During my training in the natural sciences, questions of ethics largely focused on how to correctly process plant, animal or human tissue being analysed in a laboratory. When humans, as sentient beings rather than an aggregation of cells, were involved in research, topics relating to culture, relationships and power relations were rarely discussed, other than to note the polarising stances on, for example, ‘rewilding’. When these topics were raised, it was through chance coffee room conversations, and even then, many showed disinterest in discussing them in any depth. Despite this general lack of formal engagement with these topics, there has been a recent push in the field for more interdisciplinary work that includes the knowledge and perspectives of local and Indigenous peoples (e.g. Huntington 2000; Albert 2001; Reinert et al. 2009; Riseth et al. 2011, 2020; Pape and Löffler 2012; Sandström et al. 2012; Buschman 2022), and numerous examples of seemingly successful collaborations exist. This includes the Skolt Sámi-led Näätämö salmon conservation co-management project (Brattland and Mustonen 2018), the Iñupiat bowhead whale monitoring programme led by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (Albert 2001), the regulation of moose hunting based on Koyukon knowledge of the ecosystem (McNeeley and Shulksi 2011) and the finding of solutions to land-use disputes and inequalities which included Sámi reindeer herders (Sandström 2015), to name but a few.

Part of the motivation behind this kind of collaborative work has been to replace certain problematic and mainstream research practices (McKinley 2007; Ball and Janyst 2008), which disregard the knowledge of Indigenous peoples and other subjugated groups that are less familiar to Western ways of thinking (Clarke, 2007; Todd 2016; Minasny et al. 2020). For example, a researchers’ knowledge of their site may be based only on the experience of a brief visit, a few days or weeks in length, and on the published work of other academics who have also only spent very limited time in the area. During these brief visits they carry out ‘helicopter research’, extracting data to be processed and published elsewhere. Locals may neither see the results of the study nor experience any benefits from the work being undertaken, and their longer-term detailed knowledge of the area is ignored in favour of the ‘expertise’ of the transient scientist (Minasny et al. 2020; Santos 2008). Helicopter research perpetuates a highly disconnected and detached theorising (Martineau and Ritskes 2014), which can lead to information being misrepresented, unethical research being undertaken and communities being harmed, as will be explored later in this piece (e.g. Smith 1999; Laird and Noejovich 2002; Mosby 2013). Inclusion of local and Indigenous people in natural sciences research then has been promoted as a way to counteract these problematic trends (e.g. UKRI 2021). However, the process of undertaking collaborative work should not be oversimplified.

The purpose of this piece is two-fold. The first is to signpost natural scientists who are new to collaborative research towards the vital practical and conceptual information that could help make their research partnerships more effective. This is done through sharing my own experiences of trying to do collaborative research in Sápmi (Northern Fenno-Scandia) with Sámi reindeer herders. The second is to discuss why, despite a wealth of literature existing on these key topics, I alongside many others have continued to make many of the same avoidable mistakes when trying to do collaborative work, suggesting we need to reconsider what is core to the education of natural scientists. Overall, this piece contains the information I wish I would have had access to much earlier within my scientific training, and which I hope will help contribute to wider discussions on how we can move forward to enact meaningful ways to cooperate in this important new form of integrative research partnership.

My research

Making contact

As this is a largely reflective piece based on personal experiences, I should begin by situating myself. Broadly speaking, I am a multiculturally white, non-Indigenous woman, who has received her academic training within ‘western’ research institutions. I grew up partially in the Northern Isles in rural communities with extensive cultures of fishing and crofting. I have also spent many months living, studying and working in academic-related posts in northern Sweden and Alaska, these both being regions with strong natural sciences research programmes, and home to Indigenous peoples who have been subjected to colonial practices. Prior to my PhD, I had very few contacts in the region where my research took place, and I had not visited the precise location before.

From the outset of my PhD project, ecologically examining the landscape changes experienced by semi-domesticated reindeer in Northern Europe, I was determined that my research would not simply consist of answering an interesting question. Rather, I wanted to do work that could be of some practical use. In Northern Sweden, Sámi reindeer herders and private or commercial landowners can have simultaneous rights to use the same areas of land (Rennäringslag 1971), sometimes leading to disputes. Industries such as the mining, silviculture and wind farm sectors can significantly disturb reindeer and degrade their grazing pastures (e.g. Skarin et al. 2018; Eftestøl et al. 2019; Kater and Baxter 2022), whilst the rights of herders can provide restrictions to the functioning of these industries, and some foresters state the reindeer damages their trees (Borchert 2001). These disputes have led to legal cases being brought from all sides, yet it can be difficult for Indigenous groups to give evidence in court if their knowledge and ways of tracking change in their environment are not always seen as ‘credible’ (Keskitalo 1976; Biber 2010; Todd 2016). For example, in order to maintain certain rights, Sámi have been required to prove land use either since ‘time immemorial’, or continually over the span of 90 years (Bengtsson 2004; Sasvari and Beach 2011). Proving this has often hinged on the presence of archaeological data or sparse written records in settler institutions, rather than forms of knowledge which have long been used in Sámi institutions such as ‘landscape memory’ written about by Sámi scholar Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi (2008). These kinds of power imbalances within courts of law will no doubt require much time and extensive legal expertise to solve. In the meantime, I thought that I could either use my research to answer questions reindeer herders had about their environment, or more than likely I could academically quantify some of the knowledge they already held about their environment. By ‘translating’ certain aspects of this intergenerational and experientially tested knowledge, termed árbediehtu (Porsanger and Guttorm 2011), I hoped it would be placed in a format that courts and policymakers would heed more easily. By doing this together with the herders, with them playing a core role in identifying and translating the most vital information, I hoped it would at least be a small interim step towards improving these power relations.

