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bleg: opinions on ethics of using wikileaked cables in scholarly research

19 September 2012
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I’m working on a paper about political transitions following presidential deaths in Africa. We examine the Malawi 2012 case closely, but also look at parallel experiences in Nigeria in 2010 and Zambia in 2008 (our first draft was written before both Atta Mills and Zenawi passed away). We were asked to provide in more detail the context surrounding the Nigerian and Zambian transitions, and though I found the Nigerian case relatively easy to get more information about, the Zambian case proved more difficult.

Then, my co-author found this cable that came from the Lusaka Embassy shortly after Mwanawasa’s death posted to Wikileaks.

Here is an excerpt:

The MMD’s rose-tinted assessments of Mwanawasa’s recovery, right up until his death on August 19, may have been wishful thinking as the party endeavored to buy time to preserve the status quo and to address discreetly succession issues.

The cable is particularly useful to us because it provides details about in-fighting in the ruling party, more so than even media accounts in the major Zambian newspapers.

My question for haba na haba readers is: what are your opinions on the ethics of using a cable from Wikileaks as a source for a scholarly article?

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. abedgell permalink
    19 September 2012 8:35 pm

    I would say that using the cable is a huge gamble and could gravely affect the credibility of your work (and perhaps future work). Could the cable hurt the credibility of your article more than it helps it? Seeing as Zambia is not your central case – I’m not sure it is worth the risk.

  2. 20 September 2012 7:36 am

    In general, I think it would be foolish to have scholarly work ignore the cables from Wikileaks. Almost to the point of being unethical to stay away from researching them from a discursive standpoint. But if something came from them that helped other research, I think the main concern would be finding other evidence to support it or pursuing substantiating claims in the way a journalist might. If something from a cable didn’t have support elsewhere, there might be some discussion of in-text citations mentioning the controversy of the cables and perhaps a need to explore citing the cables in the bibliography in a way for others to understand the nature of the source.

  3. Jason Kerwin permalink
    20 September 2012 9:40 am

    Since you have no influence over the fact that the cables were released, I see no ethical concern there. The principal worry is that you could somehow encourage future criminal (or legal but immoral) behavior. That risk also seems pretty small – I don’t think Wikileaks is much influenced in its choices by the use of leaked documents in academic research. Finally, you could be exposing secrets inappropriately, but this stuff is already

    On the other hand, I usually do pretty badly at guessing where actual ethicists will perceive ethical problems (want to sell your organs? Go nuts! I was pretty much born to be an economist.) I would say that abedgell is right, in that this is a gamble – there’s no real ethical issue, but there is the risk that someone will claim you’ve taken unethical actions, either in seriousness or to use it against you. Maybe you can go through an IRB for this part of your project? That would provide guidance as well as provide cover, in the sense that you could say you tried your best to determine whether there was an issue.

  4. 20 September 2012 10:18 am

    I don’t think there’s too much of a conflict there. The information has gone public, whether it has been declassified or not. I agree with the above commenter that it would be nice to substantiate claims made in the cables. If possible, you could try to go directly to interviewing (former) staffers at the embassy (without mentioning WikiLeaks, obviously).

  5. 24 September 2012 12:55 pm

    I mostly agree with what’s been said above. You definitely need to get IRB approval (which I know is a pain, but better safe than sorry). I would also consider if anyone could potentially be harmed by further publicizing the cable (eg, a dissident is identified as being a contact of the CIA or something like that). If not, it’s probably okay.

  6. Gyre permalink
    24 September 2012 4:58 pm

    Considering that you personally didn’t publish the cable I don’t know if it’s possible for there to be any legal trouble and I don’t think it should be considered any more unethical than the New York Times publishing them. If, however, it placed a person in danger I would think hard on it*.

    *And remember that the Zambian government has probably already seen those leaked cables and so your actions aren’t likely to put anyone in more danger than they already are.

  7. Iván C (@africanstates) permalink
    25 September 2012 3:33 am

    I don’t see any problem in using something that is already public, as long as it does not carry any negative consequence for someone (and if that had to happen, it would have been after the publication by Wikileaks, and not after the publication of your article, which, sincerely, much less people will read).

    My objections would be more about the credibility of the source. First, it is an anonymous source from the Embassy in Lusaka. Can you be sure the person has a good source him/herself? Second, it provides more comment/interpretation that information. Hence, I guess the cable could rather be used for an analysis of foreign perceptions of the power struggle within the Zambian government than as a source of information about what was actually happening.

  8. 26 September 2012 3:36 am

    I only really echo what people have written above me. It’s ok, just try to support it for credibility, and make sure you comment so that others are aware of the situation. In that way you give readers the option to make their own mind up.

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