Ethical Research and Ethical Considerations
Ethics refers to the moral values or principles that guide a code of conduct for human beings. It relates to the ways in which people behave and, to put it simply, it is about ‘doing the right thing’.
Ethical rules are formed when people make value judgments about what is right and wrong and about where the boundary lies between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Research ethics deal with the manner and principles in which research is conducted and how the results or findings are reported. They are guided by legal, professional, cultural and personal obligations.
Students studying within UK universities must comply with their university’s ethical standards. Each university has an ethics committee which is responsible for the research activities carried out by students and academic staff. As part of your dissertation project, you are expected to submit your ethics application form, which is reviewed, first of all, by your supervisor.
Ethical principles and suggestions
As a researcher, you take responsibility for your participants/respondents, those sponsoring or commissioning your research and the wider research community.
Students studying at UK universities should adhere to the following principles which set out the responsibilities and values relevant to your research. You, as a researcher, are encouraged to follow these principles and consider the wider consequences of your work and to engage critically in good practice in your research.
Integrity and honesty
You should comply with all legal and ethical requirements relevant to your field of study. You should declare any potential or actual conflicts of interest relating to research and, where necessary, take steps to resolve them. Researchers should make every effort to stick to the research plan and produce the desired results.
Your results and findings must be trustworthy. You should be honest in relation to your own research and that of others. You must be honest about your research purpose and processes, what data will be recorded and how they will be used. ‘Informed consent’ must be obtained prior to your data collection.
You should do your utmost to ensure the accuracy of data and results by dealing with the data collected or provided to you, in an accurate and unbiased way. It is also important to acknowledge the contributions of others involved in your research.
Respect and fairness
Treating the people involved in your research with respect requires you to think about the ways in which your research may be seen as undermining others’ values and credibility.
Researchers should not discriminate against other people on the basis of their personal identities, including their ethnicity, gender, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, social background or political beliefs. Furthermore, you should always give credit to the original authors of your cited sources.
Harm to participants and researchers
You should ensure the safety of everyone involved in your research, including yourself, the research subjects, patients, participants, and others. You need to avoid any potential physical and psychological harm to your research participants throughout the research process.
Meanwhile, it is important to consider your personal safety when exposing yourself to new situations and meeting people you do not know. Consider the following scenario:
Yu Wang is doing her undergraduate dissertation with a research objective to find out brand choices and alcohol consumption behavior amongst pub goers.
On her ethics application form, she states that she plans to visit three pubs on a Friday night, to observe and interview people there. In order to increase the response rate, she plans to offer drink vouchers to her participants.
There are a number of ethical concerns around her research design. First is the protection of the researcher. It may not be safe for her to collect data among people who may have consumed a large amount of alcohol. The second issue is related to the quality of her data.
People who are under the influence of alcohol may not be in a suitable state to answer her questions. The third issue is her incentive for participation. It is not considered ethical to encourage people who are already drinking alcohol to consume more alcohol.
Integrity in research plays out in two broad areas in which power and politics both play a role. The first is in your quest to produce knowledge – your responsibility here is to make sure you have captured ‘truth’; reached conclusions not tainted by error and unrecognized bias, and have conducted your research with professional integrity.
The second is in working with others – your responsibility here is an ethical one that ensures that the rights and well-being of those involved with your study are protected at all times.
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Understanding the Power Game
Research as a purely objective activity removed from all aspects of politics and power is a myth no longer accepted in the research world. I must admit that when I began ‘doing’ research I did not feel powerful.
I was just a student and didn’t see how power might impact on my ability to conduct credible research. But of course, I should have because I did have power. It was power derived from being well educated and middle class, power derived from being in a position to conduct research, the power that comes from being in a position of control and authority.
Now it would be nice if gender, age, ethnicity, religion, social class, etc. no longer caused or created prejudice. But they do. Attributes affect both how others see you and how you see the world.
And as inequitable as it might be, certain traits are associated with power and privilege, while others are not. This fact is likely to be self-evident to anyone who has been the victim of discrimination.
The impact of unrecognized power can be profound. For years, anthropologists conducted research without this reflexive awareness of self, and for years their findings were imprinted with the biases and assumptions of white, patriarchal, Western society.
Both the integrity of the knowledge produced and the well-being of the researched are dependent on the ethical negotiation of power and power relationships.
