Justice and Inclusion in Research: Opportunities for Microaffections in Human Research Infrastructure
Rachel M. Magee
Information science is concerned with how people interact with and experience information. We have a vested interest in including diverse people in research to learn from their perspectives. Nondominant population increases and disparities in support and services for them make this especially important . These kinds of studies are sometimes called human research or “human subjects research” . It is crucial to do this research ethically and in the US ethics considerations are detailed by federal policy . In this policy and the ethics reviews it requires, justice is a core concept. But justice is often evaluated with a narrow interpretation focused on benefits and harms of a study. Conceptualizations of justice change . The Black Lives Matter movement  and information research [6, 7, 8] show discussions of justice are dynamic and happen in larger cultural contexts. For more inclusive studies, researchers should go beyond minimum mandated ethical assessments in research design. Here I share examples of ethical tensions from my work with teens. I then argue for examining research using the lens of infrastructure [9, 10] and identify opportunities to increase justice and inclusiveness in research processes, including incorporating microaffections .
—How can we expand microaffections in research?—
I recently connected with 54 teens in work with my colleague, Amy Leman. About 10% of these participants shared nondominant gender identities. Teens identified as polysexual gay nonbinary using he/she/they pronouns, as genderfluid (“I don’t have a gender”) as gender-queer, and nonbinary. An additional 13 participants expressed nondominant sexual identities (including queer, pansexual, bisexual, lesbian, and gay). Clearly, demographic norms are “insufficient for accounting for the complexities of…queer lives” [12, p. 1]. Typically, these complexities are not well represented ethics review forms and language. Ethics review documents often ask how many “male” and “female” participants researchers want to recruit. This may be to increase representation given long histories of gender and sex bias in medical research  and other fields like technology design . But this norm can conflate sex and gender—female isn’t equivalent to woman —and overlooks the varied identities evident in even one study. Forms and templates for ethics review prompt it, but I don’t state goal numbers of participants based on sex or gender. I use open-ended questions to ask about identities in interactions with people. For studies with larger numbers, there are excellent models for using structured questions [16, 17], relevant to many information contexts. More broadly, participants have multiple intersectional identities that deserve acknowledgement [18, 19].
To identify more of these tensions, research processes can be examined as infrastructure [9,10]. Star describes infrastructure as “by definition invisible, part of the background of other kinds of work;” it becomes more complex when examining “the situations of those who are not served by” it [9, p. 380]. Infrastructure “becomes visible upon breakdown” [9, p. 382]. Adjusting research infrastructure can improve the experiences of people in study interactions. This includes people who have completed consent processes and those considering participation. Imagine if you were in a study and your gender was not available as a response or was othered . You may not want to continue. Your responses may differ from what you’d share if you felt included. If you were invited to participate in a study that detailed expected number of male and female participants in the consent discussion, but your identity was not represented, you may not participate at all. These are the kind of breakdowns that can occur in research processes.
Another example shows the importance of intentionally developing research documents and processes. Capitalizing the word white “is done by white supremacists” and doing so “risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs” [20, p. 1]. But others argue for different capitalization approaches [21, p. ix; 22]. Individuals should make thoughtful choices for themselves and their research. When identities, cultures, and languages aren’t handled carefully, people can feel invalidated, or in the language of ethics review, harmed before data is even collected. These harms may be more intense when implicit or structural biases in research interactions lead to microaggressions. Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional, and “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative…slights and insults toward the target person or group” . To counter them, Espinal, Sutherland, and Roh advocate for information professionals using microaffections to build inclusiveness in libraries . Researchers can also incorporate microaffections into study interactions. A microaffection is “a subtle but endearing or comforting comment or action directed at others that…affirms their worth and dignity, without any hint of condescension” . These positive interactions can improve the experience of those interacting with researchers. They may help increase participation from people with nondominant identities and minimize potential harms of research.
How can we expand microaffections in research? Below are some ideas for creating more just and inclusive research documents and processes. These are often guided by forms and template language that can lack cultural context. Rather than engaging with template language as a default and completing only minimum requirements for ethics review, researchers can take a proactive authorship role.
Researchers can incorporate cultural competency into their language  and learn from those who share guidance for discussing their cultures and communities. Online examples include style guides from GLAAD , the National Association of Black Journalists , and the Radical Copyeditor’s guidance for writing about transgender people . Also see manuscripts like The Elements of Indigenous Style .
Documentation shared with people can incorporate style and visuals that communicate welcome for those with nondominant identities. Select images relevant to the study and identities and cultures of potential participants. Free stock image resources like Nappy , Disabled and Here , and The Gender Spectrum Collection  can expand representation.
Documentation and interactions can acknowledge intersectional identities and highlight study goals of learning from nondominant perspectives. These descriptions don’t have to be long. Even “our research team prioritizes a welcoming and inclusive experience for all participants” can communicate inclusiveness. Online links can share more extensive research histories or inclusion statements. Researchers might consider alternatives for consent: verbal consent processes can help mitigate privacy risks or accessibility concerns.
Human research practices are worthy of examination and critique. Future work should continue to examine research documentation and ethics review practices through the lens of infrastructure [9,10]. This can help us consider and critique how justice is currently normalized in research. It will highlight where research infrastructure breaks down and where we can do more to promote justice in study procedures. Ethics review must follow legal standards and there is much to critique about research culture and organizational structures. But individual researchers have opportunities to increase justice in human research. Going beyond minimum ethics expectations with intentional study design will enable more just and inclusive research to everyone’s benefit.
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Cite this article in APA as: Magee, R. M. (2022, December 1). Justice and inclusion in research: Opportunities for microaffections in human research infrastructure. Information Matters, Vol. 2, Issue 12. https://informationmatters.org/2022/11/justice-and-inclusion-in-research-opportunities-for-microaffections-in-human-research-infrastructure/