Doing research ethically is not about finding a set of rules to follow or ticking boxes on a form. It’s about learning to think and act in an ethical way. How ethical an action is, or is not, usually depends on its context. Therefore, everything must be thought through as far as possible, because even standard ‘ethical’ actions may not always be right. For example, many researchers regard anonymity as a basic right for participants. However, if your participants have lived under a repressive regime where their voices were silenced, they may feel very upset at the thought of being anonymised, and want any information they provide to be attributed to them using their real names. In such a context, claiming that they must be anonymised because of research ethics would in fact be unethical, because it would cause unnecessary stress to your participants.
In my role as ethics lead for the UK’s Social Research Association, I’ve been helping a group of people from the Academy of Social Sciences who have been developing some common ethical principles for social science. This has involved a long and multi-faceted consultation process, during which a number of people spoke in favour of ‘virtue ethics’, or the idea that a good person will be an ethical person.
I fundamentally disagree with this position. As demonstrated in my last post, we are all subject to cultural conditioning which is bound to influence us as researchers. We are also all vulnerable to cognitive biases such as confirmation bias (giving more weight to views or phenomena that support what we already believe) and hindsight bias (seeing events as having been predictable when they happened). Given this, it doesn’t matter how virtuous we are, we’re not going to be as ethical as we could be if we put some simple steps in place.
The first step is to acknowledge, and try to identify, your own cultural conditioning, and to learn about the cognitive biases that may affect you. Although we’re notoriously bad at identifying our own cognitive biases, we are better at spotting other people’s, so if you’re working with others it can be helpful to look out for each other’s biases.
Then articulate the value base for your research. If you’re working alone, you need to devise this for yourself; if in a team, produce it collectively. And don’t just write a list of words; think through the meanings of the values you choose. For example, if you want your research to be ‘honest’, what does that mean in practice? We all tell lies all the time, even to ourselves, and research is no different. For example, researchers think it’s perfectly OK to lie in the interests of maintaining participant confidentiality. So if you want your research to be honest, you need to consider how honest you think it can actually be.
Try to identify your own assumptions. While it’s important to try not to make assumptions about other people, research is usually based on some assumptions, and it helps to act ethically if you know what these are. For example, are you assuming that your research is not intrusive? Or that it will be as high a priority for others as it is for you? Are you assuming that your sample is representative? Or that your data is accurate? Why are you making each assumption? What are the implications of your assumptions for your research?
Grounded theorists Strauss and Corbin suggested watching out for absolutes as a useful way to guard against biases and unhelpful assumptions. So if you find yourself, or a participant, using words like ‘never’ or ‘always’, or phrases like ‘couldn’t possibly’ or ‘everyone knows’, take time to work out what is behind the statement. You may well discover an obstructive bias or assumption, and then you can begin to search for a way to counteract that bias or assumption.
As social scientists, we try to include a wide range of people as research participants, but we can forget to take the same approach to literature. So another step is, when you’re reading, try to find relevant work by people with different backgrounds and perspectives from yours. This could include people from different nationalities, disciplines, genders, professions, and so on. Then, when you’re writing, try to draw on the work of a wide range of people too – though only if that work is relevant and worth citing, otherwise you are being tokenistic which is not ethical.
It is of course impossible to write a full set of ethical guidelines in a blog post. However, following these suggestions will lead you to a wider, more fully ethical approach to your research. If you want to delve further into the whys and wherefores of ethical research, there is plenty of material online. Here are some useful links:
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Framework for Research Ethics – the ESRC is one of the UK’s biggest research funders, and this Framework was updated in January 2015.
The Research Ethics Guidebook – actually a website with a wealth of information, linked to the ESRC principles.
Association of Internet Researchers Ethics Guide – a wiki containing useful pointers for doing ethical research online.