The North Sámi language has a clear distinction between knowing information, diehtu, and knowing something (or someone) personally or through familiarity, dovdat (Porsanger 2011). To become familiar with the field, I read academic literature (e.g. Anderson and Atle 1985; Oksanen and Riseth 2004; Inga 2007), general literature on Sámi culture and history by Sámi authors (e.g. Gaski 1997; Lehtola 2004), and accounts by outsiders of spending time within Sámi herding communities (e.g. Paine 1994; Beach 2001). However, this only served to enhance my diehtu. For a more well-rounded knowledge that went beyond the theoretical to dovdat, I would have to gain practical experience.

I began emailing various herders or herding institutions, offering myself as manual labour to help with a season’s herding in return for receiving valuable practical experience and knowledge. This idea reflected my upbringing, voluntarily helping neighbours to do work on their crofts, an act which they appreciated as it helped them manage through busy periods, and which I appreciated because it allowed me to learn more about that work.

The emails and phone calls to herders received no replies, save one. A prominent herder from northern Sweden kindly agreed to talk on the phone but seemed non-plussed by my enquiring if he knew of any herders who would want to take an eager researcher along with them to the hills and tundra. With courtesy, and an undertone of frustration and weariness, he said this was not something that he could arrange. At this point, I started to become aware of research fatigue.

Research fatigue occurs when often marginalised, minority and/or Indigenous groups are repeatedly approached, surveyed, questioned and incorporated into research projects to share part of their understanding of a topic (e.g. Chilisa and Tshenko 2014). Power balances and the positive gains throughout this process are often unequal, i.e. the research benefits the researcher but not the local community, leading the participants to feel weary and disinclined towards further involvement (Clark 2008; Porsanger and Guttorm 2011). Research fatigue is an issue all too common in studies connected with the Sámi. Helga West, a Sámi Theologian, shared a reply she wrote to a researcher asking to interview her on Sámi culture. The reply, written after wrangling with the wish to be helpful yet feeling the strain of constantly being interviewed, encapsulates research fatigue well:

Thank you for your kind message. Unfortunately I see very little relevance in your study to me personally and my community. Please understand my refusal and don’t take it personally. I’m just tired. I’m tired of strangers who constantly approach my people for the sake of science.

Kindly, Helga West

(West, 2020) .

Whether from genuine interest in collaboration, or as a token gesture, the desire to include Indigenous voices in natural sciences research has led to many local and Indigenous communities receiving high volumes of requests from strangers. Even in the 1970s Sámi scholar Alf Isak Keskitalo wrote of the ‘subdued distress and exasperation in the Sami population’ as ‘waves of inexperienced fieldworkers’ arrive with questions (Keskitao 1976, pp.11). One herder later told that she could receive up to 5 emails a day asking her to share her knowledge and culture. Ignoring these emails was not personal, but simply necessary for people who have jobs to do, families to raise and a desire for some peace and quiet in their free time.

The crofts I helped on growing up received comparatively little interest apart from known friends and family, whilst the reindeer herders received constant attention from strangers far and wide, so for them, my offers of help were perhaps a lot less welcome or useful than I had anticipated. More than a bit embarrassed at my thoughtlessness adding to their overfilled inboxes, I went back to the drawing board.


With growing awareness that I was perpetuating some problematic research practices, and embarrassment at my lack of knowledge on how to do better, I decided to reach out again. I contacted some Sámi and herding institutions, explaining through email that I wished to carry out collaborative research but was unsure how to do so ethically according to their standards and values, asking if they had any guidance. I also contacted some Sámi scholars to see if they wanted to collaborate and develop the research project together. This time, I had three positive responses! After some back and forth, they directed me towards another more relevant body, and another more relevant researcher, neither of whom replied.

Throughout the field season, and many subsequent visits to the area, I happened to befriend a herder. Wishing to keep this connection genuine and without ulterior motives, I did not try to leverage the friendship to incorporate her into research. Instead, we simply had many informal chats, and she kindly introduced me to some friends. One was a very experienced herder, who warmly invited me to his home where we talked for hours over strong coffee about reindeer. Another, an activist for Sámi land rights, once again welcomed me with kind hospitality, and we sat in his kitchen eating freshly caught Arctic char discussing the impacts of mining and forestry on the landscape.

