Best Practices for Working Creatively with Personal Data

Existing Guidelines and Ethics Procedures for Artists and Visual Researchers 

Current data protection regulations in the United Kingdom, United States, European Union, and Canada exempt artistic practice from privacy requirements. This exemption extends to journalistic, artistic, academic, and literary purposes. Likewise, creative practice in Canadian academic research is also exempt from research ethics review. In Canada, there are three main academic granting councils: Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). These three councils are collectively known as the Tri-Council and have a collective ethical policy statement commonly known as the TCPS 2 that university Research Ethics Boards (REB) consult when reviewing ethics applications. Article 2.6 of the TCPS 2 states, “Creative practice activities, in and of themselves, do not require REB review. However, research that employs creative practice to obtain responses from participants that will be analyzed to answer a research question is subject to REB review.”

The TCPS 2 then goes on to explain that “creative practice is a process through which an artist makes or interprets a work or works of art. It may also include a study of the process of how a work of art is generated. Creative practice activities do not require REB review, but they may be governed by ethical practices established within the cultural sector.” Although there was a draft chapter for “Research Involving Creative Practices” written by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Ethics Special Working Committee in 2008, it has not since been included in TCPS 2. In researching published guidelines for “ethical practices established in the cultural sector,” we have found three key resources—the Guidelines for Ethical Visual Research Methods (Cox et al. 2014), Mapping Responsible Conduct in the Uncharted Field of Research-Creation: A Scoping Review (Voarino et al. 2019), and Toolbox in RCRC : Synthesis of Responsible Conduct in Research-Creation Issues and Proposal of Reflective Tools (Noury, Cloutier, and Roy 2018)—which we will briefly summarize in this section. Guidelines for Ethical Visual Research Methods and the Toolkit for RCRC were developed to aid research-creation practitioners and ethics boards navigate the evaluation of the ethics of a research-creation project. The Toolkit for RCRC evolved from Voarino et al.’s scoping review of the literature on the ethical issues involved in research-creation; it focuses on research-creation in the Canadian and Quebecois context but is widely applicable.

Guidelines for Ethical Visual Research Methods

Written by scholars from Canada and Australia, the Guidelines for Ethical Visual Research Methods (Cox et al. 2014) grew out of two research methods workshops. The guidelines focus on the ethics of research-participant relationships formed through the practice of visual research methods and provides six categories with guiding questions. The categories are confidentiality, consent, representation and audience(s), fuzzy boundaries, authorship and ownership, and minimizing harms. 

Six categories of ethical issues for visual research, from Cox et al., Guidelines for Ethical Visual Research Methods, 12.
Image courtesy of the authors. 

Confidentiality is “a commitment to protecting an individual’s privacy when that individual has disclosed information in the context of a relationship of trust in research” (Cox et al. 2014, 9), though anonymity is not always an appropriate way to protect individuals, particularly if they are invested in how their work is perceived or conceptualized. Consent requires that “participants are enabled to make decisions about their research participation. [It] must be voluntary and based on sufficient information and adequate understanding of the purpose and aims of the research, what is required from participants, and any risks that are posed to them” (12). Representation and audience(s) addresses issues that arise in the dissemination of work, including addressing how participants perceive the way that their work has been edited, conceptualized, or disseminated, and the ways that the work are perceived by the viewing public (20). Fuzzy boundaries refers to how “boundaries between the roles of researchers, participants, artists, and others involved in the project can become blurred” and how “visual research methods may be used to serve multiple purposes, such as research, advocacy, and community engagement” (15). Negotiating these boundaries becomes problematic when “ethics committee procedures typically assume that the research is being conducted for a single purpose [with] clearly defined roles between researchers and participants” (15). Authorship and ownership addresses the issues over the authorship and ownership of work when visual research methods involve collaborative or group creation of visual work (17). Minimizing harm relates to “avoiding physical and emotional harm; protecting research participants’ anonymity and confidentiality; and promoting research that serves a public good” (7). 

Research-creation can be powerful in a way that conventional research cannot since it “has an ability to convey emotion and to engender empathy” (Foster 2007, 372), and that power opens it up to ethical issues that are not present in conventional research. Research-creation can make participants vulnerable by exposing them to discomfort or to acceptable forms of harm that in conventional research may not be acceptable. Whereas in medicine the mantra is “do no harm,” in research-creation, “the risk of harm or discomfort may be one of the aims of the work” (Bolt 2016, 196), and minimizing harms may compromise the quality of research-creation (Cox 2021). Rather than to avoid discomfort or harm, the emphasis should be to make participants aware of and prepared for potential discomfort or harm, and to provide them with access to resources (counsellors, support groups, etc.) to reduce the impact of the harm or discomfort. 

The Guidelines for Ethical Visual Research Methods considers that, because research-creation is visual-based, it can violate standard research obligations of privacy since the dissemination of the work can identify a participant and link them with particular personal experiences—for example, if the likeness of the participant is represented in visual imagery, anonymity cannot be offered. Because of this lack of anonymity, it is possible a participant may choose to withdraw consent depending on how the impact of participation affects them. While academic research classically viewed consent as a one-time event, this perspective is evolving to an understanding of consent as a continuous process. Even more than in academic research, research-creation may require a continual renewing of consent throughout the life of the work and a process for how to accommodate the withdrawal of consent or how to meet changing needs for privacy.  

