Ethics Codes and Guidelines

Last month I was involved in the final review meeting for the PRO-RES project. This is a project funded by the European Commission to create an ethics framework for all non-medical researchers. I worked on this project from 2018–2021: I have written about the experience here, and about some of the resources we created and curated here.

One key resource is a collection of research ethics codes and guidelines. We also conducted five case studies of very different approaches to developing and implementing codes and guidelines. These were from:

The International Network of Governmental Science Advice (INGSA)

The United Kingdom Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) and the Association of Research Managers and Administrators in the UK (ARMA)

The Social Research Association (SRA)

The Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity

The Croatian Agency for Personal Data Protection

INGSA has around 6000 members from more than 100 countries, and they are not just government science advisors (as the name suggests) but a much wider group. INGSA acts as an informal network of key actors who help to build evidence and provide advice for policy-makers. It works to ensure that the evidence used by its members is scientifically robust and ethically sound. Its global and transdisciplinary work is too complex and multi-faceted to be managed through a written ethics code or guideline. Instead, it focuses on training advisors to identify robust and ethical evidence.

UKRIO and ARMA worked together to create a common framework for ethics support and review for UK universities and other research organisations. The aim was to support best practice and common standards, and the framework was co-produced by ethicists, research ethics committee chairs, and representatives of universities, research funders and learned societies. The framework was published in 2020, is explicit and detailed, and is freely available online. It is now being used by many universities and research organisations.

The SRA has recently updated its ethical guidelines, which are widely used by researchers from a range of sectors. The SRA is a small charity run by volunteers, and the update was also done by volunteers, which meant it took quite a long time. The pandemic slowed the process even more. In retrospect, they would have benefited from paying someone to do the initial drafting with input from a group of volunteers. They considered looking for another organisation’s guidelines to adopt, but decided that could be just as difficult and might prove impossible. So they pressed on and finished the job. The guidelines were published in early 2021 and are freely available online.

The Estonian case study researched the process leading to, and following, the signing of the national Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity in 2017. The process of developing and signing the code took 18 months and involved universities and research organisations, plus consultations with partners from research and development institutions and with the wider public. After the code was signed, the process of implementation began, with debates around committees for research integrity and different universities applying the code in different ways. The Estonian Research Council and the Estonian Ministry of Education and Science are reorganising relevant legislation to align with the code, and monitoring its implementation.

The Croatian case study focused on personal data protection in academic and research institutions throughout the country, before and after the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in 2018. The number of reported personal data breaches in Croatia increased dramatically after the implementation of GDPR, but very few of these related to research. Hundreds of data protection officers across Croatia were found to have little knowledge of personal data protection or its relationship with ethics. Ethical issues around personal data protection were also found to be problematic at EU level. Each of these aspects of the case study were written up in open access journal articles.

These case studies may seem quite disparate but, collectively, they offer some useful lessons. First, when creating frameworks for ethics and integrity in research, there is a clear need to balance ethical ideals with what is possible in practice. Second, being prescriptive is not possible because of the constant changes to research contexts and wider society. Third, delegating responsibility for ethics to a specialised team such as a research ethics committee leads to compliance, not engagement. (I have written more about this elsewhere.) Fourth, sanctions and incentives can help to deepen commitment, but are only appropriate for some discrete elements of research ethics such as GDPR.

I also found it interesting to observe the discussions during the PRO-RES project. I learned that a number of ethicists yearn for a common ethics guide or code: ‘one code to rule them all, one code to bind them,’ as I sometimes enjoyed misquoting. I also learned that institutions, organisations, nations and other groups feel a strong need to develop their own code, with nuances and emphases that reflect their own ethos and vision. The PRO-RES project initially aimed to create a common framework for all non-medical researchers. And indeed it has done so, though how widely the framework will be taken up and used remains to be seen.

A central part of the framework is the PRO-RES Accord, a concise statement of ethical principles which was widely consulted on during the PRO-RES project. Over 1000 people, across Europe and beyond, gave feedback on draft versions before the accord was finalised. Signing the accord means you agree to abide by its principles; endorsing the accord means you commend its principles and will strive to promote them. Anyone can download, sign, and/or endorse the accord, either as an individual or on behalf of an organisation. Perhaps you would like to do so yourself.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Teaching Research Methods And Ethics

My first proper job after my first degree was as a training administrator for a big firm in the City of London. I attended a ‘train the trainer’ course and learned to design and provide training courses myself, which I did for the next four years. That experience has proved invaluable in my research career. Now I talk of the research methods/ethics training I offer as ‘teaching’ because I mostly do it in universities and that is the term they use. But, as I teach short courses as an external expert rather than full modules as a university lecturer, designing and delivering those courses involves more-or-less the same process as the training I used to provide in London.