Credibility: Integrity in the Production of Knowledge
If the goal of conducting research is to produce new knowledge, the knowledge that others will come to trust and rely on, then the production of this knowledge needs to be credible. It must have the ‘power to elicit belief’.
Credibility The quality, capability or power to elicit belief.
But this is easier said than done. Social science research generally involves working with people – and research that involves people provides a host of challenges to research integrity.
In fact, people are extremely difficult. Bacteria, cells, DNA, etc. generally behave in the laboratory – you know what to expect, and the little bacteria are not attempting to consciously or subconsciously throw you.
But people are tough. They have hidden agendas, fallible memories and a need to present themselves in certain ways. They can be helpful, defensive and/or deferential – and there will be plenty of times when you won’t know when they are being what. And then there is the researcher.
Also, a fallible, biased or subjective human entity, faced with the challenge of producing ‘unbiased’, trustworthy results. Now when you combine a subjective researcher with an unpredictable ‘researched’ it makes the production of credible knowledge no easy feat.
Outside the research, world credibility can come from that which is believable, plausible, likely, probable or realistic. But within the research world, credibility takes on a more specialized meaning and is demonstrated by a range of indicators such as reliability, validity, authenticity, neutrality, and auditability.
Such indicators point to research that has been approached as disciplined rigorous inquiry and is therefore likely to be accepted as a valued contribution to knowledge.
Working with Appropriate Indicators
Knowing what indicators are relevant and appropriate for a particular research project is not without ambiguity. As the assumptions that underpin research expand beyond the realms of positivist knowing, debate over how research should be critically evaluated intensifies.
For traditional researchers, indicators of good research are premised around a world that can be quantifiably measured through defined rules of inquiry, can be approached with objectivity and is, in fact, knowable. These assumptions, however, have been called into question by those critiquing the positivist paradigm.
It is now recognized that an alternative set of indicators is more appropriate for research premised around a post-positivist/postmodern world – a world that is recognized as infinitely complex and without a defined ‘truth’; recognizes and values subjectivities, and is unlikely to be captured by statistics alone.
The difficulty for many researchers is that the assumptions that underpin their research may not fit neatly into one paradigmatic way of knowing. To pigeonhole themselves and their research into either positivist or post-positivist frameworks limits their ability to think and act reflexively.
Designing studies that can cross the constructed boundaries dividing these two camps is difficult when researchers adopt frameworks derived from within the paradigms.
So in the face of such complexity, how do you begin to work towards indicators of credibility? Well, rather than use a paradigmatic base, I suggest you look at the underlying challenges that need to be met in order to ensure good research, namely:
Have subjectivities been acknowledged and managed?
Has ‘true essence’ been captured?
Are methods approached with consistency?
Are arguments relevant and appropriate?
Can the research be verified?
These questions can act as a framework for evaluating the credibility of your own work as well as the work of others.
It is then up to you as a researcher to determine the appropriate indicators for each of these questions through an examination of your own worldview and assumptions; the aims and objectives of the research; and the methodological approaches adopted.
The question here is not whether researchers are subjective entities (everyone is), but whether we recognize ourselves as subjective, and whether we can manage our personal biases.
There is no doubt that we make sense of the world through the rules we are given to interpret it. But because we are immersed in these rules and surrounded by them, they can be very hard to see.
For example, those born into a religious faith do not often remember when they first heard about God; He or She simply is. Our sense of patriotism, our understandings of family, our belief in justice and equity – our morals and most core beliefs – are established within us before we have the ability to recognize or reflect on them as constructs.
These beliefs are embedded within us. They are a part of how we understand and make sense of the world – and how we might research it. Working towards credible research, therefore, demands reflexive awareness of our worldviews and a conscious effort for us to take them into account as we enter into the research journey.
Now for traditional scientists, such as those working in a laboratory, this means putting aside any preconceived notions and aiming for pure objectivity. Strict methodological protocols and a ‘researched’ that is outside the self generally make striving for this indicator a manageable task.
For social science researchers, however, the challenge is somewhat more difficult. It is society itself that is being researched, and as products of society, social science researchers need to recognize that their own worldview makes them value-bound.
If who we are colors what we see and how we interpret it, then they need to hear, see and appreciate multiple perspectives or realities is essential to rigorous research. Feminists, for example, have long critiqued the social sciences for their tendency to analyze and interpret the world from a privileged, white, male perspective.
