The Ethics of Research Evidence

Like so many of the terms used in research, ‘evidence’ has no single agreed meaning. Nor does there seem to be much consensus about what constitutes good or reliable evidence. The differing approaches of other professions may confuse the picture. For example, evidence that would convince a judge to hand down a life sentence would be dismissed by many researchers as anecdote.

evidenceGiven that evidence is such a slippery, contentious topic, how can researchers begin to address its ethical aspects? A working definition might help: evidence is ‘information or data that people select to help them answer questions’ (Knight 2004:1). Using that definition, we can look at the ethical aspects of our relationship with evidence: how we choose, use, and apply the evidence we gather and construct.

Evidence is often talked and written about as though it is something neutral that simply exists, like a brick or a table, to be used by researchers at will. Knight’s definition is helpful because it highlights the fact that researchers select the evidence they use. Evidence, in the form of facts or artefacts, is neither ethical nor unethical. But in the process of selection, there is always room for bias, and that is where ethical considerations come into play.

To choose evidence ethically, I would argue that first you need to recognise the role of choice in the process, and the associated potential for bias. Then you need to consider some key questions, such as:

  • What is the question you want to answer?
  • What are your existing thoughts and feelings about that topic?
  • How might they affect your choices about evidence?
  • What can you do to make those choices open and defensible?

The aim is to be able to demonstrate that you have chosen the information or data you intend to define as ‘evidence’ in as ethical a way as possible.

Once you have chosen your evidence, you need to use it ethically within the research process. This means subjecting all your evidence to rigorous analysis, interpreting your findings accurately, and reporting in ways that will communicate effectively with your audiences. These are some of the key responsibilities of ethical researchers.

Research is a process that converts evidence into research evidence. It starts with the information or data that researchers choose to use as evidence, which may be anything from statistics to artworks. Then, through the process of (one would hope) diligent research, that evidence becomes research evidence. Whether and how research evidence is applied in the wider world is the third ethical aspect.

Sadly, there is a great deal of evidence that evidence is not applied well, or not applied at all. Most professional researchers have tales to tell of evidence being buried by research funders or commissioners. This seems particularly likely where findings conflict with political or money-making ambitions. In some sectors, such as third sector evaluation, this is widespread (Fiennes 2014). How can anyone make an evidence-based decision if the evidence collected by researchers has not been converted into evidence they can use?

The use of research evidence is often beyond the control of researchers. One practical action a researcher can take is to suggest a dissemination plan at the outset. This can be regarded as ethical, because such a plan should increase the likelihood of research evidence being used. But it could also be regarded as manipulative: using the initial excitement around a new project to persuade people to sign up to a plan they might later regret.

It seems that ethics and evidence are uneasy bedfellows. Again, Knight tries to help us here, by suggesting that research evidence should be used by people with expertise. This raises a further, pertinent question: what is the ethics of expertise? I will address that next week.

A version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association.

Dissemination, Social Media, and Ethics

twitterstormI inadvertently caused a minor Twitterstorm last week, and am considering what I can learn from this.

I spotted a tweet from @exerciseworks reporting some research. It said “One in 12 deaths could be prevented with 30 minutes of exercise five times a week” (originally tweeted by @exerciseworks on 22 Sept, retweeted on the morning of 10 October). The tweet also included this link but I didn’t click through, I just responded directly to the content of the tweet.

Here’s their tweet and my reply:

 

The @exerciseworks account replied saying it wasn’t their headline. This was true; the article is in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) which should know better. And so should I: in retrospect, I should have checked the link, and overtly aimed my comment at the BMJ as well.

Then @exerciseworks blocked me on Twitter. Perhaps they felt I might damage their brand, or they just didn’t like the cut of my jib. It is of course their right to choose who to engage with on Twitter, though I’m a little disappointed that they weren’t up for debate.