I have been teaching research methods and ethics for universities and research organisations since 2008. I teach around the UK and overseas: so far in Europe, Australia, Canada, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. I often teach international groups online and am humbled by students who attend my courses in the middle of the night, their time. (I do not teach in the middle of the night, my time. I am too old for that!) In pre-pandemic times I did most of my teaching in person. For the last 18 months it has all been online, but now I am beginning to receive invitations to go back to the classroom, albeit with Covid precautions in place. I suspect in the future it will be part online and part in person. Teaching online has some advantages: nobody has to travel, which reduces stress and cost and environmental impact, and makes it possible for some people to attend who couldn’t if it was in person. However, it has some disadvantages too, primarily (from my point of view) that I won’t know if someone is struggling unless they tell me, whereas in the classroom I can see if a student is puzzled and wander over to get them unstuck. So I will be glad when I can do more in-person teaching again, though I have learned a lot about teaching online and will be happy to offer that too.  

The courses I offer routinely are Creative Research Methods (1 or 2 days), Creative Academic Writing aka Creative and Productive Thesis Writing (1–4 days), Radical Research Ethics (1 day) and Documents as Data (1 day). The first three are based on books I have written or co-written, the fourth is based on books by other people. I can also run courses on other topics, adapt my existing courses, and teach in other ways. In 2018 I ran two of my existing courses for Coventry University’s graduate school, and also courses on qualitative data coding/analysis and qualitative interviewing. Next month I am running my Creative Academic Writing course, adapted to meet the needs of The Anthropocene and More-Than-Human World Writing Workshop Series funded by the British Academy. And I am currently in discussion with Liverpool John Moores University about a data analysis course for postgraduate researchers, and with Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore about facilitating a monthly ‘reading circle’ on autoethnography and arts-based research, with a view to helping participants work towards writing for publication. Both LJMU and NAFA are existing clients. I am glad to say my teaching clients usually book me again; there are a number of universities and other organisations who I teach for every year, sometimes several times in a year.

I don’t do much teaching for less than a day at a time, though that can be split into two half-days if we’re working online. I will do the occasional webinar or shorter seminar, though my minimum charge is my half-day rate (because, as regular readers know, an hour is not an hour even when working online). What my day rate is depends on the country where I will be working, whether in person or virtually. The resources of countries around the world vary greatly, as do those of organisations. So I aim to charge the standard rate for each country and type of institution I am working with. I should also add that if I design a new course for a client, I charge an extra half-day per day of training for design and preparation. This means that I would cost a new one-day course at 1.5 x my day rate.

I am glad to say my teaching is becoming increasingly popular. So much so that I am needing to restrict the number of teaching assignments I take on, because otherwise I don’t have enough time for my client work and writing. I have decided to teach for no more than four days in any one month, or 36 days in any one year. On this basis, I have a couple of teaching days still available in 2021. In 2022, January, February and July are already full, and I have several bookings in other months. So if you’re thinking about asking me to teach at your institution, don’t drag your feet!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitter chat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $87 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $87 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Sole author, co-author, or edited collection?

When you have an idea for a book, before you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard you have some decisions to make. One of those is: should the book be sole-authored, co-authored, or an edited collection? Having now been involved in producing several of both kinds, I have come up with some pointers which I hope may help less experienced writers.

Each of these formats has pros and cons. Writing alone requires no negotiation with co-authors, co-editors, or contributors, which saves time and effort. However, you need to be sure that you know enough about your topic to fill 80,000 words, and that you can find out what you need to know to fill any gaps. Also, you need to be sure that you can convey what you know to readers in an engaging way. If the peer review process works as it should, the reviewers will help you with this, but that is not something you can entirely rely on, because despite publishers’ best efforts it can be difficult to find reviewers for books, or to persuade them to write sufficiently detailed reviews. As sole author, all of the responsibility rests on you, so it is essential to be really sure that you’re up to the job.

Co-authoring can be a delight, if you have a co-author who is on your wavelength, and whose working style is similar or complementary to yours. I had this experience with Richard Phillips when we co-wrote Creative Writing for Social Research; we had a lot of fun, as well as some serious debates, and created a book we are both proud to have written. It is sensible to check out whether this will be the case before you take on any co-writing work. Co-authoring that goes wrong is time-consuming and stressful, and this can almost always be pre-empted. Being invited to co-author with someone else can be very flattering, but even so, find out about your co-author’s views and working style before you say ‘yes’. And if you develop misgivings, act on them, particularly at pre-contract stage when you can still pull out. Once you have signed a contract, withdrawing becomes more difficult.