Objectivity is never a given. If you as a researcher don’t take subjectivities into account and actively work towards the criteria of neutrality, you can readily fall into the trap of judging the reality of others in relation to your own.
In fact, researchers who do not act to consciously manage their own positioning run the risk of conducting ‘self-centric’ analysis; that is, being insensitive to issues of race, class or gender; hearing only the dominant voice, and disregarding the power of language.
Being Insensitive to Issues of Race, Class or Gender
Insensitivity to issues of race, class, gender, etc. refers to the practice of ignoring these constructs as important factors or variables in a study and can be a by-product of ‘self-centric’ analysis.
Researchers need to recognize and appreciate the reality of the researched, otherwise, they run the risk of ignoring unique and significant attributes. For example, a study of student motivation in a multi-cultural setting would not be very meaningful without ethnicity as one significant variable.
Yes, career ambitions, study enjoyment, perceived relevance, etc. can be important predictors of motivation, but all of these factors can be motivated by family and culture.
For example, in many Anglo-Asian households, student success and failure are seen as parental success and failure, and this can be a huge student weight and/or motivator.
Insensitivity to issues of race, class, and gender can also lead to dichotomization, or the tendency to put groups at two separate ends of the spectrum without recognition of overlapping characteristics.
We do this when we talk in absolute terms about ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’. Research that dichotomizes is often research that has fallen prey to stereotypes.
Finally, insensitivity to race, class, and gender can lead to double standards where the same behaviors, situations or characteristics are analyzed using different criteria depending on whether respondents are black or white, male or female, rich or poor, etc.
Suppose you wanted to explore reasons for marital infidelity. If you were to use different sets of responses for males and females in which your preconceived notions about men being ‘easily bored’ and women being ‘quite needy’ came through, you would have a double standard.
Remember that in the conduct of research, there is an essential need to guard against the assumptions and biases inherent within our society.
Hearing Only the Dominant Voice
It is very easy to listen to those who are speaking the loudest or to those who are speaking your ‘language’. But when you do this, you’re likely to end up missing an important undercurrent, a whole other voice.
I have struggled with this in my own teaching. When I give a workshop, I try very hard to relate to my students – to communicate with them rather than lecture at them. I try to engage in ‘dialogue’ and get a two-way conversation going. And I think I do this fairly well. In every class, a core group of students makes this easy for me.
But who is in this core group? Well, it can be a mixed bag, but I can tell you who isn’t. It is not generally the international students; they tend to stay in the background.
Now there are a number of reasons for this. For one, many come from an educational system where they are not invited to participate. Others struggle with English as a second language.
But another factor could be me and my reality. The examples I use, the personal anecdotes I share, my ‘in your face’ American style, can all conspire so that those with demographic characteristics similar to mine are the ones who speak up the most.
So it is the Asian and Indian students in my class who can go unheard (as they are likely to do throughout their Western university careers).
When I am teaching, my challenge is to find a way to engage all of my class and to make sure I am reaching every student – and that they are reaching me. The challenge when researching is similar.
If you do not consciously work on strategies for appreciating diversity and hearing the marginalized, you run the risk of gathering data and reaching conclusions that ignore those in society who often go unheard.
Attempting to empower traditionally marginalized voices is essential in responsible research. Indigenous peoples, minorities, children, women, gays, and lesbians are often not heard, yet their voices are essential to any full understanding.
The People in My Shire – Keith’s story
I was conducting research with a local council and had already interviewed the mayor and a few of the local councilors about the community when I attended my first council meeting. The meeting was a real eye-opener.
The ethnic background for the region I was studying was about 45% Anglo-Australian, 25% Asian, 20% Indian and 10% Greek, with at least seven different religions.
Yet, when I walked into the meeting I was asked to give my ‘Christian’ name, and the meeting started with a prayer from the Protestant minister. At that stage, I took a good look around and realized that all of the councilors looked to be of Anglo-Australian descent. In fact, almost everyone present at the meeting was Anglo-Australian.
I then thought of all the times the mayor and councilors had spoken of their ‘community’. I was left wondering what their ‘community’ was. Was their frame of reference the range of constituents in their jurisdiction, or was their frame of reference individuals with the same demographic background as themselves.
In other words, ‘community’ as the white Christians who came to the council meetings? From that point on I was committed to ensuring that my research reflected the ‘real’ community, not just those with the ability/propensity to be heard.
