Free Online Research Ethics Resources

freeAre you grappling with research ethics? If so, fear not, for there are numerous free resources online to help you. Here are some examples.

Ethical codes and guidelines

There are loads of ethical codes and guidelines online. For example, some countries have national codes of research ethics, such as the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, or the Canadian Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. This was developed in partnership between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

There are also codes of research ethics produced by Indigenous peoples who wish their own ethical principles to be followed by any researchers who wish to work with them. Examples of these include Te Ara Tika, Guidelines for Māori Research Ethics, from New Zealand, and the San Code of Research Ethics from South Africa.

Then there are professional and disciplinary codes of research ethics. Examples include the UK-based Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct, and the Code of Ethics of the Australian Association for Research in Education.

There must be a huge number of these kinds of codes and guidelines worldwide. They are not all the same, and the careful reader can find places where one code or guideline may contradict another. This is because of cultural (in its widest sense) differences in ideas of what is ethical. Nevertheless, they can be useful to read for learning, ideas, or of course specific contextual information.

Applying to a research ethics committee

If you have to apply to a research ethics committee for formal ethical approval, you might find it useful to see some other researchers’ successful application forms. You can find examples of these on The Research Ethics Application Database (TREAD), originally set up by Martin Tolich at Otago University in New Zealand and now hosted by The Global Health Network and the Social Research Association. This database holds copies of successful ethics applications from around the world which you can search and use for inspiration and learning. Applications are anonymised, though the researcher(s) must be named. Researchers often submit accompanying documents, such as consent forms and participant information sheets, which can be very useful to look through for ideas. The database managers are keen to add more applications, to help make formal ethical approval processes more accessible and less onerous. If you have an application you could submit, there is information on the website about how to share it via the database.

General guidance

The Research Ethics Guidebook is intended to provide general guidance for social scientists, but may also be useful for people from other fields. The Guidebook is supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, with the Researcher Development Initiative of the National Centre for Research Methods, and London University’s Institute of Education. Like TREAD, the Research Ethics Guidebook holds useful information about applying for formal ethical approval. However, it also covers other areas such as ethics in research design, conducting research, reporting, and dissemination. The Guidebook is ideal for reference at the start of a project, and also during research as unforeseen ethical dilemmas occur.

Ethics training

There are two free online courses in research ethics which are primarily geared towards health researchers and so focus heavily on participant wellbeing. Both have been through peer review and other quality assurance processes, and both offer certificates to students who complete the course successfully with a score of 80% or more. One is called Research Ethics Online Training and is adapted from an e-learning course and resource package designed and produced by the World Health Organisation. It contains 14 individual modules, plus resources in the form of a glossary, a “resource library” (aka bibliography), some case studies, examples of ethics guidelines, videos on research ethics, and links to other ethics websites. The second is Essential Elements of Ethics, adapted from an ethics tool kit created to support researchers at Harvard University in America. This course contains 11 modules, plus resources including a workbook and checklist of points to consider, and a discussion forum though this is not very active.

Free research ethics modules with a wider perspective are offered by Duke University in America. These cover topics such as cultural awareness and humility, ethical photography, power and privilege, and working with children. They are delivered through videos with transcripts also available.

Online research

For internet-based research, the Association of Internet Researchers has some useful resources free for download. The British Psychological Society offers Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research. The South East European Network for Professionalization of Media has produced Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics.

Visual research

The International Visual Sociology Association has produced a Code of Research Ethics and Guidelines covering visual research.

Ethics of research publication

The Committee on Publication Ethics has a whole range of downloadable resources covering how to detect, prevent and handle misconduct, responsible publication standards for editors and authors, ethical guidelines for peer reviewers, and much more.

This list of resources is by no means exhaustive. There are loads more out there. It would be a huge task to identify them all. These are the ones I have found particularly useful. If there are any you like to use, which aren’t in this post, please add them in the comments below.

Is There A Gender Pay Gap Among Academic Authors?

Kara and DorlingThe gender pay gap is much in the news at present. The BBC is under scrutiny following the resignation of its senior editor Carrie Gracie on the grounds of unequal pay; large companies in the UK pay women less than men; Iceland has just become the first country in the world to pass a law making it illegal to pay men more than women. I could cite plenty more instances. And this got me thinking: what is the situation for academic authors?

