Ethics Beyond Ethics Clearance: The Politics of Citation, Analytical Authority and Private Knowledges

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Editor’s note: This is the first post of our new ‘Doing Environmental History’ series, in which contributors share their insights for engaging in the work of environmental history: from practicalities of research to pedagogy to big ideas about connection and collaboration.

I am writing from the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

In April, I attended the 2023 biannual conference of the Australian Association of Pacific Studies (AAPS), which took place on the lands of Ngunnawal and Ngambri people at the Australian National University (ANU). The conference’s theme and title was “To Hell With Drowning,” taking its name from Chamorro writer and human rights lawyer Julian Aguon’s essay of the same name. It was my first time attending an AAPS conference, and I was blown away by its rich conversations, its political consciousness, and its engagement with questions of ethics. The conference prompted a number of key reflection questions for me that I would like to incorporate into my research going forward, and which I would like to share more widely.

Focusing on Indigenous researchers’ work on their own stories, this conference differentiated itself from any other I have attended. One of the overarching themes of the conference was the notion of “citing ourselves.” The “ourselves” in this phrase refers to Indigenous people of the Pacific, a group to which I, as a white Australian, do not belong. Thus, the presumed audience of the conference was Indigenous Pacific Islanders, not the white academics or students who have, especially historically, made the Pacific their object of study. The conference addressed the roots of Pacific Studies, which was created and legitimized by white anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists and historians telling the stories of Indigenous people of Oceania. ANU plays a particular role in this history: when ANU was founded in 1946, the Research School of Pacific Studies headed by anthropologist Raymond Firth was one of its four constituent schools. This kind of Pacific Studies was of priority to Australia as ANU was an institution created specifically to promote research into areas of national interest.[1] Since then, Pacific Studies at ANU has changed, notably through the work of Professor Katerina Teaiwa, Vice President of AAPS, who developed the first Pacific Studies undergraduate program in 2007.

Internationally, Pacific Studies has also undergone a change. Emeritus Professor Terence Wesley-Smith, who has been based at the Pacific Islands Center and the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa (UH) since 1985, working as Center director 2010-18 and as editor of the UH Press journal The Contemporary Pacific 2008-15, has been a critical part of this change. In a 2016 state-of-the-field text, Wesley-Smith writes: “Despite all of its instability and uncertainty, however, Pacific studies has become a vital academic space to encourage deep learning, promote creativity and understanding, generate counter-hegemonic discourse, and nurture personal growth and self-determination.”[2] Reflecting these principles, AAPS 2023 actively prioritized the work of those Indigenous Pacific Islanders telling their own stories and created space for these counter-hegemonic discourses.

Many of the Indigenous conference presenters spoke about their work on the histories of their own communities and families. To take only two examples, Associate Professor Natalie Harkin, a Narungga woman and poet from South Australia, spoke on her work creating “archival poetics” from family records of her maternal lineage’s indentured domestic labor, while Professor Katerina Teaiwa spoke on how she wrote the story of forced removal of her family from their island of Banaba for phosphate mining in her book Consuming Ocean Island.[3] Additionally, non-Indigenous presenters also presented on research that emerged through partnership with Indigenous researchers and research participants, offering examples of ways non-Indigenous researchers could engage with this principle of “citing ourselves.” Such non-Indigenous researchers included Dr. Victoria Stead, who presented her work on the Pacific Australia Labor Mobility scheme in the panel entitled “But whose lands are you on? Positioning Pacific diasporas on Aboriginal lands.”[4] This panel was a powerful centering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (TSI) sovereignty as critical to trans-Pacific solidarity, and in relation to the history of the Pacific Slave Trade (Blackbirding) of Pacific Islanders to Australia as South Sea Islanders (SSI).[5] Stead presented alongside three Aboriginal and SSI women: Amy McGuire (Darumbal), who spoke on the interconnection of Aboriginal, TSI, and SSI histories and the colonial goal of the disappearance of Aboriginal and TSI people; Kim Kruger, who spoke of the entanglement of Aboriginal and SSI political organising; and Dr. Melinda Mann (Darumbal), who spoke on the “re-presencing” of entangled histories and memories of Aboriginal and SSI people in Rockhampton.[6]

This theme extended beyond the workshops and panels into an accompanying exhibition entitled “Citing Ourselves,” curated by two of the conference organizers, Talei Luscia Mangioni and Lisa Hilli. The exhibition drew upon the archival materials housed at ANU, the Pacific Research Archives and the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau to promote conversations about climate change using the art and research of grassroots Pacific women and fa’afafine, and featured art from the youth movement Youngsolwara Pacific.

