experts here possibly to take that up, but ethically I think it has to be the foundation of the relationship.

One of the difficulties in social science or oral history interviewing is the possibility of a power imbalance. That the social realities, different class, different socialisation, different educational backgrounds, can actually work against honest and open disclosure by interviewees talking about their lives.

A good interviewer will try and get around all of that and will balance it but it’s something that has to be borne in mind.

Now while the outcome of The Belfast Project has been difficult, to put it mildly, I’m not suggesting in any way that oral history or social science interviewing is fraught with either ethical or legal difficulties that cannot be overcome.

But the way to deal with it isn’t easy. You have to consider it’s a philosophical and an ethical question that must be considered over and above the practicalities of arranging the research structure.

It doesn’t mean that as an academic researcher you don’t engage in difficult or dangerous research but that you do have to work quite hard to be sure that you can conduct respectful and informative interviews with people from all sorts of backgrounds.

Now the advantage, I’ve already said: it allows you to get into all sorts of areas that you might not from the conventional sources. I’m going to quote Linda Shopes here because she’s written extensively, she’s an American oral historian whose written extensively about the ethics and the legalities of oral history practice, and she said:

the good interviewers work with narrators to create a record worthy of preservation that is of value not only to scholars but also to society’s collective understanding of the past.

I always think that this is something I suppose governed my own approach to research. It is about value for the future. And if it isn’t done as honestly and as rigorously as possible really we shouldn’t be doing it. Now I think that should govern any approach to the humanities.

But at the same time you’d be aware that quite often the interviewees don’t see themselves like that and have said “sure we don’t have anything interesting to say”.

If I had a Euro every time that was said I actually would may even be solvent. But in the “tea and cake” revelations there quite often you get told things over the conversation at the end that the interviewee wouldn’t be willing to put on the record. And what I’m asking there are some of the questions, ethically and legally, that arise: so if I’ve been told something and I paraphrase and I put it into the digital record that goes online or in public access it a am I breaching the consent? If I anonymise it-is that another breach of trust? How valid is my interpretation if it’s just based on my interpretation of what they’re saying because I don’t have the record to check back on and I may have taken post-factum notes rather than contemporaneous.

And how do we ensure that researchers behave honestly? And what kind of penalties should be imposed? And if they should be, by whom? If there are no clear guidelines (which there aren’t really at the moment) or legal constraints on how the interviews are conducted whatever does happen- with what’s done with them in the future.

And is it desirable to have “the one size fits all” approach? I think these are questions the DRI needs to consider in making a digital repository accessible.

Now I used to work with print, with verbatim transcripts, but I’m conscious of the fact that a lot of consents I had weren’t print production and the possibility of the website means that there’s now an audience potentially of millions as opposed to maybe the hundreds or thousands that were originally envisioned and that can be very frightening indeed to the interviewees who gave the original consent. And you have to think about that. I mean I know I’ve had…several of my interviewees, I’ve been asked would I recommend them for inclusion in radio or tv documentaries and without exception they’ve all refused; they say oh no…I wouldn’t do that… because I mainly do talk to elderly people.

The issue of ownership is very important – that shares authority and as I’ve said, there is no easy answer.

Confidentiality can only be guaranteed through anonymity but that has to be looked at on a case by case basis. And it may well may be that anonymity is the only way that you’re going to get the information to achieve the research objectives but then there are issues around that that need to be considered. But then there are issues around that that need to be considered.

And if the law can be used to force the release of data that was not intended for disclosure until a certain time, what implications does that have for us?

So I suppose really you’re thinking, too that Dolours Prices has now landed Gerry Adams in the situation Boston College did originally by publishing Voices From the Grave – but that doesn’t really matter. The relationship originally was between the three interviewers and the interviewees who trusted them. And they do have to honour that relationship regardless of the personal implications for them.

But of course that makes a strong argument particularly legacy interviews in difficult situations, that kind of putting interviews aside until it is safe to release them is probably the best way to suit them being used for particular agendas.

The general analysis of what they have to say can still be used for social benefit.

It doesn’t mean we don’t engage in interviewing that are potentially controversial or dangerous but we do need protective mechanisms and that’s the code of practice for the DRI.

But at the end of the day I would like to remind everybody that academics aren’t police but we should be able to operate and research with independence and freedom to operate provided we’re not causing harm directly in what we’re doing. And in the humanities I think that is particularly important.

But if what we do can be enlisted in the service police activity we’ll soon lose the cooperation of interviewees whose personal stories may have a lot of value indeed for public learning. Thank you.