When co-authoring with one other person goes well, it can be a delightful, intimate, enriching experience. There is also an argument for co-authoring in teams. I co-authored Creative Research Methods in Education with three colleagues, Narelle Lemon, Dawn Mannay, and Megan McPherson. Each of us brought different knowledges and experiences to the task, and I think the book is a much better book than it would have been if any two of us had co-authored alone. Also, more authors means less work, overall, for each person. We each led on 2-3 chapters, which meant drafting the chapter and then implementing feedback from our co-authors as we revised. This was a serious chunk of work for each of us, but significantly less work than sole-authoring a book or even co-writing with one other author. But, again, before you take on team writing, you need to have a conversation about working styles and expectations, and ensure you have a sufficiently similar approach. Also, with a team-written book, one member of the team needs to take responsibility for the final polishing stage, to ensure the ‘voice’ of the book is as consistent as possible.

Editing or co-editing a collection is useful when you are dealing with a topic where you want to hear from different voices, and/or different locations, or where nobody knows enough to write a whole book. I have just finished co-editing Qualitative and Digital Research in Times of Crisis: Methods, Reflexivity and Ethics with Su-ming Khoo. Neither of us knew enough about this to write a book, and we wanted to hear from researchers working in different fields and disciplines around the world. So creating an edited collection was the obvious way to go. I wrote a how-to post on editing collections last week so I won’t repeat that here. In brief: it is overall less work than co-writing, but there is still an amount of work to be done, including project management, writing or commissioning a useful introduction and conclusion, and quality control. Even though the bulk of the book will be written by other people, and the publishers will do some copy editing and proof-reading, it is your name which will be on the cover so the buck stops with you.

Disciplinary influences may come into play, as in some disciplines sole authorship is more common, while other fields are more inclined towards co-writing or edited collections. However, if you have a choice, think about what is best for you and for the book. If you are a complete control freak, you may only want to sole-author. If you are a devotee of team-working, you may only want to co-author or co-edit. But you also need to think about what is best for the book. If you have an idea for a book that really needs to be an edited collection, but you can’t stand the thought of creating one of those, you could always pass on the idea to someone else who might want to take it on.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $86 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $86 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Why We Need To Cite Marginalised Writers

I have been reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It is a carefully researched, intelligently structured and well-written book, and I am a lifelong feminist, yet I find it difficult to read. Its subtitle is Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men and it sheds light on areas of discrimination I hadn’t even considered, like the design of outdoor spaces. And with the areas of discrimination I had considered, after reading this book I have to acknowledge that I hadn’t considered them enough or worked hard enough to tackle them. This is thoroughly uncomfortable, and I value the discomfort for helping me to think and act.

Having said that, it is not always easy to know where and how to act – or to act effectively even if you do know. I have witnessed prejudice and thought ‘I should challenge that’ but not figured out how to do so effectively until after the event. Sometimes I have challenged prejudice and that challenge has been ineffective. Understanding all the different forms of discrimination, and how they manifest, is probably impossible, particularly as knowledge in these areas is developing all the time. And the structural fault-lines of inequality that run through our societies are too big for any individual to change; those need collective action. But there are actions we can make as individuals, safely and effectively, which will make a difference.

In Euro-Western academia, the upper echelons are dominated by white, middle-class or upper-class men (that’s on p 95 of Invisible Women, not that I think anyone disputes this any more). There is tons of research to demonstrate that people of other genders are disadvantaged in academic careers, particularly if they choose and are able to have children. Even if they are performing well, academics who are not white men are less likely to get jobs, have their work cited, gain promotion or tenure (pp 95-6). And we know it’s not just academics from non-male genders and/or working class backgrounds who struggle, but also academics of colour, disabled academics, queer academics, Indigenous academics, unemployed academics, trans academics, and so on. We also know about intersectionality, so we understand that an academic may be working-class and disabled and trans, and that their struggle will be even harder.

I am not in a position to give work to an academic who needs it, or to bestow promotion, or tenure, or employment rights. But one thing I can do is read and cite work by marginalised scholars. And so can you. This is particularly important if you are a white middle- or upper-class male, because your work carries more weight whether you believe it, or like it, or not. But it is very much worth doing whatever your own attributes.

If you haven’t thought about this before, analyse your most recent bibliography. How many of the people you cite are men? How many are middle- or upper-class white men? How many are women, people of colour, disabled, queer, trans? This may take some time as it will not be obvious from people’s names alone. In some cases you are likely to know the answers, in others you may have to do some digging online. You’re not likely to find all of the relevant information, but you should be able to find much of what you need.