These informal conversations made up the greatest portion of my personal learning during my PhD, teaching more than any book or article ever could. They also felt like the most natural part of connecting with the locals. We were simply having conversations based on common interests, and as the conversations were not formal or destined to be published, they did not feel invasive nor like there was any kind of overt power relation. I did still try to use the information shared to guide my work. For example, when mentioning the idea of creating a map of local grazing pastures, some herders raised fears that it might be misused by mining companies to target less-grazed areas as potential development sites, so I instead created a map of a hypothetical location based on broad landscape parameters. Despite being happy to chat things over informally, these individuals were not interested in being involved in the research.

Relationships are a fundamental part of research. Each interaction, between researchers, supervisor and supervisee, participant and academic, research and technical staff, has a unique relationship. They have differing power dynamics and levels of formality, affected by all kinds of variables including gender, language and race (Riley et al. 2003; Chen 2011; Muhammad et al. 2015). When ecological research has included Indigenous perspectives, there has been a notable lack of attention given to power relations between different parties (Cameron 2012; Whyte 2013; Ford et al. 2016; Mosurska and Ford 2020; Singleton et al. 2021). As it stands, it is often the scientists that hold the power, controlling the research funding and data interpretation, use and presentation.

Power imbalances in research can allow, and indeed have allowed, completely unethical studies to be carried out. In Europe, the Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology carried out eugenically motivated research from 1922 to 1969 on Sámi individuals and other ethnic minorities, without their consent, with ‘participants’ being stripped, photographed and having their physiological features studied in the context of being viewed as an inferior race (e.g. Dobbin 2013). Unethical research was also present within Canadian residential schools, a schooling system set up in the late 1800s to assimilate First Nations children into the values of the settler culture. In this system, children were forcibly separated from their families, so had few to no adults present who were willing to advocate for them. Aside from the cultural suppression, child labour used to fund the running of the schools, widespread neglect and various forms of traumatic abuse (TRC 2015), these children were also subjected to being research subjects, for example being intentionally malnourished as part of nutritional studies (Mosby 2013). Examples also exist in the patenting and claiming of rights to materials, such as Loren Miller’s patenting of the traditional ceremonial drink ayahuasca in 1994, despite it having been long used by multiple Amazonian peoples (Laird and Noejovich 2002). These kinds of patenting issues have occurred multiple times in multiple contexts (Battiste and Youngblood Henderson 2000), showing the ease with which knowledge can be appropriated. Indeed, Métis scholar Zoe Todd (2016) discusses how concepts long espoused in Indigenous communities can get rebranded, ‘discovered’ or surpassed by very similar concepts created within western academic institutions, ensuring credit for these ideas remains solely with western researchers and not the source community.

There is a painful track record of the bodies, knowledge and cultures of Indigenous peoples being simultaneously appropriated, violated and ignored in the name of research, leading to widespread trauma across generations. Little wonder that trust towards a researcher is something that is not always easily given. In the words of Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith:

Research is probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary. When mentioned in many Indigenous contexts, it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful

(Smith 1999, pp.1).

The SciQ guidelines created by Inuit Youth advises researchers approaching Indigenous communities to ‘Be a human first and a researcher second. Introduce yourself as a person, not as a set of credentials’ (Pedersen et al. 2020; pp. 334). Becoming acquainted with the character of the researcher can allow communities and individuals to determine if they feel the researcher has the capacity to take in, process and present information given to them in an accurate and fair way, affecting how much they decide to share. The Te Ara Tika Guidelines for Māori research ethics further reminds us that the quality of research partnerships is enhanced be each person’s faith and trust in one another (whakapono), something that can only be built through familiarity (Pūtaiora Writing Group 2010). This is also reflected in statements of given during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Finland. Some Sámi participants stated they did not wish any researchers to be commissioners, as they felt that scientists arrive with their own agenda and so are less inclined to consider local needs and peoples (Juuso 2018). For others, the character of the people involved in the sensitive Truth and Reconciliation process mattered most:

[We want] the sort of person who has knowledge, ability and a good heart. A really good heart and understanding. As some professor said, anyone can acquire knowledge and skills. But they should also have wisdom.

Juuso (2018, pp. 37).

Perhaps, this is why the responses to my emails about ethical practice were more positive than those on assisting with herding. In my openness about my failings and my desire to learn to be more ethical, I had shown some vulnerability and personality, alongside a desire to ‘do better’. The Te Ara Tika Guidelines note that ethics and ethical behaviour reflect the underlying values of people (Pūtaiora Writing Group 2010), and I had also begun to step away from the assumption that my institutional value system was the most important within that context, instead seeking to learn what ethical interactions meant to those I wished to work with. After all, each individual and community, their knowledge, needs, fears, wants, ways of communicating and ways of working, are unique (Aikenhead and Ogawa 2007) and are unlikely to be sufficiently considered within the broad ethical policies of one research institute.

Despite these more positive interactions, my emails did not eventually lead to more active connections. Perhaps, this is because email as a medium falls short in conveying deeper aspects of personality, motivation and intent, making it harder for those receiving these messages from a stranger to undertake an in-depth judgement of my character. My most fruitful relationships, both with locals and fellow academics, came from those people I had met face to face, in situations where we had just gotten to know each other as people.