I belong to several Facebook groups for people in or connected with academia. In one group recently, a doctoral student in some financial difficulty – as so many doctoral students are – bemoaned the need to read a chapter from a book costing US$52. “Is this how academics make their money?” the student asked.

The idea that all people who write books are rich is a complete misperception. A few writers are rich, and some of them are women: JK Rowling and Jodi Picoult, to name just two. But they are not academic writers. Some academics who are writers are rich, but that’s mostly because they receive generous academic salaries. (NB: I’m not saying all academic salaries are generous. I’m saying rich academics are the ones on generous salaries, and some of them are also writers.)

In America writers are treated with more respect than in most countries. The Textbook & Academic Authors’ Association is open to members from any country but it is based in America and 80% of its members are American. In 2015 the T&AAA conducted a survey of 403 textbook authors which showed that average royalties were in the band of 9%–18%. So it seems there may be a geographic pay gap for academic writers, because this range is higher than academic royalties I have heard about from the UK. But there was no breakdown of the survey findings by gender.

My publishing contracts contain confidentiality clauses which make it illegal for me to tell you, or anyone else, what my own royalty rates are. This is standard practice in the publishing industry. I can tell you that one young British academic of my acquaintance recently told me, pre-contract, that they had been offered royalties of 7.5% on sales. If that person’s book retailed at US$52, you might think they would therefore earn US$3.90 per sale. Not so. Royalties are paid on the amount the bookseller pays to the publisher, not the amount the customer pays the bookseller. A book with a retail price of US$52 would probably sell to the retailer at around US$36, so the author’s royalty per sale would be US$2.70.

Many academic books retail for less than US$52. Mine are currently listed on at $39.93 for Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners (2nd edn) and $33.66 for Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences. Some retail for much more, though they are often edited collections. For example, the Sage Handbook of Applied Social Research Methods is an eye-watering $490.48. I have never heard of anyone earning anything for contributing a chapter to an edited collection. It seems likely that books at these prices are only bought by the libraries of rich institutions. (At least that means students and staff at those institutions can use the books, and a few other libraries provide wider access. For example, the British Library in the UK holds copies of every book published in the UK, and anyone can register to read those books for free. The snag is that you have to go to London, which isn’t easy or possible even for every UK resident, let alone people based further afield. Some other countries have national and regional libraries which are publicly accessible, but again they are bricks-and-mortar institutions and you have to go to them.)

Some publishing contracts offer no royalties at all on the first 250 or 500 (or some other figure) of books sold. Given that some academic books only sell a few hundred copies, these kinds of contracts could result in authors earning no royalties at all. I can’t find any reliable statistics about sales of academic books, which is a finding in itself.

I can tell you how much I earned in total royalties last year, on the two books I have in print, one of which is a second edition. For 2016-17 I earned £1,236.70 in royalties. Earlier this decade, Queen Mary University of London reported on the earnings of almost 2,500 professional writers in the UK. Academic writers had the lowest average annual income, at £3,826, behind travel writers, non-fiction writers, children’s fiction writers and adult fiction writers, respectively. I aspire to become average one day.

So publishing is not how academics make their money; it’s how academic publishers make their money. But is there a gender pay gap in academic authors’ royalties? With the current secrecy around royalty rates, there is no way of knowing. But given the prevailing interest in the gender pay gap, I hope that next time the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association, or the Society of Authors, or a similar body conducts a survey, they will ask about, and report on, gender parity or disparity.

Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia #2

comics with catsMy last post on this topic argued that this is more of a movement than a moment. In fact it was even more than I knew (no doubt still is) as I’ve found out about a number of other resources and activities on the topic since then.

In my last post I mentioned the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, which is published by Taylor & Francis which is part of the multinational Informa plc, and so is paywalled, although there are a couple of open access articles. I have also found another paywalled journal, Studies in Comics, which has an open access issue from its archive. Ernesto Priego kindly reminded me, via Twitter, of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship which is open access and well worth exploring.

In September, The Annals of the Entomological Society of America published an open access article called Sequential Science: A Guide to Communication Through Comics by Carly Melissa Tribull. This is both interesting and useful, as it contains information and resources on how to make comics and use them in educational settings. I thank Jonathan O’Donnell from RMIT in Melbourne for bringing this to my attention.

