Water Resources Science graduate student research navigates Indigenous data sovereignty and university open research policies

June 27, 2024

by Molly Wick, Doctoral student, Water Resources Science

Our recent case analysis published in Ethics & Human Research highlighted how research universities may not have adequate policies in place to support research in collaboration with sovereign Indigenous communities. Indigenous nations and communities in the United States have rights as sovereign nations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to exercise control and ownership over all data and information generated by or from the tribes, tribal members, or tribal resources. Indigenous communities exercise data sovereignty in different ways across the U.S. Many native nations have adopted data sovereignty policies that exercise rights to maintain control over data collected in Indigenous communities. These polices have been established in response to long histories of unethical practices in research involving Indigenous communities. 

Meanwhile, many universities in the U.S. have “openness in research” policies to ensure academic freedom to publish freely. These policies usually require that universities retain control of data collected for research. 

In our study of the human well-being benefits of coastal and aquatic ecosystems, we worked with a local Tribe to include Native American participants as part of a community-wide study. The university’s openness in research policy prohibited the university from agreeing to the Tribe’s proposed data sharing agreement which was based on the Tribe’s research sovereignty policy. The study was delayed for nearly a year because university policy was inconsistent with university research in collaboration with a sovereign nation. Eventually, with support from the university’s Office of Native American Affairs, the university granted an exception to the project. The band retained sole ownership of data and allowed university researchers the right to use the data for the study.

This case analysis sets an example for future partnerships between Indigenous communities and universities. Research institutions must respect tribal data ownership policy, regardless of university institutional policy. It also highlights that university open research policies may not adequately address the case of university partnerships with sovereign nations. This can hamper collaboration between university researchers and tribal nations, even when there is agreement between researchers and Tribal partners on research goals and objectives. Hindering research that includes Indigenous communities may perpetuate the exclusion of Indigenous communities from the benefits of research.

In this case, the university has since made progress to support researchers in ethically engaging with Indigenous communities in research, including establishing guidance for university researchers working with Indigenous communities. However, to facilitate trust and collaboration among universities and tribal researchers and members, we recommend universities formally adopt principles and policies for ethical research with sovereign Indigenous communities.

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