The role of the researcher

A number of Western research models have been employed intending to create more ethical research interactions with stakeholders, including Free Prior Informed Consent (Laird and Noejovich 2002; Castleden et al. 2012, 2010), and Community-Based Participatory Research (Fletcher 2003; Sankar 2004; Williams and Harrison 2013). Others, such as scholar Margaret Kovach of Plains Cree and Saulteaux ancestry, have argued for greater use of Indigenous methodologies instead (Kovach 2009). Underlying these practices is an integral question of priorities. Irwin (2006) notes the discomforts and tensions that can arise when social science researchers become very close with their community of focus. These tensions hinge on multiple micro-moments of decision-making where researchers choose to prioritise either the research or the relationship. In my decision not to leverage friends and acquaintances into my research, I did briefly consider that this could ‘hold back’ the ‘success’ or quality of my PhD but decided to place what I felt was fair and transparent interactions with people first in this hierarchy. This was a clear decision, yet there were multiple other smaller moments of uncertainty, where I struggled to balance the anxieties that I may unknowingly be perpetuating problematic research practices, with the risk that paralysis and inaction would lead to me not carrying out research that could be genuinely useful for all involved. What then should I have used to guide my actions in these grey areas of personal uncertainty?

Sámi scholar Jelena Porsanger suggests the ‘Indigenous approach’, using Indigenous methods and values to ensure research work is ethically correct and culturally appropriate, which she expands on in her essay with discussion drawing from a diverse range of Indigenous scholars (Porsanger 2004). The Árbediehtu Pilot Project (Jonsson 2011) and discussions with relevant stakeholders in Wheeler et al. (2020) highlight that the guidelines for these interactions should also be context-based, adhering to the values of that group and being flexibly led by these values rather than by rigid rules that are not always situationally appropriate. Various relevant bodies have created these kinds of practical guidelines (e.g. Table 1), and more are currently being developed, such as those by the Sámi Council and Inuit Circumpolar Council (Muotka 2020; ICC 2021). Some have even created more formalised research licences, such as the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation (Scotty Creek 2022). These documents highlight themes like FPIC, full participation, privacy and confidentiality, intellectual property rights, respect towards Indigenous ontologies, use of and translation of materials into local languages, mindful planning for dissemination of results and acknowledgment of colonial impacts in work. They are vital guiding resources, and form part of best practice in collaborative work. However, they remain voluntary, and some argue we need to go further in ensuring legal systems accommodate these processes and Indigenous concepts better (Williams and Harrison 2013).

Table 1 Selection of some of the guidelines for researchers wishing to work with Indigenous peoples or on Indigenous lands. This list is by no means exhaustive

Alongside following these guidelines, Singleton et al. (2021) have posed core questions we should reflect on when formulating research projects, paraphrased as — What/who is the research for, what/who will benefit from deployment of this work, how is compensation/credit shared and does this work give back and/or forward to all those involved? To understand the importance and significance of these questions, Zapotec and Maya Ch’orti’ scholar Jessica Hernandez recommends we take the time to educate, or re-educate, ourselves on the histories of our research location, and the histories of our research field, as fields such as conservation can have colonial practices deeply embedded in their functioning (Hernandez 2022). Her book, alongside that of Potowatomi scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer (2015), is incredibly a valuable read for challenging and reorienting the way Western educated natural scientists see the natural world and their study of it.

On a more personal level, reflecting on what we as individuals bring into the research partnership in terms of our background, experience, race, gender, histories of violence or colonisation etc. (Harraway 1988; Kovach 2009; Hernandez 2022) can allow imbalances in the makeup of the research team to be addressed (Riddell et al. 2017), with sensitivity being noted as a key factor for success in research which involves diverse knowledge holders and users (Sarkki et al. 2013). Throughout this all, we need to honestly consider how committed we are to decolonial work. Are we willing to relinquish some of our power and control to tackle some inherent inequalities in research? Even if we follow best practice, are we willing to accept that sometimes individuals or communities will simply say no, which must be respected? As Keskitalo has said in his paper on ethno-science:

The structure of the problem presented here is equivalent to those of most Sami problems in relation to the majority people, such as in economics, politics, aesthetics and so on. It is a sorry fact that, if the minority is to gain the possibility of continued existence, these problems can be solved only by the majority sacrificing something

(Keskitalo 1976, pp. 30).

Sometimes, allies must step up, but other times, allies must step aside, and both of these actions require careful consideration and commitment. The results of these reflective practices will vary for each particular situation, and the results are not an endpoint but rather another stage in the process of learning and growing. As Quecha scholar of Indigenous education Sandy Grande has said of decolonisation in particular, it ‘is neither achievable nor definable, rendering it ephemeral as a goal, but a perpetual process’ (2015, p. 19).


Even after doing some preliminary ecological fieldwork, the hope to work with the local herders and make my work of use to them had not been forgotten. I decided to host a workshop, a space where reindeer herders could highlight research they wanted done, note issues in how science represents their understanding or perhaps do some comparison of scientific and experiential knowledge to see where the two merge and converge. This time, I would not approach everyone, just designated spokespeople.

