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For social science researchers, it is sometimes crucial to protect their informants and keep their identities hidden, especially when topics are highly controversial and their informants belong to hard-to-reach groups. It may also be a prerequisite for ethical committees granting permission for such research.

On the other hand, it is also of crucial importance that social scientists provide as much information as possible about their own and their informants' biases and identities, for the sake of transparency and the validity of their information. And again, this is of particular importance when topics are controversial and informants hard to reach. Finding a balance is always a challenge and can be a source of major debate in both academic and popular circles.

When integrity is questioned

What can researchers do when public and social media accuse them of being non-transparent because of such protective measures? And what if researchers themselves are accused of being biased because of presumed connections to the groups discussed within their research?

On January 17th, a Dutch Newspaper (NRC) published an article focusing on a narrative that appeared in 'Anthropology Today' concerning the context of women migrating from Europe to Syria. In this narrative Aysha Navest, Dr Martijn de Koning and Prof. Annelies Moors present an explorative research project on these women using private chatting. Within this project, they shift the focus away from security issues towards marriage.

The Dutch newspaper questioned both the integrity of one of the researchers, accusing her of expressing sympathies with violent jihad organisations, and the methods that were used, not sharing the names of their respondents. The newspaper article has since provoked many, often very negative, discussions within other news media and on Twitter.

Reacting to accusations in public media

In reaction, Prof. Annelies Moors openly responded on the UvA website discussing the incomplete and erroneous presentation of the research project and its context within the press by the journalist in question (see link below).  

Reactions and reflections on this set of issues are also being prepared through a more institutionalised discussion. AISSR, aiming to stimulate exploration of the quality, integrity and ethics of research, is organizing a ‘reflection-audit’ by external experts to broaden the discussion of the scientific integrity of this research project specifically, and on this kind of difficult-to-research topics in general.

This specific case and the results of the reflection-audit will form the basis of a workshop on issues of transparency, personal bias, and ethics regarding anonymity and openness.

The AISSR website will keep you informed of the outcomes of the reflection-audit and the planned workshop (to take place around April of this year).


Download: Navest, A., de Koning, M. and Moors, A. (2016), Chatting about marriage with female migrants to Syria, in: Anthropology Today

Newsarticle in NRC (in Dutch)

Read the reaction of Prof Annelies Moors (in Dutch)