Disregard for the Power of Language
Research is colored by our use of language in a number of ways. First, there is the subtle yet formidable power of words themselves. The words we use to speak to respondents and they use to speak to us can be easily misunderstood and misrepresented.
For example, language that might be ‘shocking’ for one group might be quite ‘everyday’ for another. It is worth remembering that analysis of words needs to come from the perspective and reality of the researched, not the researcher.
Working with respondents with whom you do not share a common language presents an added level of difficulty. There isn’t a single computer program that can accurately translate one language to another; and that is because languages are highly metaphorical, mythical, poetic and full of hidden meanings, riddles, and assumptions.
Accurate interpretations, let alone the nuances of language and speech, are often lost through interpreters or in the process of translation. The researcher who assumes that English can capture thoughts processed in a different language with any sophistication risks reducing the richness and complexity of a respondent’s ideas and views.
Researchers working outside their first language need to find ways to confirm that the accuracy and richness of their data are not lost in the process of interpretation and translation.
Strategies for Managing Subjectivities
Managing subjectivities is more than something you should do. It is, in fact, a task which is crucial to the production of credible data and trustworthy results. Strategies you can adopt include:
Appreciating your own worldview – Your ability to manage subjectivities is dependent on being able to recognize and articulate them. In fact, the first chapter of many theses now includes a section on researcher positioning.
Appreciating alternative realities – Actively explore the personal and societal assumptions that underpin the understandings of the researcher and the researched, and accept that there might be quite distinct.
Suspending initial judgments – We live in a society where it is common to judge what we do not understand. Yet as researchers, not understanding is precisely why it is important not to judge.
Checking your interpretation of events, situations, and phenomena with
‘insiders’ – This is particularly relevant in cross-cultural research. Finding out how someone from within a cultural reality understands a situation can help illuminate your own biases.
Getting the full story – Those we seek out and those willing to participate are often those with the strongest voices. Your research design should seek representation from all those you wish your research to speak for or about, including those often silenced.
Seeking out and incorporating alternative and pluralistic points of view – Even when crystallizing interpretations, hold on to the richness and complexity that can come from outside viewpoints.
It could be said that research is all about the elusive concept of ‘truth’ and our desire to capture it. Traditionally, we are talking here about a knowable world in which a singular truth can be assessed by the indicator of validity. In other words, we assess whether our findings are ‘correct’.
Suppose you were exploring whether ‘gender identification causes girls to relate better to their mothers than do boys’. Validity would rest on:
(1) showing that how you measured ‘relate’ truly reflected ‘relating’; (2) showing that you had a sample size large enough and representative enough to make the claim about girls and boys in general; (3) showing that it truly is gender identification that is affecting the ability to relate, and not any other factors.
In a world where we accept the possibility of multiple realities, however, authenticity is more likely to be an appropriate indicator. Authenticity indicates that rigor and reflexive practice have assured that conclusions are justified, credible and trustworthy even when the truth is dependent on perspective.
Your ability to capture the truth, whether you understand it as a single valid truth or an authentic truth that may sit alongside other interpretations, will be highly dependent on your ability to get your respondents to talk to you with openness and honesty.
And while there are no techniques that can guarantee candor, building trust is essential. It is therefore absolutely crucial to minimize any real or perceived power differential between you and the ‘researched’. If you can’t do this, the ‘researched’ are likely to feel alienated, intimidated and/or uninterested by the research process.
There is any number of factors that can influence your ability to build rapport and trust, including:
Gender –, the rapport and trust you build, the slant on stories you hear, and the memories you draw out can be very dependent on gender. For example, some women might only feel comfortable talking about the loss of a child with another woman.
Or imagine conducting an interview on promiscuity; the answers you might elicit could be highly dependent on your own gender. Now there are no hard-and-fast rules here. What is important is to consciously think through the issue of gender and whether it is likely to be a factor in building trust.
Age – Trust is often dependent on your ability to relate to your respondents and their ability to relate to you, and age can certainly be a factor.
For example, there are very few parents who can ask their teenagers ‘What did you do this weekend?’ and get the full story – especially if the weekend was any good! Like it or not, age can be a critical factor incredible data collection.
And again there are no hard-and-fast rules, just a mandate that you consider how age might influence researcher-researched relationships.
Ethnicity – The ethnic and cultural background of the researcher can certainly influence the research process. Sad to say, we still have much inequity, suspicion and mistrust running across ethnic and racial lines. But that is a reality – and it is a reality that can affect your ability to gain trust.
