What We Have Here is a Failure to Collaborate


Julie Heliotrope is an anthropology Ph.D. graduate student at a major university in North America. She has spent several years in remote and isolated regions of the Amazon collecting data for her dissertation. Because she has spent many months in several communities, she has made many friends throughout the region and is acutely aware of the debt she owes the people in the Amazon. In turn, she has provided each community she has visited with much needed supplies. Because there are no roads or electricity and these are non-monetary societies, Julie knows that equipment and medical supplies are especially helpful. She has also been very careful that the items she brings will benefit entire communities, rather than individuals.

Julie returns to the United States and finishes her dissertation. In the years following her dissertation fieldwork, she publishes several journal articles, finds a job in academia, and eventually publishes a book. Almost all of her academic achievements, most notably her PhD degree, are directly attributable to the information shared with her by the indigenous groups in Amazon Basin. Now considered one of the few experts in the cultures of the Amazon, Julie strongly believes in the important role she can play in North America by increasing the general knowledge and awareness of a way of life so completely foreign in North America. In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, Julie is also actively involved in public outreach. She volunteers to give public lectures and teach at local public schools.

Five years after her first trip to the Amazon Julie returns to the same region of Ecuador. She is anxious to see her old friends and possibly collaborate in new projects. Upon arriving at the small airport where Julie plans to fly into various regions, she is immediately denied access. The airplane pilots have no further information for her. They will only remind her that they will not fly anyone into any community unless they have permission to do so from the community members. Needless to say, she is baffled. Over the next few days, she is unable to find out why this has happened. Finally she finds someone in town whom she recognizes as the daughter of a woman she lived with for many months. The young girl explains that they have been told by a boy who is now attending at a university in a larger city that Julie had published many things, including a book, and claimed this information as her own. The boy said that nowhere in any of these publications was there any mention of the individuals who shared stories, traditions, and experiences with her.

She tells the young girl that she did thank the communities that she worked with in the dedication of her book, but did not mention names because she has been taught to protect participants by keeping them anonymous. Julie then realized that she had not even brought a copy of the publications or books that she had written. These items would have been useless anyway because no one in the region speaks or reads English.

In her absence, this information has spread throughout the region. At this moment Julie knows that her chances of ever working in the area again are very slim.


  1. What could Julie have done to avoid this situation? Why do you think Julie did not know to do these things?
  2. Did Julie do enough to compensate the people in the Amazon? How would Julie know if she had?
  3. Is Julie obligated to share her results with the people in the Amazon? Given that these are remote communities and a second visit to each community would cost thousands of dollars, is she still obligated? If Julie cannot come up with the research funds to do so, should she work somewhere else?
  4. Is there an effective way for Julie to share her results, given that the participants cannot read her work?
. . What We Have Here is a Failure to Collaborate. Online Ethics Center. DOI:https://doi.org/10.18130/sqwj-pm41. https://onlineethics.org/cases/graduate-research-ethics-cases-and-commentaries-volume-7-2006/what-we-have-here-failure.

It is ironic, perhaps, that anthropologists largely introduced the word “reciprocity” into the English vernacular and yet have done so little to put the word into their professional practice. Since the very beginning of the discipline, anthropologists have too often received much from the communities they work with while giving little back in return. The reasons for this history are many and complex, but include anthropology’s entanglement with colonialism, the misguided fear that community engagement means a lack of objectivity, and the oftentimes obscure scientific questions anthropologists pose and seek to answer. Dr. Heliotrope has been caught up in this web, and both she and the community she worked with are paying the price.

Reciprocity is “a mutual or cooperative interchange of favors or privileges” according to The American Heritage Dictionary. In a sense, nearly all ethnographic research involves some form of exchange. People — “informants” — simply would refuse to talk to anthropologists if they did not feel they were receiving something of value in return. Of course, the less anthropological informants have vested in the research, the less likely they are to be helpful and loquacious, not to mention honest. The recent controversy over Margaret Mead’s celebrated work in Samoa relates to the claim that the young anthropologist was fooled by adolescent girls who lied because they were embarrassed by all those questions about sex.

Dr. Heliotrope seems genuine in her desire to be an ethical scholar and a good person. It is unfortunate, then, that she has made some poor choices. At first, we sympathize with Dr. Heliotrope because it seems that she did make a good faith effort, after all, giving out medical supplies, thanking individuals in the acknowledgement section of her book, and giving public lectures. Is this not enough? Must Dr. Heliotrope be in debt for the rest of her life to the community she studied a short time? It is important to remember too that it was Dr. Heliotrope’s hard work — getting grants, conducting the research, and writing her dissertation and publications — that made her into one of the leading scholars of the Amazon.