In most fields it is reasonably easy to find work to cite by women and by academics of colour. It can be more difficult to find work by others such as Indigenous academics, particularly in some fields, and trans academics. Every citation counts. Of course their work does need to be relevant to yours; I’m not suggesting you perform scholarly contortions to ram in a citation. Having said that, though, reading beyond your own field or discipline can be surprisingly useful. And the work of marginalised scholars may be invaluable for the insights only they can generate and the connections only they can make.

A lot of marginalised scholars, understandably, work on their own area. So to find disabled academics you could check out disability studies, and trans studies for trans academics, and so on. But then, crucially, investigate the scholars you find there to see what other work they are doing. And when you find marginalised scholars doing work that is relevant to your own, use your authorial power to amplify their voices.

There are many more marginalised scholars around than you would think from reading the standard literature, and the numbers are growing. In a 2019 article Emmett Harsin Drager said they were a member of a Facebook group with over 500 other trans-identified doctoral students, some of whom will now be post-docs – and no doubt that Facebook group is larger now.

Citations are not the only way forward. If you have the power, it is also useful to invite marginalised scholars on to panels, in to study groups, or in research teams (as paid staff, not volunteers). There are some useful articles here on how to include Indigenous researchers and Indigenous knowledge in academia/research. But citations are a way in which every single one of us can take action.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

The Personal Is Empirical

Human beings are natural researchers: exploring, seeking and comparing data, testing, evaluating, drawing conclusions. We do this all our lives. One of our first research methods, when we are only a few months old, is to put everything in our mouths. By the time we are a few years old we are asking incessant questions. We are programmed to investigate. As we get older, our methods get more sophisticated – and if we train as a professional researcher, they become more systematic, too.

Do you know the roots of the word ‘empirical’? It is derived from the Greek word ‘empeirikos’, meaning ‘experienced’. It means something verifiable by experiment or experience. So, the personal is empirical.

Autoethnographers know this already. For a generation now autoethnographers have been ‘utilizing personal stories for scholarly purposes’ (Chang 2008:10). Some have put too much emphasis on the personal stories and not enough on the scholarly purposes, leading to accusations of self-indulgence, navel-gazing, and irrelevance. More, though, have worked to link their personal experience with other data and wider narratives, theory, evidence, policy, and practice, in a systematic and rigorous way.

Embodied researchers also know that the personal is empirical. They focus on the physical, sensory dimensions of experience, as part of the data they collect. This subverts the conventional view of scholarly work as entirely cerebral – or, as the embodied researchers would have it, ‘disembodied research’. Embodied research is also open to accusations of self-interest and irrelevance. Yet embodied researchers point out that no research can in fact be disembodied. Even sitting still and thinking is a physical activity; the brain with which you think forms part of your body.

Other researchers draw on the personal in other ways. In my work on creative research methods, I have been astonished by the number of people who combine their artistic skills, or their writing talents, or their aptitude for making, or their technological savvy, or some other personal attribute with their research. This usually results in enrichment and often innovation, yet even now working in these ways can feel like swimming against the tide. The way we try to contain knowledge in silos, and reify specialisation, is not the norm in human history. It is not long since nobody thought it strange for someone to be both weaver and astronomer, doctor and poet, musician and engineer. Why have we forgotten that ‘the more diverse someone’s knowledge, the more likely they are to be able to identify and implement creative solutions to problems’? (Kara 2020:11).

Musing on all of this, I came up with the phrase ‘the personal is empirical’. I tried it out on a group of students last month and it went down well. Then, like a good scholar, I checked to see whether anyone else had used the phrase already. It was used by one US academic, most recently around 15 years ago. She was a feminist too and I guess for her, as for me, the generation of this phrase was influenced by the old feminist mantra that ‘the personal is political’. Nobody owned that phrase, and nobody owns this one either – you’re free to use it if you wish.

In fact, it would be great if you did. Because we need more people to understand that ‘knowledge is worth having, no matter where it originates’ (Kara 2020:11) – whether that is in the body, or someone’s wider life experience, or in a test tube, or an encounter with a book, or a conversation, or an animated film. As a species, as inhabitants of planet Earth, we have a plethora of problems to solve. We cannot afford to reject knowledge, or create hierarchies of knowledge; we need to value everyone’s expertise. And their experience. And experiments, and evidence, and theories – the whole lot. In fact, it is all empirical, but nobody will argue if you talk about empirical experiments or empirical evidence. The personal is empirical? That’s more provocative. So take this toy I have given you, my dear ones; take it and play!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $70 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $70 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!