Ethical Principles for Independent Researchers – Part Two

ethicsLast week I posted the first five principles of independent research work. This post contains principles 6-10.

  1. Behave professionally at all times

Be polite, turn up on time, maintain confidentiality. Don’t drink alcohol on clients’ time or have affairs with clients. This should really go without saying, but clients can sometimes treat you quite informally, arrange meetings in cafes or pubs, and then boundaries can easily become blurred. If you behave professionally at all times, you can’t go wrong.

  1. Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it

This is the core of ethical practice as an independent researcher. Don’t make promises you can’t keep; always keep your promises unless the circumstances are exceptional.

  1. Communicate effectively

Find out how your client prefers to communicate and communicate that way. Most people like to use email but there are a lot of other options. If they want to use some kind of software platform you’ve never heard of, be upfront about that (as per (1) above) and give it a try if you can. If it’s going to cost you money and you wouldn’t be using it otherwise, it is legitimate to ask the client to cover the cost. If they prefer to work by phone or VOIP (Skype, Google Hangout etc), then work that way with them even if you hate it. You can always follow up with the key points in an email, to avoid misunderstanding and provide a record – in fact, I would suggest you do.

The most important times to communicate effectively are when you can’t manage (7) above due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness or bereavement. A couple of years ago I experienced the sudden death of a family member in their 40s. The news came in the early evening, and my only appointment for the next day was a mid-morning phone call with a client. I texted him to explain what had happened and said I was very sorry but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make the call as I didn’t know quite how the next day would pan out, but I would be available if I could. He texted back straight away with such a kind message, saying firmly that we would not speak the next day, I should let him know in a few days if I had time to talk, and in the meantime he would handle everything with our project and I should not worry about it at all. In retrospect his message was rather more professional than mine, but then I was in deep shock. Yet it’s evident that even at such times, managing my client work was a top priority for me.

  1. Know your place

Your role is a support role. Yes, you are the expert in some areas; yes, you may be asked to lead a project. But you are and will always be peripheral to the organisations and the people you work with. You are dispensable. Commissioners of research are fickle for some very good reasons: their roles, circumstances, budgets etc can and do change frequently, and so, accordingly, do their priorities. A client may truly love you for a while, but don’t expect that to last. When necessary, bow out gracefully, with appreciation for the benefits you have received from the relationship rather than resentment of something you feel you should have received. Your ego does not belong in this work.

  1. Remember that everyone’s an expert

Your expertise is valuable, but it is no more valuable than the expertise of others, including research participants. For example, if your participants are homeless people, they are experts in lived homelessness, and probably in other things too – they may have professional backgrounds themselves. And the professionals you deal with may have useful personal expertise to bring to the research. I recommend treating people as whole human beings, rather than solely in the role they initially present to you. You will learn more that way and the people you encounter will have a better time too.

Now you know all ten ethical principles of independent research work. At least, the ones I’ve come up with. There is probably something I’ve missed. If you know what it is, please contribute in the comments below.

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