I was surprised how many people picked up the tweet and retweeted it, sometimes with comment, such as this:

Rajat Chauhan tweet

and this:

Alan J Taylor tweet

which was ‘liked’ by the BMJ itself – presumably they are up for debate; I would certainly hope so. (It also led me to check out @AdamMeakins, a straight-talking sports physiotherapist who I was pleased to be bracketed with.)

Talking to people about this, the most common reaction was to describe @exerciseworks as a snowflake or similar, and say they should get over themselves. This is arguable, of course, though I think it is important to remember that we never know what – sometimes we don’t know who – is behind a Twitter account. Even with individual accounts where people disclose personal information, we should not assume that the struggles someone discloses are all the struggles they face. And with corporate or other collective accounts, we should remember that there is an individual person reading and responding to tweets, and that person has their own feelings and struggles.

Twitter is a fast-moving environment and it’s easy to make a point swiftly then move on. Being blocked has made me pause for thought, particularly as @exerciseworks is an account I’ve been following and interacting with for some time.

I stand by the point I made. It riles me when statistical research findings are reported as evidence that death is preventable. Yes, of course lives can be saved, and so death avoided at that particular time. Also, sensible life choices such as taking exercise are likely to help postpone death. But prevent death? No chance. To suggest that is inaccurate and therefore unethical. However, forgetting that there is an actual person behind each Twitter account is also unethical, so I’m going to try to take a little more time and care in future.

Crowdfunding For Academia

crowded-390840__340Crowdfunding is a way of raising money, from anyone you can persuade to give you money, for anything you like. You can crowdfund for personal needs, projects, charities, disaster appeals, creative endeavours – anything from pet food to space travel. Some projects that have been successfully funded through Kickstarter alone include combat cookware, amusing rap songs about the iconic television character Doctor Who, and bacon-scented soap.

There are quite a few crowdfunding sites now and they have different USPs. For example, Teespring was set up specifically for crowdfunding unique t-shirt designs, though it now also enables the design and creation of other products such as beach towels, phone cases, and mugs. Unbound is for publishing books (though not academic ones, sadly). GoFundMe is mostly used for medical, memorial, and charitable fundraising, though it is also used by a lot of doctoral students around the world to help fund part or all of their studies.

Kickstarter is for creative projects, including those related to academia. Indiegogo is for innovations in technology and design; its links with academia seem more tenuous, but nevertheless exist. However, unlike GoFundMe and Kickstarter, it does include quite a few research projects. All of these websites take a small percentage of any funds raised, to cover their costs.

Although people doing academic work are free to use any crowdfunding website, there one that seems particularly applicable is Patreon. This is for ‘creators’ who can crowdfund per ‘thing’ they create (song, podcast, etc), or per month (which is more predictable for donors). Patreon is increasingly being used by researchers, such as Brian Danielak who creates free open source software for research; Asia Murphy who researches wildlife in remote forests (with great photos and videos!); and Kylie Budge who is researching creativity in cities.

Crowdfunding is not a soft option. Yes, you can slap together a web page, sit back, and wait for the donations to roll in. But if you do that, they won’t. For any chance of success, you need an appealing offer, a well-made fundraising page, healthy personal and professional networks, and no shame at all about asking people for money, over and over again. On Patreon, your offer is made up of goals and rewards. Goals need to be intriguing and credible, and rewards need to be enticing (to potential fundraisers), achievable (for you), and ongoing rather than one-offs, with at least one reward per year even for people who fund you at the lowest level. This all takes a lot of thought and research. Then, once you have your page up, you need to promote, promote, promote.

Talking of which: I am launching my own Patreon page this very day! I am lucky to have a great mentor for this project, Jonathan O’Donnell of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is currently doing a PhD in academic crowdfunding, and will be producing a guide to this in due course. If you appreciate my blog, please consider supporting me for one dollar per month – or more, if you wish. Whether or not you think you might want to support me, I’d be grateful if you could take a look at my page. All feedback welcome, either here or there. Thank you.