Fabrication as ethical performance

Annette Markham

Mar 5, 2011

Traditional journalistic and sociological practice considers a person’s words to be freely available–if uttered publicly or with permission–to analyze and quote, as long as we anonymize the source. Prior to the internet, researchers took for granted the ability to safely store fieldnotes, interview transcripts, demographic data, and other information that might reveal the location of the study or the participants’ identities.  These methods of data protection may no longer suffice in situations where social researchers need to design studies, manage data, and build research reports in increasing public, archivable, searchable, and traceable spaces.  In such research environments, there are few means of adequately disguising details about the venue and persons being studied.  One creative and performative method of data representation in such environments is fabrication.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of data fabrication ever since I mentioned it at a conference presentation on ethics last year.  It seemed innocuous enough, my mentioning that “I have fabricated data before.”  Dead silence in the room compelled me to immediately add the explanation: “I interviewed someone online who really didn’t want their words traced, and so I invented a dialogue that would represent but not duplicate our conversation.”  Responses were extreme: For some, the idea of my ‘faking’ or ‘falsifying’ data was shocking and disappointing, to say the least, prompting one to blurt: “How could you do such a thing!?” For others, the idea that I had pulled back the facade of objective reporting of facts to reveal some of the inventive practices available was a relief.  Some were excited to talk about their own struggle to balance the need to present examples of lived experience in research reports with the need to protect the privacy of their participants.

So now, three months later, I’m working on a project to advocate fabrication as a viable (rigorous, defensible, ethical) method in the social sciences. Fabrication describes the act or method of constructing, framing, putting parts together into a whole.  Here, it is meant as creative reproduction of information gathered in the field.

Anyone from the more interpretive side of things might shrug; this isn’t anything new. But more and more, top-down models for social research are converging with hard science interpretations. The US Office of Research Integrity, run out of the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, provides guidelines and training entrenched in a positivist view of science. Their frameworks for appropriate research conduct are not directed only toward the positivist disciplines but applied wholesale across the board.

The U.S. Office of Research Integrity uses the term to identify one of three main categories of scientific misconduct: Falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism.

Definition of Research Misconduct
Research misconduct means fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.

(a) Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them.

(b) Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.

(c) Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.

(d) Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion.

Fabrication constitutes misconduct for those disciplines of inquiry where reliance on accurate and verifiable data comprises integrity of interpretation and findings. The identification of fabrication as misconduct is possible because for the dominant stakeholders presenting the definitions, parameters for conduct within the scientific method are explicit and well-defined. Fabrication relies on particular understandings of the relationship between the researcher and the data and what is meant by ‘data.’ If ‘to fabricate’ is to invent research data, it is understood that data exists before and outside the interference of the researcher.  Collection and measurement tools should capture data in raw and complete form.  If “to fabricate” is to make up data and results, it is understood that data tells the story, through only the mediation of a hypothesis. In this process, the researcher’s role is to measure the fit between the data and the hypothesis.

For researchers working within interpretive paradigms, “fabrication” is actually an apt and ethical description for a process of interpretation. More importantly, fabrication can be seen as a necessary step in protecting the privacy of participants.  Misconduct is certainly a concern, but takes different shapes when one considers an interpretive understanding of inquiry, where there is a much different understanding of the relationship between the researcher and the data, what is meant by ‘data,’ and what is actually involved in the everyday performance of internet inquiry.

Again, fabrication of data is not new, in the sense that interpretive, postpositivist, postmodern, feminist, and performance scholars from a range of disciplines have long and persuasively argued that social inquiry is a performative act of interpreting and writing culture, in relationship and dialogue with Other.  My goal in developing the ethic of fabrication as a method is not merely to jar the term loose from pejorative operationalizations, but to provide qualitative researchers within the social sciences specific tools for developing creative, invented accounts of observations, artifacts, and interactions gathered in the field.

So here’s what I’ll be fleshing out in the next few weeks or months:

1)    Performative inquiry embraces dialogic and evolving engagement with materiality and subjectivity.  Utterances and texts within this engagement are not restricted to those of the participants or subjects of study, but include the movement and performance of the researcher as well. What is considered ‘data’ includes activities and artifacts found in the field or official fieldnotes and also those negotiated understandings derived from the researcher’s own participation and presence in the field.

2)    Data privacy is a crumbling method of protecting participants. More and more, data mining technologies are used to link participants to their online presence. While some participants may prefer that their publicity be protected and that researchers cite them accurately and fully, many more want the reverse. Amalgam accounts, invented dialogues, and other creative representations may best protect the privacy of participants.

3)    Delimiters for ethical research practice grow more restrictive as large regulation bodies build narrow guidelines for funding, develop required compliance training programs modeled after hard science research practice, and solidify definitions for research misconduct. In the U.S. at least, these governing bodies emphasize empirical, evidence-based, and positivist research methods. This trend represents a critical moment for internet researchers to insert creative and performative models as viable and important methods for protecting participants and adapting to changing technological social contexts of research.