Also, as well as the BA in Cartoon and Comic Arts offered by Staffordshire University, the UK also offers a Comics and Graphic Novel Masters degree at the University of Dundee. This is overseen by Professor Chris Murray whose main research area is comics.

The pocket-sized Graphic Guides have been around for a long time. They describe themselves as ‘comic book style’, but this isn’t really accurate in my view; they’re more like short guides illustrated with cartoons. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve never got on with them particularly well, though I know a lot of people love them. However, I’ve discovered an exception in Queer: A Graphic History. I’ve had a copy of this book for some time, and I think it’s terrific, but I only discovered last Friday that it’s part of the Graphic Guides series. This isn’t obvious because it’s in a larger format with a different type of cover. Queer is written by Meg-John Barker (aka MJ), who spoke about their book at an event I went to in London recently (see below for more on this). It is always interesting to hear from other authors about their processes, and about the delights and sadnesses, triumphs and pitfalls they have experienced along the way. I have a great deal of respect for MJ because they are able to make difficult concepts accessible in a way I admire and long to emulate. People at the event were talking about how much their students love Queer and how useful it is for teaching. I can see why; I would have loved it as an undergraduate maybe even more than I love it now.

If you’re into graphic medicine, there’s a tasty-looking conference coming up in Cambridge on 16-17 February 2018. It’s called Comic Epidemic: Cartoons, Caricatures and Graphic Novels, and the call for papers is out now for anyone from the social sciences or the medical humanities; deadline 15 December. Successful applicants will be offered two nights’ accommodation in Cambridge and up to £100 for travel costs.

The seminar series Look Who’s Talking: Eliciting the Voices of Children from Birth to Seven, funded by the University of Strathclyde and held earlier this year, produced visual minutes of the sessions. Some of the people involved with this series have also used cartoon storyboards in research, to investigate the perceptions of students aged 4-15 about learning something new. Both of these projects were led by Professor Kate Wall from the University of Strathclyde, who kindly alerted me to them via Twitter.

Last month I was fortunate to be able to attend the event An Agenda for Graphic Social Science at the Open University in Camden. This is where Meg-John Barker presented their work, along with several other interesting and interested people including a journal editor and a publisher as well as several scholars. This account of the event identifies five areas of activity – blog posts, networking event, curation of resources, academic event, and sharing/recording expertise – and calls for volunteers to help take them forward. If you want to play with the cool kids, get in touch and get involved. We’d love to have you.

I’m sure that’s not all… but it’s all for now. And enough, I think, to argue that these media are moving from the fringes towards the mainstream in research and academia. Even so, if you have anything to add, please do so in the comments.


Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia

Cartoons, comics, and graphic novels in research and academia are having a moment. Actually it’s a bit more than a moment, but before I go into that, let’s start with some definitions. In terms of the visual arts, as I understand it, a cartoon is generally understood to be a single drawing; a cartoon strip or a comic strip is a series of a few sequential cartoons. Comics and graphic novels are more interchangeable terms for longer works, though people tend to use ‘comics’ to refer to the more lightweight end of the spectrum or reading matter for children. Conversely, ‘graphic novels’ are viewed as more serious and adult. In fact, though, they’re essentially the same thing: a graphic art medium for storytelling.

Academics from a range of disciplines are beginning to realise that this form has a great deal to offer for research communication and teaching. It is taught in some universities, though usually bundled in with other arts techniques such as illustration or animation. Few universities are offering sequential graphic art as a stand-alone or interdisciplinary subject at present, though there are some exceptions at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in the UK and the US. For example, in the UK, Staffordshire University’s BA in Cartoon and Comic Arts has been running for some years now. In the US, the University of Oregon offers an interdisciplinary Comics and Cartoon Studies minor, and Minneapolis College of Art and Design offers a Comic Arts major option on their Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Savannah College of Art and Design offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in sequential art, which are also available in Hong Kong and online. California College of the Arts offers a Master of Fine Arts degree in comics, as does the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. No doubt there are others too, though I haven’t found any outside the US/UK. For example, there are no such courses in Australia at present, though the Sydney Comics Guild suggests keeping an eye on MIT in Melbourne, presumably because they may run one in time to come.