Suppose you wanted to research attitudes towards education in a Hispanic community. While a ‘white’ outsider might struggle to gain trust, a Hispanic insider might have an easier time opening up honest and open lines of communication.
Socio-economic status/education – Societal position can also have great bearing on the research process. Researchers often come from a position of privilege, so you need to think about breaking down barriers, and convince the ‘researched’ that you are not sitting in judgment.
Being aware of your own socio-economic status and educational background, as well as that of the researched, puts you in a position to manage any potential power-related issue that might influence your study.
The position of power and privilege within a culture or subculture – An imbalance of power can be a common difficulty for researchers working within a culture where they are cast as a ‘scientist’ or ‘expert’.
Gary Larson once drew a cartoon showing ‘natives’ in a hut frantically hiding their VCRs and TVs while yelling out ‘Anthropologists!’. He very insightfully illustrates how deference to the expert changes the researched.
A major dilemma when understanding cross-cultural studies is knowing how you can conduct ‘authentic’ research when you are immersed in a culture where your position of power and privilege finds those you are researching acting in ways that may not be ‘natural’.
Listening Without Judgement
I was once reminded how hard it can be to withhold judgment. I often give workshops in Hong Kong and one of my students flew from there to Australia (where I now work and live) for a visit.
Over lunch, he and his wife told me that their youngest son, who was 10 and had gone to boarding school in the UK, had been crying on the phone every day saying that he hated it, was being picked on and racially abused, and really wanted to go home.
Now I was raised and still, live, in a cultural reality where I could not even contemplate sending any 10-year-old of mine that far away from home. Yet in no way do I question that this family’s decision was made out of love and a desire to give their child the best. It’s just that it is so far from my own reality and the way I have been socialized.
I had to make a conscious effort to suspend judgment and not snarl ‘What were you thinking, sending him there in the first place?’ People can sniff out judgment from a mile off, and if you do not make an effort to suspend or withhold it, you won’t stand a chance at building trust and getting to the heart of an issue.
Be conscious of both verbal and non-verbal cues here – what you say, how you say it, your facial expressions and your body language can all work to build trust or alienate the other.
Now it may seem as though issues of trust are more likely to be a factor in research that involves close interaction with the researcher, for example, when conducting an interview.
And while this is true, it is also worth thinking about how trust can be undermined or built in a survey. The words you use, the concepts you call on and the assumptions you make can all conspire to put respondents at ease or cause them to feel alienated.
Approaching Methods with Consistency
Once you have worked through issues related to the management of subjectivities and the building of trust to capture ‘truth’, the quest for integrity in knowledge production turns to questions of method. It is important to remember that, regardless of approach, researching is not a haphazard activity.
Rather, it is an activity that needs to be approached with discipline, rigor and a level of standardization. If the goal is to have your research stand up to scrutiny and be taken as credible, it is important that readers are confident that your methods have been implemented in ways that best ensure consistency.
Often consistency in methods is referred to as reliability or the extent to which a measure, procedure or instrument provides the same result on repeated trials. A good example here is bathroom scales. If you were to jump on your scales 10 times in a row and got the same results each time, the scales would be reliable.
The scales could be wrong – they might always be 10 pounds heavy or 10 pounds light (personally, I prefer the light variety), but they would be reliable. A more complicated example might be trying to measure job satisfaction with a questionnaire.
The questionnaire would only be reliable if results were not dependent on things like who administered the questionnaire, what kind of day the respondent was having, or whether or not it was a weekend.
The flipside of this is that people are complex and multi-faceted. At any given time, for any given reason, they may only reveal part of themselves. Suppose you wanted to ask about stress – this is something that can, and often does, vary from day today.
So developing methodological tools that are ‘reliable’ might not be straightforward. Nevertheless, the process of data collection needs to be more than haphazard. In fact, it should meet the criteria of dependability.
Methods need to be designed and developed in ways that are consistent, logical, systematic, well documented and designed to account for research subjectivities.
If you accept the possibility of multiple realities, varied perspectives, human variability, and inconsistency, then it is essential to find indicators of good research that can work within this complex and multi-faceted reality.
Making Relevant and Appropriate Arguments
Assume you are at the point where you have some great data. You’re pretty sure you have been able to manage your biases, got your respondents to open up, and employed data collection tools and analysis strategies capable of holding up to a good level of scrutiny.