Only one of the five herding group (siida) representatives I contacted replied. He checked with his siida to see if anyone was available, but they were all too busy. This was the same amongst the Sámi and herders I had gotten to know personally. They were interested in the project, and quite enthusiastic that someone from outside Sápmi cared about some of the issues facing the Sámi. However, many were currently fighting their own battles in their fast-changing human and physical environment, and whilst happy to cheer others on in their work, they could only spread their energy and focus so thinly.

There are a couple of issues with my approach here. Firstly, I had not taken into consideration the calendar of a reindeer herder. This calendar is broadly based around eight ‘seasons’ which in turn are based around the work involved in herding (Fig. 1). Most of my emails had been sent during Giđđadálvi (approx. March–April), when herds including heavily pregnant females are being moved towards their calving and summer grazing grounds, as well as during Čakča and Čakčadálvi (approx. September–December), when reindeer migrate to their winter grazing, when slaughter is done, and if needed, when reindeer are being given supplementary feed due to poor weather conditions. These are all very work-intensive periods in a herder’s calendar, so would leave little time to reply to a stranger’s requests. Guidelines from the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Nunavut Research Institute (ITK and NRI 2007) have noted the need to respecting local patterns of activity, including herding, hunting, harvesting or partaking in important community events, as working around these periods of activity can allow the maximum possibility of participation from community members, making research work more inclusive and accessible.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Approximate alignment of the 8 ‘seasons’ of herding work with the Gregorian calendar, although it should be noted that how these seasons align varies somewhat geographically. Names are based on North Sámi spellings. The following occurs during each season: Dálvi: Reindeer moved between winter pastures, fed and protected from predators if needed. Giđđadálvi: Reindeer moved to spring pastures and pregnant females to calving areas. Giđđa: Calves are born. Giđđageassi: Reindeer graze recovering their weight after winter. Herders do maintenance e.g. of fences. Geassi: Reindeer, now grazing in the high fells or plains, are collected for calf earmarking. Čakčageassi: Reindeer graze. In late August some bulls are slaughtered before the rut. Čakča: Bull slaughter is completed and the remaining bulls rut. During this quieter period herders complete other jobs. Čakčadálvi: Reindeer are collected, divided and brought to winter pastures. The autumn slaughter takes place

The second issue was that I had not been very respectful of the herder’s time, essentially asking them to give up their limited free hours to a project that had little significance to them. Multiple Indigenous-led research guidelines highlight that those who share their time, skills and knowledge should receive fair compensation (Kahniakehaka Nation 1995; ITK and NRI 2007; Porsanger and Guttorm 2011), and that efforts should be made to hire locals for broader duties within research projects. This invites greater community involvement, provides financial benefits and creates training opportunities, e.g. in use of equipment (Alaska Federation of Natives 1993). Beyond immediate financial benefit, planning projects from the start with the relevant communities can ensure that the work done is actually of local value, giving collaborators a further stake and interest in being involved (ITK and NRI 2007; Porsanger and Guttorm 2011). I had failed to plan the project from the start with the local Sámi herders; it is now being based on my idea of what might be useful to them, and it had not occurred to me until relatively late on to include compensation for any individuals participating in discussions.

Time is also an inconvenient yet important consideration in terms of timelines. Sharing complex and multifaceted environmental understanding not only requires relationships with the knowledge holder, which can take time to develop, but this understanding can also take months, years or lifetimes to convey (Armitage et al. 2011). This considered pace of learning can be completely at odds with the relentless push of timelines in Western academia (Castleden et al. 2012; Russell-Mundine, 2012). Research projects may only be funded for 3 or 4 years, if not less, and particularly in the natural sciences and amongst early career researchers, there is an expectation to publish academic papers regularly, with the adage of ‘publish or perish’. Equally yet conversely, academia is steeped in bureaucracy. The time it takes to win grants to fund research, fill ethics paperwork, recruit staff, write papers and undertake the sometimes lengthy process of academic review may be far too slow for a community that requires published material on imminent practical problems.

The tensions differing timelines create can be difficult to navigate. Indigenous participants at the Arctic Science Summit Week 2021 conference discussed how they often have to carry the emotional baggage of western researchers who are frustrated at the pace of progress, difficulties with building trust and differing modes of communication when trying to collaborate with Indigenous communities. Whilst it can be a steep learning curve for an academic to navigate between effective research and respectful interactions, it also puts extra fatigue on the local/Indigenous participants who repeatedly end up playing the role of a therapist for each new academic going through these struggles. Forcing local communities to meet academic timelines then can be ineffective, yet for the academic to continue to receive funding and in some cases employment, especially in the case of early career researchers on unstable contracts, this push is necessary, creating a problematic paradox.


Having run out of time to carry out the ideal kind of collaboration, I tried to make the presentation of my research as representative as possible. In my academic work, I cited research carried out by or with reindeer herders on the relevant ecological topics in question, and I invited comments, offering acknowledgement or co-authorship, from those who had influenced my project. Some were excited with the results and suggested practical uses of the information once published, but they were once again not interested in extensive involvement.