Although the UK has few courses, it does have other initiatives. For example, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics is based in the UK. This journal focuses on the production and consumption of comics in their cultural, institutional, and creative contexts. An international Research, Outreach and Pedagogy Network (ReOPeN) for graphic novels and comics is based at Lancaster University. A mini-conference on comics and graphic novels in academia was held in Kendal in October, part of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. I was lucky enough to go to this and meet academics working with comics and graphic novels from as far afield as Perth, Australia, as well as closer to home. Then there’s this free event in London tomorrow (tickets still available!) on graphic social science, which I will also be attending. Next year in London the historians are holding a two-day conference on the pre-modern world in comics. And it’s not only the academics who are using comics: this video demonstrates the use of graphic art, animation, and puppets in health evaluation research.

Comics are also being used for communicating science and medicine. As these links suggest, there is also a wider international focus on graphic art in academia and research. For example, the PathoGraphics conference in Berlin last month looked at the use of comics to communicate about illness and disability, and a recent Twitterchat via the #MethodsMatter hashtag focused on work in this area from various African countries.

I’m sure there are many more examples. I was teaching writing for publication to staff at the University of Derby yesterday and I mentioned graphic novels. One staff member said she didn’t like them as a reader, but she thought she should take steps to overcome her dislike, because she understood they were gaining traction. Another staff member, Dr Katy Vigurs, had been involved in producing a comic about student debt with students in her previous role at Staffordshire University. There’s a lot of this about, and it’s growing. So I think comics and graphic novels in research and academia are not so much having a moment as becoming a movement.

How To Market Your Academic Journal Article


What can you do to stand out in such a crowd?

Last week I wrote about how to market your academic book. Journal articles, too, benefit from marketing. If you’ve ever had one published, you have probably had one or more emails from the publisher encouraging you to help market your article. It is in the publisher’s interest for you to help them with marketing, because higher visibility usually leads to more citations, and more citations (within two years of publication) help the journal concerned increase its impact factor. It may, though, be in your interest too.

Around two and a half million academic journal articles are published each year on this planet. Generally speaking, if you want your one journal article to be noticed and read among these millions, you need to help it along.

Marketing your journal article begins before you finish writing. A clear and descriptive title, and the most relevant keywords or phrases, will help your article to be visible online. Use as many keywords or phrases as the journal permits. If you find it difficult to come up with enough keywords or phrases, think about what your readers might search for. Also, make sure at least three or four of your keywords or phrases appear at least once in your abstract. This all helps to make your article easier for search engines to find.

The abstract, too, is important. It should tell a clear story in itself, and should include the key ‘take-away’ point you have made. To figure out what that is, it may help to think what headline a journalist would give to a piece based on your article. A well written and structured abstract will entice more people to read further.

Once your article is published, there is plenty more work to be done if you want your research to have an impact. Some publishers make your article free to access online for a specific period or give you a limited number of free eprints. Either way, you can advertise this through email, discussion lists, and social media. Talking of email, it can be useful to add a link to your article as part of your email signature. Also, you can add the link to any online presence, such as your institutional web page and your LinkedIn profile.

If you teach a course for which your article would be suitable material, add it to the reading list. Also, unless it’s open access, check whether your university library subscribes to the journal concerned; if not, recommend it to them.

It’s helpful to write a blog post about your research with a link to your article. This could be on your own blog (if you have one), or on a blog in your field with a wide readership, or on your publisher’s blog. Again, you can advertise the link through social media.

An infographic can be useful too, either as part of a blog post or as a stand-alone information source – or both. Information here on how to create an infographic.

You can make a short video abstract of your journal article and upload it to a video sharing site such as YouTube or Vimeo. This is becoming an increasingly popular way to share information, and there are some great examples online such as this one on social jetlag. It’s not difficult to do, and can be done using a smartphone; there is a tutorial here.

Another option is to create a press release to alert the mainstream media. This is generally only worth doing if the journal article contains information that will interest a lot of people. It also needs to be ‘newsworthy’, e.g. relevant to current news coverage, providing a new perspective on past news coverage, or coinciding with an anniversary. A press release is a short document, usually only a page or at most two, with a specific format; details here.

If this all sounds like a lot of extra work: it is. I’m not suggesting you should do everything listed above; nor am I suggesting that this post is exhaustive. But if you want to make your journal article visible to potential readers, you will almost certainly need to take one or more of these steps.