Other categories of ethical issues are more unique to research-creation. Fuzzy boundaries arise when the roles of researchers and participants are less clearly defined—for instance, when participants become invested in the project in ways not seen in typical research, or when they feel invested in the relationships that have developed with the researchers (Cox et al. 2014, 15). In clinical practice or academic research, such fuzzy boundaries are generally strongly discouraged, unethical, or even illegal. In research-creation, they may, in some situations, be desirable and positive. In these cases, it is important for the roles and expectations of different actors to be well defined early in the work. When research-creation is co-created, issues of authorship and ownership can arise, from acknowledgement of participation, ownership of the final work, consent to use the final work, and the establishing of protocols to accommodate the withdrawal of consent (17). There are also issues with managing the expectations of participants with the goals of the project (categorized as representation and audience), providing adequate guidance to audiences to address or avoid problematic readings of the work, and considering how audience members—particularly if the work is disseminated online—may use or interact with the work in unexpected or problematic ways (19–20).

Scoping Review and Responsible Conduct in Research-Creation Toolkit

Voarino et al.’s 2019 scoping review, “Mapping Responsible Conduct in the Uncharted Field of Research-Creation,” surveys the terrain of research-creation within Canadian academic institutions and laid the groundwork for the RCRC Toolkit (Noury, Cloutier, and Roy 2018). Focusing on the disconnect between academic institutions’ ethical guidelines and the nature of research-creation, the scoping review aimed to bring research-creation and responsible conduct of research closer together. The review found that, because of this disconnect, the nature of research-creation and the position of the research-creation practitioner renders current ethical guidelines ill fitted to the practice of research-creation (Voarino et al. 2019). The review identifies six categories of issues that exist in the responsible conduct of research-creation. In descending order of frequency, the authors categorize the issues as those which arise (1) from the nature of the research-creation approach; (2) from the position that research-creation practitioners hold in relation to the work; (3) from the mismatch of academic training with the research-creation process; (4) from the funding of research-creation projects; (5) from the dissemination of research-creation knowledge; and (6) from the conflicts of authorship, commitment, and interests within research-creation production (Voarino et al. 2019). 

Issues arising from the research-creation approach include conflicts between research-creation and academic research ethics and the difficulty of balancing the needs of participants (informed consent, minimizing harms, etc.) with the integrity of artistic expression. Defining responsibilities can be complex for research-creation practitioners as they often hold several roles both within a collaborative research creation project as well as multiple roles within their institution. Likewise, research participants can also hold multiples roles, particularly if they have expertise in the topic the work is engaging with; or when the work is creating new spaces (i.e., using novel technology) or providing a voice to a marginalized community. Issues arising from the mismatch of academic training with the research-creation process stem from the integration and acceptance of research-creation into academia and the accompanying need to develop appropriate student-supervisor relationships and ethics training that meet the specific needs of research-creation. Issues in the funding of research-creation projects arise from both a lack of funding for the arts and the need for research-creators to tailor their funding applications or their work to criteria that do not fit well the process of research-creation. Issues arising from the dissemination of research-creation knowledge include disseminating the work in unconventional ways or in ways that do not meet the standards of academic research, as well as issues of ownership and authorship in relation to collaborative work. Issues arising from conflicts of authorship, commitment, and interests within research-creation production can stem from the needs of participants and the needs of the research-creation practitioner, the multiple roles that research-creation practitioners can hold (as student or supervisor and artist, as a member of the artistic community and a member of an academic institution), and the potential conflict between the needs of each of their roles (Voarino et al. 2019). 

Building on the six categories identified in the review by Voarino et al., the RCRC Toolkit, a 12-page document within the longer 130-page Toolkit for RCRC, provides a checklist for researchers and ethics boards to consider when designing and evaluating research-creation projects. The categories are issues arising when research-creation practitioners are not familiar with responsible conduct in research; identifying issues specific to research-creation; conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment; dissemination and evaluation of research-creation, including applying for and managing funds and peer review of research-creation; familiarity with research ethics; and training and supervision of student practitioners of research-creation. Each category includes subsections that address the general issues within each category; for instance, the category for identifying specific issues in research-creation includes subsections that suggest taking a self-reflective look at practices, facilitating a culture of collaboration, and facilitating dialogue on issues surrounding RCRC (Noury, Cloutier, and Roy 2018, 63). Overall, the authors suggest “the adoption of a proactive and transparent attitude, as well as a continuous reflexive view of the research process, are key elements in preventing breaches of [responsible conduct in research]” (Noury, Cloutier, and Roy 2018, 12).

The checklist systematically addresses each of the six categories and provides a list of questions to ask to guide the research-creation practitioner through the research design process. The goal is to address the mismatch of ethical standards between research-creation and conventional research in Canadian institutions. 

Together, these resources provide a basis of ethical guidance. However, in part due to the quickly evolving nature of digital technology, none of them adequately address evolving technology and the unanticipated impact that it could have on the work. The guidelines proposed here aim to provide further guidance in the use of sensitive personal data in an era of big data and vast digital ecosystems in order for artists to better anticipate and resolve issues in an ethical and transparent way.