Dissemination Disaster: Being Forced to Stop Sharing Research Results

A graphic showing the use of traditional home remedies from my data
brochure. Image courtesy of doug reeser.
Views from the ANThill
by douglas reeser on August 25, 2013
The completion of fieldwork is but one milestone in the research process of an anthropologist. Data analysis and write-up remain, followed by the dissemination of our research findings, one of the key ethical codes for anthropologists. The relationships we develop in the field carry on in time and space, and ethically, we must share our findings in a timely manner with those that helped make the research possible. Yet, research results may take years to be published, and there is no widely accepted means of distributing our findings more quickly to our non-academic stakeholders.

After spending a semester away from my fieldsite at the completion of my own dissertation research, I planned a return to visit with friends and maintain the connections that I had made. My research included a diverse range of people throughout the community, including medical doctors, nurses, pharmacists, traditional healers, government and administrative officials, and women spanning wide economic, age and ethnic backgrounds. From the beginning of my research, I planned to share my dissertation and shorter reports with various stakeholders, but I wanted to share some of my preliminary results in a widely accessible format.

With my data only partially analyzed, I was not yet prepared to write a report, and I knew that few people would actually take the time to read such a document given the opportunity. I wanted to reach as much of the community as possible with my research results, and thought a visual approach might work best. So I set about creating graphic representations of my data, ending up with a tri-fold brochure that could be read through the graphics and a minimum of explanatory write-up.

With a pile of data brochures in hand, I returned to the field, and began visiting those who were interested in my research. The response I received was universally positive. The brochure engaged readers and often resulted in prolonged conversations about my research and related topics. A number of people urged me to set up a community meeting with other local health experts to present the graphics. Soon, I was getting requests for the brochure, and people were handing them out for me.

I was thrilled about the response to that point and wanted to get to the capital city to give the brochure to the national cultural research institute and the Ministry of Health, both of which had approved my research. I had emailed the brochure to both institutions before I arrived in country, but wanted to give a hard-copy as well, and after a few weeks I made it to the capital. At the cultural institute, the director wasn’t in, but I left it with other officers who had seen the digital version of the brochure. They thought it was a great idea, and said that the director thought that more researchers should produce something similar.

Feeling hopeful, I then walked the short distance to the Ministry of Health building, where I met with the head secretary, and I watched as she put a copy of the brochure in the personal folder of the director of the Ministry of Health. I was excited that someone in such a position might actually take a look at the brochure, and left the capital hopeful that my research might actually reach those that have the power to make change in the community where I worked.

Participants' perceptions of the national health care system
run by the Ministry of Health - the offending graphic from
my data brochure. Image courtesy of doug reeser.
After the five-hour journey back I proceeded to check my email. That’s when the bombshell hit. Waiting for me were multiple emails from officials at both institutions requesting that I contact them immediately. The tone and urgency of the emails suggested that I had done something wrong, and perhaps was in trouble with government.

It took a few phone calls and a couple of days, but the mystery became clear. Despite issuing a permit for my research, officials at the Ministry of Health had no recollection of my work, and upon seeing the brochure, called the cultural institute demanding the details of my research. Situated with more power in the institutional hierarchy of the government, the Ministry of Health then shut down the distribution of my data brochure, although at the threat of what consequences I never found out.

I discovered that officials made the request during a time of heightened critical media attention. Just a few weeks prior, 13 newborns in the neonatal section of the national hospital had died prematurely over the course of about a month. A team of international experts were sent in to investigate, and the ministry was taking a lot of heat for the deaths. My data brochure was seen as a potential source of further bad press, primarily because it included one graphic of people’s not very flattering perceptions of the national health care system.

The situation left me in a slight ethical quandary. In different circumstances, I may have ignored the threats from the government, and used my research to speak to power, and expose the deficits of an institution charged with safeguarding the public health. In this situation, however, doing so may have resulted in the termination of my research permits, threatened the utility of the government contacts I did have, and perhaps my removal from the country. For me, the risks of non-compliance outweighed the benefits of continued distribution of the brochure.

And so, for the remainder of my visit, I stopped distributing the brochure and declined requests that I present the data to the community. I have since returned to the US, where I continue work on my dissertation and shorter research reports. I plan to return later in the year, when I hope the media heat on the ministry has cooled and I can continue to share the results of my research. In this situation, an informed government only wanted to cover its own weaknesses, rendering my anthropological research powerless. However, with accessible data at its hands, an informed public has the potential to demand change and improve the lives of those living in the community.

*This column also appeared in the August online-edition of Anthropology News.
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