How To Market Your Academic Book

Norwich market by Lane

Norwich Market by talented artist Lane Mathias

If you’re going to write an academic book, you need to be prepared to do some marketing. Otherwise it will sink, without so much as a bubble, deep into the ocean of published academic books. Of course if all you need is the publication on your CV, then don’t waste your time on marketing. But if you’ve written something you actually want people to read and use, you need to get to grips with the whole marketing thing.


There are three main categories of sole-authored academic book: monograph, textbook, and trade book. A monograph usually has quite a narrow topic, perhaps just one research project. Its audience will be small, primarily academic peers and perhaps a few doctoral students, and its royalties will be low or non-existent. A textbook is probably for undergraduates, maybe also early stage postgraduates, with a potential audience of millions and, if you’re lucky, significant royalties. A trade book is anywhere in between. You need to know which yours is to help you figure out who your readers might be and so how to market your book.

Your publisher’s marketing department should help you. After all, it’s in their interest to sell as many copies of your book as possible. But they can only help up to a point, because they have a lot of other books to try to sell as well as yours. It’s worth having a chat with them, and finding out what they can and can’t do to help you. For example, they should:

  • Post information about your book online well ahead of its publication date
  • Market your book to relevant retailers, including bookshops and online retailers, and wholesalers, and to academic libraries
  • Include your book in their catalogue and on their flyers for specific events such as conferences in your field
  • Send out review copies, including to people you find who are willing to write reviews or can otherwise promote the book to a significant number of people
  • Take your book to academic conferences, display it along with other books on their stand, and offer a conference discount.
  • Promote your book via their e-newsletter and social media channels
  • Give you a jpeg of the cover for your own use
  • Make flyers for you to take to conferences and seminars

Realistically, though, a lot of this will happen around the time of publication. They won’t ignore your book thereafter, but they simply can’t push all of their books all of the time. So, if you want your book to be widely read and used, you need to market it too.

I have no background or training in marketing; I’ve been learning on the job since my first research methods book came out in 2012. I’ve been lucky to have had terrific support from the marketing department at my lovely publisher, Policy Press, though I know not every academic writer has this experience. I have learned some things you can do to help raise awareness of your book. These include:

  • Add information about the book to your email signature
  • Add information about the book to any web pages featuring you, such as your profile on your employer’s website and your LinkedIn page
  • Send information about the book to any e-lists you subscribe to
  • Send information about the book to your professional association(s) to include in their e-newsletter
  • Ask your employer for help publicising your book through their website, newsletter, and other publicity channels
  • Write one or more blog posts featuring the book for blogs with big readerships in your field, and publicise the blog post(s) at and after publication through your social media channels
  • Create a video about the book or some aspect of the book, upload to YouTube or Vimeo and publicise through your social media channels
  • Create a podcast about the book or some aspect of the book, upload and publicise through your social media channels
  • Publicise the book itself through social media – don’t keep saying ‘buy my book’, but promote any good reviews or positive comments you receive
  • Write an article for the mainstream media based on, or featuring, your book
  • Make sure your book cover appears on any PowerPoint or other presentation you give, and mention it in the presentation

Then there’s the more unofficial kind of marketing. This blog is, in one sense, a marketing tool. It’s other things too – a place to keep my professional musings, for a start – but marketing is part of its purpose. This is marketing by providing something of value (or at least doing my best to do so!). Another method I use is to mail signed bookplates to people who have bought copies of my books. That’s counter-intuitive marketing: in theory, I should be wooing people who haven’t yet bought copies. But I think it can help, because it will improve the likelihood of people talking to others about my work.

Another unofficial kind is marketing through networks. This is unpredictable and you always need to be alert for opportunities. For example, at an academic event recently I met a Prof from a university where I don’t have any contacts. We were talking about graphic novels in research, and I remarked that I’d written about that in my last book on creative research methods. The Prof was interested and asked me to email over details of my book. I did so a few days later, and received a reply saying, ‘Thank you for this. I will raise it with other staff for dissertations as it looks useful.’ So that should at least have sold a copy or two for their library, and with luck it’ll make its way onto more course lists.