There are a variety of roles that individuals involved in research can play, and a variety of ways they are credited for this involvement. Inclusion of Indigenous and local people as research subjects is generally not considered a respectful form of knowledge exchange (Ball and Janyst 2008), and subsequent interpretation of data by non-Indigenous researchers is ‘likely to misrepresent and render silent the experiences of the majority researched and relegated to the position of Other’ (Chilisa and Tsheko, 2014, pp.223). Alternatively, Indigenous individuals are often in the position of research assistant or informant, with some included in acknowledgements, and others remaining entirely unmentioned. This could be seen in the controversial ‘discovery’ by US scientists of a new species of giant wasp in Indonesia with no reference to their Indonesian collaborators who initially collected the specimens, a circumstance which led to greater attempts to curb biopiracy in the country (Kimsey and Ohl 2012; Rochmyaningsih 2019).

Then comes the question of co-authorship, a contentious issue even within academia (Vasilevsky et al. 2021). Some believe co-authorship should only be extended to those actually writing the academic article, and therefore interpreting results, whilst others believe ‘a significant intellectual property input’ is the main criterion, opening the opportunity for a wider group to be considered (Castleden et al. 2010). In some cases, this has been extended to include entire communities even if they were not directly involved in the research, as it was felt that the entire community is responsible for generating and maintaining the knowledge that was shared in the project (Castleden et al. 2010). The SciQ guidelines related to work with Inuit in Nunavut recommend that credit is not only shared through citations, but also in the body of written work and in presentations of this work for maximum visibility (Pedersen et al. 2020).

Co-authorships with Indigenous contributors gives more clear credit for their involvement, conveys respect, can raise the profile of Indigenous knowledge within academic circles and can increase the capacity for future collaborations (Castleden et al. 2010). Additionally, sharing input on the actual writing the manuscript, sometimes termed a mixed methods approach, allows data and information to be viewed through multiple lenses (Chilisa and Tsheko 2014). On the other hand, if many community members, even entire communities, are listed as co-authors, it creates the assumption that all agree with what is being stated in the scientific article, a level of consensus which rarely occurs (Titz et al. 2018; Mosurska and Ford, 2020; Pedersen et al. 2020). It may also prevent data being portrayed accurately, for example if there are opportunities for gain or loss for individuals in how information is presented that feeds into local politics. In some cases, members of the community may decide they no longer want to share data, a cause for worry for collaborating academics who may be losing years of work (Castleden et al. 2012). Finally, in cases where co-authorship is given in a tokenistic manner, it can understandably be viewed very negatively by participating individuals or communities, affecting future relations (Minasny et al. 2020).

To further redress some of these issues, we can promote local/Indigenous individuals in becoming academics and scholars themselves, placing more power within their hands. Indigenous individuals are in some cases leading the way in scientific-Indigenous collaborations and commentaries (e.g. Battiste 2000; Ksenofontov et al. 2018; Buschman 2019; Marin et al. 2020; Hernandez 2022). Alongside the potential for more accurate interpretation of data, Indigenous-driven research can allow more sensitive information, ‘significant phenomena that will never be divulged to non-members’, to be kept within the community (Keskitalo 1976 pp. 24). The information can then be used to inform local action whilst preventing the risk of misuse once taken out of its original context, maintaining ‘governance rights’ of this knowledge (Williams and Harrison 2013). More broadly, a more diverse group of scholars undertaking research allows for a richer, more diverse, science to be created (Armitage et al. 2011). Sámi scholar Rauna Kuokkanen says of her Sámi roots:

They allow (and force) me to exist in several different discourses and to recognize their tensions, challenges, and possibilities. From this necessarily unstable position, I am able to look in various directions and at diverse intellectual traditions without being compelled to choose only one of them.

(Kuokkanen 2007, pp.xvi).

However, considering this instability, the process of promoting local/Indigenous research leadership should be done in a way that is cognisant of, and tries to reduce, the barriers placed in front of Indigenous scholars trying to fulfil these positions, including delegitimization and institutional racism (e.g. Todd 2016; Hernandez 2022). Scholar Jacinta Ruru, of Raukawa, Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāti Maniapoto ancestry, has poignantly said of Māori academics that they are ‘lonely, isolated and struggling to be heard’ (in Monovo et al. 2021), and retention rates of Indigenous academics, at least in New Zealand, remain low (McAllister et al. 2019; Naepi 2019). This, along with discussions in Wheeler et al. (2020), highlights that creating more inclusive, representative and collaborative research does not just rest on the actions of individuals but also requires a change in the culture of academia and academic institutions.

The question of credit lays strongly on my own mind in my academic work, including here. The learning and conclusions drawn in this piece were not developed due to my own, pure and detached thinking. Authors who have had a strong influence are of course cited, but the influence of many individuals through informal conversations remains unmentioned as they were not interested in receiving official acknowledgement. Even the anonymous academic reviewers have had a significant intellectual input on the contents, but due to academic practice, their contribution has to remain anonymous. This essay then, whilst credited to one author, is in reality a distillation of the thoughts, ideas, experience and lessons of many, both within and out with the academic world. Should anyone cite this essay, the citation would serve its purpose of providing a reference for readers, but it is not a true reflection of contributorship. How to best portray contributorship I do not know, although I hope that at least this paragraph serves to acknowledge that this piece is influenced by many others.