The next step is to put forward some credible arguments. Now this will involve a few challenges we have already discussed: keeping a check on subjectivities and exploring multiple interpretations.
But, as discussed below, it will also involve weighing up your findings in light of your study’s limitations, and being confident that you are speaking for an appropriate group of people.
Being True to Your Study’s Limitations
Very few researchers get to conduct their studies in a way they consider ideal: there is rarely enough time or money; the cooperation of others might be less than ideal, and there could be a whole list of things they would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight. So what do you do?
Well, making appropriate arguments is about being able to attest to the credibility of your data and the trustworthiness of your results – in spite of any limitations. Now it can be tempting to downplay difficulties and write up your research as though everything went smoothly in a study that was optimally designed.
But if you are challenged here, your ethics and credibility can come into question. As outlined a much better approach is to take it in three steps. The first step is to honestly outline the study’s limitations or shortcomings.
The second step is to outline the strategies that you have employed to gather credible data and generate trustworthy results because of, or in spite of, any limitations. The third step follows from the second and is a ‘therefore’ type of statement that offers justification or rationalization for the data and findings of your study.
Speaking for an Appropriate Group of People
Conclusions relevant to only a particular sample or only within a certain research setting can provide important knowledge for key stakeholders, but they do not allow findings to be applied to a broader population and thereby limit the broader generation of new knowledge.
The broad applicability of findings is, therefore, a goal of many researchers. There is a desire to argue that findings extend beyond a particular sample or setting. But to do this researchers need to ensure they are speaking for an appropriate group of people. Any sample used should be representative of a wider population, and large enough that they can be confident that their findings do reflect larger trends.
Meeting these criteria means that your findings are generalizable. The key is ensuring both adequate and broad representation. And this is certainly possible in medium- to large-scale survey research.
But what if your research project is centered on a particular case, or is designed to collect more in-depth qualitative data that will limit your sample size? Under these circumstances, you may not be able to argue generalizability.
Yet broader applicability may still be a goal. If this is the case, your goal will be the indicator of transferability or highlighting ‘lessons learned’ that are likely to be applicable in alternative settings or populations.
For example, the results of an in-depth case study in any one school will not be representative of all schools – but there will definitely be lessons learned that can illuminate relevant issues and provide rich learning within other school contexts.
The key here is providing a detailed description of the research setting and methods so that applicability can be determined by those reading the research account.
Providing Accurate and Verifiable Research Accounts
Conducting research is a highly complex process. Without a doubt, it is hard to get it right. So it is the responsibility of the researcher to consciously minimize the possibility that results are false or misleading.
To that end, research approaches are expected to be open and accountable. The physicist Richard Feynman (1997) argues the need to ‘report everything that you think might make it [your study] invalid – not only what you think is right about it ... Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given if you know them.’
The admission of shortcomings and limitations is encouraged and research is expected to be reproducible. In fact, codes of ethics often require researchers to keep their raw data for a period of 5– 7 years, thereby protecting themselves from accusations of fraud or misrepresentation.
Even though the price of fraudulence can be quite high (students shown to be acting fraudulently are often forced to withdraw from their degree programmes), misrepresentation and fraud are quite rampant. Researchers (and not just students) have been known to:
blatantly fabricate data or falsify results;
omit cases or fiddle with numbers in order to show ‘significance’;
plagiarize passages from articles or books without crediting the original author(s);
misrepresent authorship by using a ghostwriter, taking full credit for authorship when more than one author was involved or naming a co-author who had no involvement with the study.
Verifiable accounts are therefore considered essential. As well as allowing others to attempt to replicate or reproduce findings, verifiable accounts help establish a study’s credibility by making them ‘auditable’ (others can see exactly how findings were generated).
It is difficult to blatantly fabricate data, falsify results, omit cases, fiddle with numbers, plagiarize and even misrepresent authorship, if your methods are out there for all to see.
Indicators and Checklist
A challenge for all research students is to become conversant with indicators of research integrity. Not only will you need to work towards such indicators in your own research, but also your ability to critically engage with relevant literature will be enhanced if you can assess the work of others in relation to relevant indicators..
I have a question!
Can qualitative research ever have the same credibility as quantitative research?
Phew … tough question. And that’s because there are a lot of researchers who would say no! They would argue that without a large enough sample, you cannot have statistical significance, and therefore no generalizability. And if that is their line of argument, they are correct.