What went wrong for Dr. Heliotrope in part was her weak sense of the principles that should guide the notion of compensation. First, she lacked a proper sense of proportionality: the benefits she personally received far outweighed the benefits the community and individuals within it received. While Dr. Heliotrope is not morally bound to give compensation to the community ad infinitum, she should have extended her contributions at least as far as her publications that directly pertain to her dissertation research. Not bringing free copies of her book was a poor choice indeed. (Although community members may not read it, at least they could see the pictures and know that Dr. Heliotrope is writing about them; and couldn’t she bring a battery operated tape player and an audiotape of herself reading the book in the native language? The practical limitations of the problem should not be an excuse for her poor moral judgment.)

Second, Dr. Heliotrope lacked a clear sense of parity: the community apparently feels that she received the credit for their knowledge. The defense that she was taught to write using anonymous informants probably means little to the community. As an anthropologist, Dr. Heliotrope should recognize that ideas of proportionality and parity are culturally constructed. I wonder how she could be an expert in the local culture and not know that individuals would want to be recognized more explicitly for the knowledge they chose to share with the visiting anthropologist.

Third, Dr. Heliotrope lacked generosity: she gave the community a minimal amount and mostly in material goods. While she does not want to be foolishly generous (a flood of money into a small community could be disastrous), Dr. Heliotrope could have been more munificent, in particular paying for her work to be translated and sent to the isolated community. Dr. Heliotrope is generous with her time in the United States it seems, but the community does not see such efforts and it is apparent she does not tell them about this work since she has not maintained communication with the community through the years. So long as generosity is tempered with mindfulness, researchers can rarely go wrong in exercising this virtue.

If Dr. Heliotrope had taken a more unequivocally collaborative position, she also might have avoided some of the conflicts. Some collaborations are synergistic, involving close partnerships to develop research questions, methodologies, and analyses. Other collaborations are less formal and only involve one or two shared goals. Collaboration, in short, lies on a continuum; it is not an either/or proposition. A collaborative association would have allowed Dr. Heliotrope to have a better relationship with community members, where they were unambiguously a part of the entire research process and not merely the object of that research.

Part of the problem lies in Dr. Heliotrope’s training and the expectations of her dissertation committee. However, the larger problem is that peculiar institution called academia, which deems grants (money) and publication (prestige) its core values. Not coincidentally, these two values reward individual researchers and educational organizations most generously, while offering little directly to research subjects. The subjects of social science research often bear the costs and receive little in return because researchers are rarely encouraged to research practical questions, write in non-professional publications, or bring in funding that goes directly to the communities they study. Until this bigger problem is addressed and fixed, academic researchers will inevitably have divided loyalties — to the people they research and the larger institution they serve.

Although Julie had the best intentions, she made a mistake common in many research situations. She should have taken more time to discuss her research with participant communities and individuals. The easiest way to do this is to design research to be collaborative. With this approach community members are also immersed in the research. It also opens opportunities to increase public outreach in the regions where Julie works, rather than limiting outreach to North American institutions and communities. Unfortunately, collaboration, immersion, and public outreach are difficult concepts to define and even harder to actualize.

Why didn’t Julie know to do these things? Often students are not adequately prepared for including collaboration and public outreach as parts of fieldwork. Fieldwork is unpredictable, unfamiliar, and often uncomfortable. Taking the time to interact with people in a foreign community is extremely time consuming, often taking more time than the research itself.

Compensation is a difficult notion to reconcile, especially when one considers that Julie’s career and reputation are strongly rooted in the information she collected during her PhD research in these communities. Adequate compensation is certainly important to consider in light of this. Although her fieldwork was short-term, she is gaining long-term benefits. Compensation should probably benefit the community for the long-term as well. There were probably things Julie could have done to meet long-term community needs.  For example, as an anthropologist, she may have been able to offer her experience and training to meet local community goals of cultural preservation.

If Julie had discussed her project with the community more, she would know if a return visit was necessary. Although the resolution of problems, such as Julie’s, are project specific, it is important to realize that cross-cultural research is undoubtedly going to involve unfamiliarity and naiveté on the part of the researcher. This is especially true when individuals approach communities with personal goals in mind.

Julie should have at least translated her journal articles into Spanish for the community. A rough translation would be better than nothing at all. Even if she did not do that, she should have brought English copies of her publications. The act of sharing her work is just as important as the information itself.

Hopefully this case study invites discussion of these issues and some sharing of experience that may highlight the unfamiliar and unexpected considerations of fieldwork.