Lessons already learned on decolonising research

There is already a large and growing body of work on decolonising methodologies, and interactions between Western science and the knowledge of Indigenous peoples (e.g. Smith 1999; Hart 2009; Absolon 2011; Kimmerer 2015; Carlson 2017; Radcliffe 2017; Huntington et al. 2019; Wilson et al. 2020; Hernandez 2022). These discourses have questioned the very foundations of ‘collaborative’ work. For example, Potowatomi scholar Kyle Whyte has asked what Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), the term often used for local/Indigenous/non-academic knowledge, actually means to those who use this phrase, with definitions varying widely from practical and material knowledge gained through experience, to knowledge that intertwines with values, beliefs and histories (Whyte 2013). Kuokkanen (2007) has highlighted the interplay between individual and collective experience within our understanding of TEK too, whilst Hernandez (2022) argues we should call this knowledge Indigenous science, reminding us that it too is a rigorously tested form of knowledge, constantly developing and progressing, rather than cultural hearsay that only holds relevance in history. Similarly foundational terms such as ‘Native American’, Māori and ‘Indigenous’ have been challenged, questioning their homogenising assumptions when applied to diverse groups, their associations with racial-based classification of people, their etymology from colonial rather than local languages and their sometimes associated stereotypes of primitiveness or inferiority (Smith 1999; Yellow Bird 1999; Adefarakan 2011).

Within this piece, ‘local’ and ‘Indigenous’ have been used simultaneously in places in an attempt to be inclusive in a linguistic landscape of uncertainty, where local and national definitions of Indigeneity vary and do not always overlap (e.g. Valkonen et al. 2017). At the same time, the Inuit Circumpolar Council has expressed frustration with being associated with ‘local’ communities, stating it devalues their Indigenous status, rights and role (ICC 2020), so the use of these terms together is not without its problems too.

Evidently then, there is a wide array of literature discussing topics around Indigenous knowledge and research, a plethora of guidance for researchers to follow, and multiple examples of seemingly effective collaborations (e.g. Forbes et al. 2006; Holmberg 2018; Johansson 2021; Keskitalo et al. 2021). Why then had I failed to carry out effective planning and collaboration at the start of my project? Settling into imposter syndrome, I thought perhaps I was just singularly naïve, unaware and unprepared. As it turned out, I was not alone in my experience. Over time, other scientists, especially those early in their careers, started sharing similar stories of attempts at collaboration. They began with enthusiasm and good intentions, only to discover that often, the communities they wanted to work with were not as excited about the project as hoped, or their partners in the natural sciences were not interested in learning how to decolonise their work. These attempts at ‘working together’, whether that meant interviews, workshops or collaborations, were eventually modified, simplified or even abandoned, and the researcher left feeling deflated. How the communities they had contacted felt, I do not know. With all this in-depth literature out there, why do many of us scientists keep missing it, doomed to repeat each other’s mistakes and experience the same frustrations?

Engagement with indigeneity and interdisciplinarity

To act on power relations, the inequalities and often-accompanying colonial histories must be acknowledged, and more diverse systems of knowledge explored. Kassam (2010) suggests this socio-cultural, or I would add ontological, diversity is intrinsically connected with ecological diversity, which we commonly hail as the sign of a healthy environment. The Academy, however, is not so healthy as it is still behind in its decolonising work (Akinbosede 2020; Patel 2021). Additionally, there appear to be some geographical inconsistencies in awareness of decolonising work. Much of the well-known literature on this subject focuses on the Americas, New Zealand and the ‘Global South’. There is of course a European literature on these topics (e.g. Keskitalo 1976; Kalstad and Viken 1996; Porsanger 2004; Porsanger and Guttorm 2011; Helander-Renvall and Markkula 2017; Johansson 2021), with the Nordic Sami Institute and Sámi allaskuvla in Kautokeino (Guovdageaidnu) making significant contributions to publishing this material in English and Sámi languages. However, in my experience, this literature is far less widely known.

Europe further differs in its relationship with Indigeneity to the Americas and Australasia. Within the continent, generally only the Sámi and the Greenlandic Inuit (Kalaallit/Tunumiit/Inughuit) are regarded as Indigenous, and many other native populations who have experienced colonisation and assimilation, such as the Sorbs, are instead labelled ‘national minorities’ (Grote 2006/2007). By contrast, the Mexican Constitution recognises all communities that existed prior to significant European contact in the 1500 s as Indigenous (Constitution of Mexico 2015). This is not to imply that the experiences of national minorities in Europe is analogous to that of Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world. Rather, it is to note that that from a Eurocentric perspective, only those on the edge of the continent, and those in other continents where European settlers arrived suddenly in ‘new lands’ and rapidly colonised, are regarded as Indigenous. Colonial relations within Europe are less distinctly recognised. Discussions of Indigeneity out with and within Europe in any meaningful depth are beyond the scope of this piece, and indeed beyond the current knowledge of the author, although they would make an interesting point of exploration. Nevertheless, if Indigenous groups, and therefore colonisation of these groups, are perceived to be interactions that only occur ‘far away’, at the very edge of the continent or abroad, then the incentive to establish discourses on decolonising them would also be much lower.