Qualitative research is not often generalizable. But is that the goal? Qualitative research argues that there is value in delving deep and in exploring the idiographic.
And certainly, qualitative research, when judged appropriately, can meet rigorous standards of ‘post-positivist’ credibility. Qualitative research judged on quantitative criteria, however, will always fall short.
Ethics: Integrity and the ‘Researched’
Absolutely central to research integrity is ethics. With power comes responsibility. As a researcher, you have an explicit and fundamental responsibility towards the ‘researched’.
The dignity and well-being of respondents, both mentally and physically, is absolutely crucial. Understanding how this responsibility is best negotiated at legal, moral and ethical levels is a prerequisite for any potential researcher.
In a nutshell, researchers are not above the law. Some might like to be – but clearly, they are not. The laws of society stand in the world of research. If it is illegal for the general public, then it is illegal for researchers and research participants.
Now for most researchers, the criterion of non-engagement in illegal activities is not too difficult to appreciate or meet. Most recognize the logic here. But a more common legal dilemma is faced by researchers who:
(1) wish to study illegal activities; or (2) come across illegal activities in the course of their investigations. For example, I have had students with interests in everything from cockfighting, to abuse of patients by hospital staff, to corporal punishment in private schools.
And a dilemma that faces these student researchers is knowing whether they have an obligation to report any illegal activities they may come to know of in the course of their study.
For example, suppose you were interviewing parents about stress and you discovered a case of child abuse. Do you maintain confidentiality, or are you obliged to report the abuse?
Well, the law here is quite ambiguous and can vary by both country and case. You may or may not be obliged to report illegal activities, but in most countries, the courts can subpoena your data and files.
Legal precedents suggest that researcher assurances of confidentiality do not hold up in court. As a researcher, you are not afforded the same rights as a lawyer, doctor or priest.
My advice is to seek advice. There are two solid avenues here. The first is through your ethics committee. Hopefully, when you applied for ethics approval there was some consideration given to the possibility of such challenges coming up.
The committee should have offered strategies and protocols for dealing with such circumstances prior to giving approval … and it is important to follow such protocols. The second avenue is your supervisor. If you find yourself in a situation that you do not know how to handle, do turn to your supervisor for advice.
Ethics tend to be based on moral obligations but put a professional spin on what is fair, just, right or wrong. Ethics refer to principles or rules of behavior that act to dictate what is actually acceptable or allowed within a profession. Ethical guidelines for the conduct of research will vary by professional code, discipline area, an institution, but generally cover the following areas:
Ensuring respondents have given informed consent – Participants can only give ‘informed consent’ to be involved in a research study if they have a full understanding of their requested involvement, including time commitment, type of activity, topics that will be covered, and all physical and emotional risks potentially involved.
Informed consent implies that participants are: competent – they have the reasonable intellectual capacity and psychological maturity; autonomous – they are making self-directed and self-determined choices; involved voluntarily – they are not unaware, forced, pressured or duped;
aware of the right to discontinue – they are under no obligation (or pressure) to continue involvement; not deceived – the nature of the study, any affiliations or professional standing, and the intended use of the study should be honest and open; not coerced – positions of power should not be used to get individuals to participate;
not induced – while it may be acceptable to compensate individuals for their time and effort, an inducement should not compromise a potential participant’s judgment.
Ensuring no harm comes to respondents – This includes emotional or psychological harm as well as physical harm. Now physical harm is relatively easy to recognize, but risks of psychological harm can be hard to identify and difficult to predict.
Whether it be resentment, anxiety, embarrassment or reliving unpleasant memories, psychological ‘harm’ can be unplanned and unintentional, yet commonplace. Keep in mind that as well as being ethically and morally unacceptable, risks of harm can give rise to legal issues.
We are talking about lawsuits here. So even if your conscience or your professional ethics can justify your decisions, the potential for legal action may be enough to make you reassess your approach.
Ensuring confidentiality and, if appropriate, anonymity – Confidentiality involves protecting the identity of those providing research data; all identifying data remains solely with the researcher. Keep in mind that pseudonyms may not be enough to hide identity.
If others can figure out who you are speaking about, or who is doing the speaking, you need to further mask identity or seek approval for disclosure. Anonymity goes a step beyond confidentiality and refers to protection against identification even from the researcher.
Information, data, and responses collected anonymously should not be identifiable with any particular respondent.
