Ethics – the right and wrong
Ethics. What is right? What is wrong? With research I guess the core of this is a set of principles to keep our participants and their data safe. This is both critically and morally important. I think ethics have however taken another form. We’re all involved in organisations and to them, ethics is of vital importance too. There are legal, reputational, organisational and business issues. If a piece of research we were conducting led to conflict within the area of research or we left a HDD on the train full of participants details there would be major implications for the organisation. To prevent this organisations have procedures and processes monitor research ethics and approve projects before they take place. This is a valuable way to administer ethical approval – but for some it seems needless bureaucracy.
I wanted to start my reflection on that. Often we all fall into the trap of thinking ethical approval is just something we’re made to do. Something that is part of our organisation. I wanted to focus on the importance of ethical consideration for moral reasons. For our participants. Most importantly I think it is important to maintain this thought process throughout. Often I think it is easy to consider ethics as a mere checklist at the start of a project and not an ongoing evaluatory process throughout a research project.
Why is it important to consider research ethics?
The following are what I consider headlines in ensuring ethical research:
Accurate, thorough and accurately represented data
As I said in my previous post, it is immoral to misrepresent data or skew things towards a particular finding. There is no value in such research and it literally undermines the whole purpose of conducting research. It is our responsibility as researchers to produce valid and accurate results. This is especially the case where our research involves people as it would be abhorrent to misrepresent them, their viewpoints or opinions.
Research should do no harm to the participants. This is an obvious one. Sometimes a difficult one. Imagine this applied to medical research? Sometimes it is about having processes lined up in case things do go wrong just as much as it is in trying to prevent it from happening. In the same way, people should not be put in any unnecessary risk.
Consider anonymity and confidentiality
Often we can offer anonymity or confidentiality to our participants. In doing so it is vital we handle the data carefully and sensitively. If a participant believes what they say is confidential, they may be more open. If a researcher went on to name and shame them it would a violation of research principles and even the data protection act.
In some contexts, participants (or their guardians) should know who we are and what we are doing. This is particularly the case with involved methods such as interviews and focus groups. Participants have a right to know what we are collecting and how we will use that data. There are cases where consent isn’t possible as it will affect the study outcome (psychologists observing behaviour) or sometimes it is outside our ability (participant observation of a food court at lunch). It is these cases where ethical considerations need to be carefully considered.
Is the person giving consent in a position to give consent? Are they old enough? Do they understand what it means?
How do you store your data? Who has access to this? If you have a file of participants names and addresses are you storing it securely? Do you have permission to share raw data?
How can we keep ourselves safe? Are we off to go speak to participants down dark alleys where no one can hear us scream? Unlikely… What about someone’s home? For my undergraduate I interviewed people at home. For my safety someone needed to know where I was. For my participants safety, they needed confidentiality. Dilemma. To solve this I had to pass sealed details to a colleague and they would be instructed to open it should I not check in at a specified time. Perhaps it seems a little overkill but it was something that kept us both safe.
Stealing is wrong and that is what plagiarism is at the heart. It is unethical to plagiarise work. Enough said.
It is important to comply to the Equality Act 2010. This is particularly important to consider as no language should be used that would bias anyone for any of the protected characteristics in the act.
I think it is sometimes easy to forget this. As social researchers we are often invading someone else’s world. Their community, their school, their place of work or even their home. We need to remember this as researchers and respect their territory.
Legal, health and safety, safeguarding
While all the above is important, criminal, safeguarding and health and safety issues must come first. If any participant indicated something falling into this area, the researcher may have an obligation to reveal this to the relevant authorities.
This next bit is formed for the Creswell (2003) book which looks at three ethical scenarios:
- This issue falls under my last point. This issue would over-ride all other considerations and the researcher would have an obligation to inform the prison that a breakout was planned.
- The researcher is plagiarising and this needs to be corrected. It would be best to approach the team as whole regarding plagiarism. This would give the individual opportunity to correct their mistake and learn. If this was still not fixed at a later date then a discussion would need to be had with that researcher. Plagiarism could bring the whole team/project/department into disrepute.
- In this case the student has done something wrong. She should stop her research until she receives ethical approval. If her project did not or needed amendments then the participants would have to be informed. This is assuming her researcher was properly constructed. If she had conducted it unethically then she may need disciplining according to regulations.
Validity and Reliability:
I am cautious of the length of this post so will leave it there. There were also no guidelines for the validity/reliability reflections so I am unsure what to write as well….