The very first session of the conference, the first panel of the Postgraduate Day, also explored the theme of “citing ourselves.” In this panel, entitled “Research as Reciprocity,” Dr. April Henderson, Professor Alice Te Punga Somerville and Maureen Penjueli spoke on the notion of maintaining good relations in academia, raising questions about the concepts of reciprocity, public and private knowledges, and authorial authority. Henderson spoke about her practices of reciprocity in her work as a pālagi (white) scholar working on Samoan hip-hop music, and, more generally, the circulation of musical, performing and visual arts within and beyond the Pacific region. She formulated much of her engagement with reciprocity as efforts to find ways to give back to the communities of her research participants, speaking of the way she gave back things that the people she worked with valued: food, writing skills, contacts, and music records. Giving back was part of her work to cultivate good relations with her research participants. She also spoke about her practices of workshopping her publications with the subjects she was writing about as another aspect of her work to “maintain good relations.” In particular, she spoke about how she practices returning drafts of her publications to artists she is writing about, giving the artists a chance to reflect on her writing and offer their feedback. She spoke about the importance of considering the dynamics of publishing on artists, especially artists who are not well known outside of their immediate communities. In these cases, an academic may become the official historian of the artist, superseding the artist’s authority on their own work. For Henderson, her priority of maintaining good relations with artists has meant that she has been unable to publish key parts of her academic research, knowing that if she did, she would irrevocably damage the relationship with those artists.

My research focuses on a number of artists who have received little academic attention, and who, due to intersections of race and Indigeneity, are systemically treated as having less authority than me, a white woman. I have had the opportunity to interview and develop working relationships with them. When writing about these artists, how much input from the artists should shape my work? Should I circulate my draft publications for comment by the artists? How do I balance their artistic authority with my own authorial voice and need to analyze their work critically? As I wrote this article, I received very insightful feedback from Anna Guasco (my editor at EHN), who encouraged me to reach out to the AAPS conference organisers, notably Talei Mangioni, and the speakers who inspired this article, Prof. Alice Te Punga Somerville, Dr April Henderson and Maureen Penjueli, to ask for their guidance and consent on my public reflections on their work. I did so, circulating drafts of this article with each of them. This process was very valuable, deepening my engagement with their ideas and offering me opportunities to directly incorporate learnings from the panel. In particular, the process of emailing each of them allowed Te Punga Somerville, Henderson and Penjueli to clarify the ways they preferred to be identified, consent to a broader distribution of their ideas and offer their perspectives on my reflections, which I was then able to incorporate into the piece.

In the same panel, Te Punga Somerville, a Māori (Te Āti Awa – Taranaki) writer and academic, spoke on the politics of citation. For Te Punga Somerville, one way to practice reciprocity to a community is to write the best thesis you possibly can. She expressed the importance of the bibliography as a place for establishing “good relations” between a researcher and their research participants, or in other words, the community which may most directly benefit or be harmed by the research. Referring to the importance of genealogy as a way of establishing relationality within Māori culture, Te Punga Somerville noted that choosing which texts to reference in your academic work becomes a kind of genealogy – it shows your readers whose work you are following, who has come before you in your thinking and whose work you are thus building upon. Speaking about the communities that exist on the page, and in the archive, not just those that exist in flesh, in the “real world”, Te Punga Somerville emphasized that responding to work in the archives is part of reciprocity. That is, your citational practices are part of your relationship of reciprocity with your research participants: they can be part of the way you give back to the communities on whose work you draw in your research. The bibliography can be the place where texts become canonical, where texts move from the specific to the more generalizable, where texts become read within and outside of small, tight-knit research communities.

Te Punga Somerville’s words raise a number of questions for me: How do my citational practices reflect my values? Do they align with my beliefs about whose knowledge is valuable, and whose words need to be read? What blind spots do they reveal? What do they say about my engagement with the emerging Pacific Studies canon? Broadly, I would say that my bibliographies reveal that I have a lot of work left to do to make my citational practices align with my beliefs. In the process of writing this article, I tried to incorporate these reflections, building on feedback from AAPS conference organiser Talei Luscia Mangioni. Mangioni encouraged me to highlight the contributions of Emeritus Professor Wesley-Smith to Pacific Studies. Wesley-Smith, who also presented at the Postgraduate Day, is an elder in Pacific Studies whose works have become part of Pacific Studies canon. Paying homage to this canon, as well as referring readers to some works of the many incredible Indigenous scholars who spoke at the conference, is my effort to incorporate these lessons.

