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Ask Dr. Editor

Ethical considerations for the integration of Indigenous knowledge into open education resources

Consent, consultation and collaboration are key.



I want to create open education resources (OERs) for my undergraduate classes, and in my discipline, that necessarily means I’m going to be including content related to Indigenous Peoples. I know from my research that Indigenous Peoples should have a say in what gets written about them in an academic context – as in, research should be of, by, and for Indigenous Peoples and communities. So how does that translate into OERs? I want to democratize learning and reduce barriers to accessing high-quality learning materials, but most of my research collaborators aren’t prioritizing developing resources for university students (which is fair!). How can I create an OER ethically?


– Anonymous, Linguistics

Dr. Editor’s response:

It’s fantastic to see that you want to create free, open, and accessible educational resources, and that you’re looking to follow an ethical process in doing so – that is, acknowledging that you may not have the right to share some Indigenous Knowledge with your undergraduate students.

My favourite resource for all types of academic writing by and about Indigenous Peoples is Greg Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style (2018). In general, he notes, a respect for Indigenous ways of being “does not come from following rules” (p. 30). He advises that consent and collaboration are the key to respecting Indigenous cultural property, including Traditional Knowledge and Oral Traditions. Indigenous Peoples own their knowledge and culture, and “everyone else must seek permission to use them” – even in cases where non-Indigenous laws might imply that something is “public domain” (p. 38).

Working in partnership with Indigenous Peoples requires thought, care, attention, dialogue, and time. To facilitate this, Mr. Younging recommends practices like:

  • Including a large circle of Indigenous contributors;
  • Taking time to work in partnership with Indigenous communities; and,
  • Following Indigenous Protocols, including respect for Elders and Oral Traditions.

If you’re already following these wise practices in your research, then that’s wonderful. I assume, however, that your OER will be more expansive in scope than your research. In the case of an OER, it may be that your research collaborators don’t prioritize creating learning materials for a general undergraduate population – but even if they were keen to collaborate on an OER, they may not have the authority to speak for the full scope of nations that your OER might encompass, if your OER pulls together information from a number of sources.

To learn more about how a researcher and educator in your position might go about creating an OER that integrates Indigenous Knowledge, I spoke with Kayla Lar-Son, the Indigenous programs and services librarian for the X̱wi7x̱wa Library at UBC.

Ms. Lar-Son recommends two steps in starting to develop an OER in your context:

1. Slow down

Let’s say that your OER will draw on your research – which you know was performed ethically, in line with the process that Mr. Younging describes – as well as on primary and secondary source material that was obtained through conventional scholarly practices. In this case, Ms. Lar-Son advises, determine where the Knowledge in those primary and secondary sources is coming from. She suggests that you ask questions like:

  • Who wrote or collected the resource you’re getting the Knowledge from? Are they a trusted person in the community?
  • How was the Knowledge obtained by the author? How did it get included in your source in the first place?
  • Is there any acknowledgement of community participation or ownership in your source? Any evidence that ethics, informed consent, or protocol were followed?
  • Who is claiming ownership of the Knowledge?

These questions are important because, once Knowledge is introduced into scholarly circulation, it is exceptionally difficult for communities to regain control of that Knowledge, or to determine where and how it is shared, if it should be shared at all. When you ask questions like the ones listed above, you’re slowing down your usual process of “cite and keep writing”, and demonstrating respect for whether and how Indigenous nations may want their cultural property to circulate.

Indigenous communities have the right to determine what aspects of their Knowledge are shared. “Faculty members have a responsibility to do the most to not perpetuate the harm that has been done in previous Indigenous research, including by sharing Indigenous Knowledge without permission,” says Ms. Lar-Son; “it’s on us now to be doing better.”

2. Trace the sources

Once you’ve thought critically about the Indigenous Knowledge you want to include in your OER – about where that Knowledge comes from, and whether you have any right to recirculate it – then your next steps are to determine who to consult. Places where you might start this inquiry include:

  • Your institution’s Indigenous longhouse, support centre, office, or consulting Elders;
  • The cultural or research office at the community or nation referenced in your source materials, as they can consult with their community’s Knowledge Keepers; or,
  • Your institution’s library.

It’s often possible to find someone who has the authority and time to review your resource and help you to determine if it’s appropriate to cite in an OER as-is, or if you need to do more work to request permission to share a piece of Knowledge. If you’re not able to find that authoritative person on your own, then your favourite librarian at your institution should be able to help you to locate them.

For further resources on the subject, Ms. Lar-Son recommends the following:


Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at
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