I need to figure out what else to do, though, because my royalties this year were lower than last year: £1,236.70 as against £1,627.20. That’s quite a drop, and disappointing in a year when I published a second edition and had lots of positive feedback on both books. There are two tried-and-tested ways of increasing royalties that I know of. One is to write more books, and I’m working on that. The other is to do more marketing: not only for my books, but also for the journal articles I’ve written and co-written. More on marketing those next week.

The Ethics of Expertise

expertLast week I wrote about the ethics of research evidence, in which I cited Charles Knight’s contention that evidence should be used by people with expertise. Knight also questions how we can identify people with expertise. He suggests they would ‘have to do the sorts of things experts do – read the literature, do research, have satisfied clients, mentor novices, and so on’. He adds, ‘This approach is not likely to concentrate expertise in a few hands.’ (Knight 2004:2)

I like Knight’s attempts to widen the pool of acknowledged experts. He is evidently aware of the scope for tension between expert privilege and democracy. Conventionally, experts are few in number, specialists, and revered or at least respected for their expertise. However, this can also be viewed as exclusionary, particularly as most experts of this kind are older white men. Also, I’m not sure Knight goes far enough.

Knight was writing at the start of the century and, more recently, different definitions of ‘expert’ have begun to creep into the lexicon. For example, the UK’s Care Quality Commission (CQC), which inspects and regulates health and social care services, has defined ‘experts by experience‘. These are people with personal experience of using, or caring for someone who uses, services that the CQC oversees. Experts by experience take an active part in service inspections, and their findings are used to support the work of the CQC’s professional inspectors.

In research, there is a specific participatory approach known as critical communicative methodology (CCM) which was developed around 10 years ago. CCM takes the view that everyone is an expert in something, everyone has something to teach others, and everyone is capable of critical analysis. This is a fully egalitarian methodology which uses respectful dialogue as its main method.

However, in most of research and science, experts are still viewed as those rare beings who have developed enough knowledge of a specialist area to be able to claim mastery of their subject. There is a myth that experts are infallible, which of course they’re not; they are human, with all the associated incentives and pressures that implies. It seems that experts are falling from grace daily at present for committing social sins from fraud to sexual harassment (and getting caught).

Perhaps more worryingly, the work of scientific experts is also falling from grace, in the form of the replication crisis. This refers to the finding that scientific discoveries are not as easy to replicate as was once supposed. As replication is one of the key criteria scientists use to validate the quality of each other’s work, this is a Big Problem. There is an excellent explanation of the replication crisis, in graphic form, online here.

My own view is that replication is associated with positivism, objectivity, the neutrality of the researcher, and associated ideas which have now been fairly thoroughly discredited. I think this ‘crisis’ could be a really good moment for science, as it may lead more people to understand that realities are multiple, researchers influence and are influenced by their work, and the wider context inevitably plays a supporting and sometimes a starring role.

As a result of various factors, including the replication crisis, it seems that the conventional concept of an expert is under threat. This too may be no bad thing, if it leads us to value everyone’s expertise. Perhaps it could also help to overturn the ‘deficit model’ which still prevails in so much social science, where (expert) researchers focus on people’s deficits – their poverty, ill-health, low educational attainment, unemployment, inadequate housing, and so on – rather than on their strengths and the positive contributions they make to our society. The main argument in favour of the deficit model is that these are problems research can help to solve, but if that were true, I think they would have been solved long since.

For sure, at times you need an expert you can trust. For example, if your car goes wrong, you’ll want to take it to an expert mechanic; if you develop a health problem, you’ll want to seek advice from an expert medic. It doesn’t seem either ethical or sensible, to me, to try to discard the conventional role of the expert altogether. But it does seem sensible to attack the links between expertise and privilege. After all, experts can’t exercise their expertise without input from others. At its simplest, the mechanic needs you to tell them what kind of a funny noise your car is making, and under what circumstances; the medic needs you to explain where and when you feel pain. Also, it doesn’t seem sensible to restrict conventional experts to a single area of expertise. That mechanic may also be an expert bassoon player; the medic may know more about antique jewellery than you ever thought possible.

In my view, the ethical approach to expertise is to treat everyone as an expert in matters relating to their own life, and beyond that, as someone who has a positive contribution to make to a specific task at hand and/or wider society in general. Imagine a world in which we all acknowledged and valued each other’s knowledge, experience, and skills. You may say I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one.

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.