A good example of this is ‘anonymous’ class evaluations where students should feel confident that there is no chance of damning feedback coming back to bite them. As well as masking identity, protection of confidentiality and anonymity should involve secure storage of raw data; restricting access to the data; the need for permission for subsequent use of the data; and eventual destruction of raw data.
While such guidelines may seem straightforward, there’s likely to be a trade-off between following such guidelines and the data you want to collect. Ethics, however, must always take precedence.
Dilemmas do arise, so it is good to be prepared even if this means your design needs to go through a process of modification. Luckily, ethics committees have approval processes that can help you identify and work within the boundaries that define the conduct of ethical research.
Ethical Dilemmas in Real-World Research
So what types of ethical dilemmas are you likely to face when doing research? Well, protocols in almost all universities make sure you have informed consent and that participants know what your research is about and what their involvement will entail.
And thankfully, ethics protocols have immensely reduced the risk of physical harm. But in my experience, ethical pitfalls you might still face include:
1. Being insensitive to marginalized groups/respondents
When working with ethnic groups, for example, there is a need for cultural knowledge that gives you cultural sensitivity. And this cannot be assumed. Working in both Australia and New Zealand, I have seen researchers absolutely shocked that they have somehow offended Aboriginal and/or Maori respondents.
2. Not ensuring confidentiality
We promise that responses will be confidential, but when reporting on key informant interviews, for example, we give away a person’s workplace, department, and position, such that tracing this individual becomes an easy feat.
3. Putting respondents intense/conflict situations
I have seen this happen in many an ill-fated focus group. Tensions rise and if the conflict is not well managed, it can get ugly. Even worse, if focus group members are from the same workplace, family or school, tension from the research process can spill into other parts of their lives.
The advice here is never to do your first focus group (particularly on a subject likely to raise debate) on your own. Also, avoid focus groups that center on problems. Focus groups that focus on solutions are easier to manage.
4. Asking insensitive and potentially threatening questions
It can be hard to know what people are sensitive about. We know to be cautious when it comes to researching sexual assault, domestic violence or experiences of war.
But I have seen hurt arise when people are asked about Facebook, dieting habits and procrastination. And this is where I really appreciate the scrutiny of an ethics committee. It means responsibility for unanticipated harm is not all mine.
5.Putting yourself in a situation where you (feel you) need to break confidences
Child abuse, dangerous work practices, fraud, theft: you may come across knowledge of any of this. Do you say ‘stuff the research process’ and report it? Well, I certainly hope so in the case of child abuse. But what about petty theft? What about embezzled funds?
What about serious breaches of occupational health and safety? What about minor breaches of occupational health and safety? Massive dilemma. But one you need not to take on alone. Talk to your supervisor – refer it on to the ethics committee. Do not shoulder this burden by yourself.
Ethics Approval Processes
Commitment to the conduct of ethical research is simply not enough. Most universities and large bureaucratic institutions, such as hospitals or some government departments, require you to obtain official approval that will involve the development of an ethics proposal, including consent forms and information statements in order to undertake a study.
This will require you to carefully examine all aspects of your study for ethical implications and work through all the logistics.
Now there are quite a few researchers who believe that getting ethics approval is simply a bureaucratic hurdle-jumping process designed to take up limited and precious time. But there are actually some good reasons to take the process seriously.
An ethics committee is there to: ensure integrity in knowledge production; promote responsibility towards participants; and protect both the researcher and the granting institution from any potential legal ramifications that might arise from unethical research.
Most universities will have their own ethics protocols, but there is a move for greater standardization. The Economic and Social Research Council in the UK, for example, has developed the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics, a 51-page guide that sets out requirements for ethics approval for ESRC-funded research.
It is often adopted by other UK funders as well. Australia has gone a step further with the development of a National Ethics Approval Form (NEAF) designed to assist researchers to complete standardized proposals for submission to various research committees (now adopted by most Australian universities).
The goal is to increase the consistency, efficiency, and quality of the review processes.
Participant Information Statement
1.A brief description of the aims and objectives of the study in lay terms, including what you expect to achieve
2. Information on who is conducting the study, including person or team, institution, the degree is undertaken and supervisor
3.What the study involves – interview, focus groups, video recording, etc. Also include locations, topics that will be covered, the time required of participants and risks
4.The right of the participant to withdraw at any time
5.Assurances of confidentiality
6.Benefits to participants
7.Contact details for further information and to discuss any concerns.