On the other hand, perhaps, level engagement by natural scientists with ‘other’ subjects is itself part of the problem. Multiple notable scientific forums have recommended interdisciplinary research as an important research model (e.g. EU Research Advisory Board 2004; National Academy of Sciences 2006; National Science Foundation 2008). However, its implementation has struggled due to institutional barriers, such as allocation of funding and the functioning of peer review systems, as well as intellectual or cognitive barriers such as differences in epistemology, especially relating to conceptual and methodological frameworks (MacLeod 2018). For example, the sciences are often held up as being objective and detached, leading some to view the inclusion of less familiar and more embodied forms of knowledge, such as those under the umbrella of TEK, as lowering the credibility of scientific work (Bravo 2009; Campbell Keller 2009; Todd 2016). Subsequent low levels of engagement in interdisciplinary research allow the scientists to continue in their ‘pure’ field as before, avoiding any new ‘difficult’ dimensions to their research (MacLeod 2018), whilst the status quo of silencing, potential misinterpretation and general subjugation of local/Indigenous knowledge and peoples continues. Inuit stakeholders have argued that even if Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ, local Indigenous Knowledge of the Inuit) is included in research, doing so with a narrow disciplinary approach which ignores the underlying values and customs within IQ is insufficient (Pedersen et al. 2020), requiring an interdisciplinary approach. This is supported from a Sámi perspective by Näkkäläjärvi (2008) who highlights the roles of history, language, livelihood patterns and values in affecting human-environmental relationships.

On top of this, acknowledging the importance of other forms of knowledge which have routinely been excluded from natural science research may make some scientists feel that a lifetime’s worth of work has now become somewhat invalidated, a scary and unsettling prospect. If enough natural scientists see interdisciplinarity, or more specifically the combination of academic sciences with knowledge formed outside Western academia, as too difficult, too complex, too unknown or not sufficiently personally beneficial, then quite naturally, these kinds of topics are not prioritised in informal discussions, and most certainly not in the natural science curriculum. These acts can sometimes come from complex places of self-preservation, with high job instability, intense working hours and widespread mental health issues in parts of the Academy (Lashuel 2020; Castellacci and Viñas-Bardolet 2021), dark aspects of this system which can affect the priorities and preoccupy the time and energy of those working within it. However, remaining within the bounds of what is comfortable in research is problematic when these practices cause harm to others. When we do not act on and seek to redress unequal and/or colonial habits that persist today, including in the sciences, then we risk allowing equality and decolonisation to simply become metaphors, in the words of Tuck and Yang (2012), and therefore colonisation and inequality to persist.


Indigenous peoples play uniquely powerful roles as people who have already survived mass social and environmental change through colonisation (Whyte 2017). We may become increasingly reliant on the knowledge gained through these experiences to help humanity find ways to cope with, adapt to and mitigate the current plethora of changes we are experiencing, not least those within our climate. There are many wonderfully motivated researchers wanting to work with lands, peoples and knowledge not their own, ‘seeking ways to understand the world without harming it’ (Kovach 2009, pp. 11), yet they do not quite knowing how. To harness this motivation then, and to avoid perpetuating colonial or tokenistic practices (Brunger and Wall 2016; Morton Ninomiya and Pollock 2017), we need to become more effective at sharing what we have learned so far about collaborating, including the grand successes and the messy mistakes. This cannot just be left to chance encounters with enthusiastic individuals, or haphazard learning on the job. Rather, it requires a place in the formal training of natural scientists, so research can be appropriately planned from the outset, and mistakes need only be made once to be learned by the collective. Academia is after all a massive form of group learning. I hope that my reflections here will contribute to that.

More than sharing knowledge, this piece speaks to the need for greater diversity within sciences. This does not just mean allowing a broad demographic to carry out very narrow and prescribed forms of research, but actually allowing diverse researchers to incorporate their wide range of knowing and doing into a wide range of outputs. Yes, this process too may be messy and complex, but with more diverse minds, we can tackle more diverse problems in ways that serve a wider group of people. To facilitate, this requires changes on an institutional level, from how we allocate research funding, to workplace culture and the treatment of ways of researching outside the ‘Western’ norm (Keskitalo 1976). It also requires input on an individual level, as the fundamental role of researchers beyond learning is to share what we learn, connecting our colleagues, students and the public with places, processes, people or phenomena beyond their experience. In the words of Inuit youth in Pedersen et al. (2020, pp. 335), speaking to southern researchers carrying out work in the Inuit homeland (Inuit Nunangat), ‘You are now a critical link between the North and South, and your experiences can help the rest of the country develop a better understanding and appreciation of this amazing place!’.