This push and pull between what can be made public and what must be kept private was also a subject of Maureen Penjueli’s reflection. Penjueli is a Rotuman woman from Fiji, and the director of the Pacific Network on Globalization (PANG), a leading regional NGO on trade and economic justice. She spoke on the difficulty of navigating research and development agendas in the interests of communities. In particular, she discussed the place of Indigenous knowledges, especially oral storytelling, in global communications like the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, and the tensions between public and private knowledges. Penjueli discussed the way the Pacific has been narrated by the official historical record, particularly the framing of the Pacific Islands as small, victims to the Global North, and then as troublemakers, activists with an outsized role in global negotiations. She notes that the magnitude of the Pacific region is occluded, as is the expertise of Pacific Islanders, especially in adaptation to upheaval in their region. Part of her work in global environmental negotiations around the ocean involves championing community stories that can transform the research agenda, to make people connect to the ocean and to its importance. She described the difficulty of choosing which stories should remain private and which should be shared. In particular, Penjueli talked about her experience of finding an extremely powerful story about one particular island that had the potential to stir global support for activism against deep sea mining in the region, but ultimately recognizing that this story should not be shared publicly: that to do so would divorce the story from the community of people and beings that had produced it and would risk the story losing its power. In other words, to expose this story to the world, would compromise the opacity of the community, and would risk replicating the power dynamics of colonial knowledge extraction.

Questions I am continuing to reflect on following Penjueli’s talk and the broader conference include: How does our own research engage with these questions of what knowledges should become public and what should be kept private? How do we navigate the pressures in academia to publish against other ethical concerns? Does our research expose private knowledges to new audiences, and if it does, does it benefit or harm the holders of those knowledges? Reaching out to Penjueli, Te Punga Somerville, and Henderson to make sure that they were happy for me to write a reflection piece on their insights was part of my engagement with these lessons on private and public knowledges.

None of these questions were presented to me as part of my university’s process of Ethics Clearance. Within the Ethics Clearance process, I was asked about potential ”physical, psychological, reputational, financial, spiritual, emotional and social” harm to participants, as well as risks ”to the research team, the organisation, and others.”[7] I was asked at length about how I would procure consent from my participants, and how I would store their data. However, I was not encouraged to consider how my research could be part of a reciprocal relationship with my “research participants,” nor even how it could benefit or positively impact them. Perhaps, the Ethics Clearance applications—or similar institutional ethics approval processes such as Institutional Review Boards—are not the place for those questions. Nonetheless, as I go forward in this space, I will keep thinking about these questions and considering how I can ethically engage with the artists, communities and researchers that are brought together in this field of Pacific Studies.

[1] Terence Wesley-Smith, “Rethinking Pacific Studies Twenty Years On,” The Contemporary Pacific 28, no. 1 (2016): 118.

[2] Wesley-Smith’s articles, “Rethinking Pacific Island Studies” (1995) and “Rethinking Pacific Studies Twenty Years On” (2016) have become canonical texts within the field, tracing its evolution and goals. Terence Wesley-Smith, “Rethinking Pacific Islands Studies,” Pacific Studies 18, no. 2 (June 1995): 164-165.

[3] See Natalie Harkin, Archival-Poetics (Vagabond Press, 2019). Listen to Harkin talking about her work in this podcast: Ep5: Feed Your Desire — ARCHIVE FEVER ( See Katerina M. Teaiwa, Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014). Listen to Teaiwa talking about her work in this podcast: Ep. #26 Mining Banaba: Katerina Teaiwa talks mining phosphate & decolonising modern anthropology | The Familiar Strange.

[4] You can read Stead’s work here: Stead, “New Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme offers more flexibility … for employers”, The Conversation. You can also read Victoria Stead and Jon Altman, Labour Lines and Colonial Power: Indigenous and Pacific Islander Labour Mobility in Australia (Acton Act: ANU Press, 2019).

[5] For more information, see Australian South Sea Islanders – Port Jackson,

[6] For an article co-authored by McGuire (alongside Chelsea Watango, David Singh, and Elizabeth Strakosch), see “What happened to the Senate inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women?”, The Conversation (March 30, 2023). For Kruger’s comic book, Thee blak powered adventures of a Kanaka Menace. You can also read more of her work here: Kruger, “Coming together for ceremony,” Overland Literary Journal. You can listen to Mann talking about this topic (and about the AAPS conference) here: Let’s Talk – Episode 76, Dr. Melinda Mann | Murri Country ( For more on Mann’s writing on Indigenous students in education, see “We can’t afford to leave Indigenous students behind,” IndigenousX (July 5, 2019).

[7] Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) – Online Application Questions.

*Cover image: Landscape photograph taken by the author on Ngambri and Ngunnawal country while reflecting after the conference.

[*Cover image description: Photograph featuring dramatic clouds across sky, with iridescent sun peeking through. The foreground shows a silhouetted tree.]

Edited by Anna Guasco, reviewed by Emily Webster.

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