Research Ethics for Independent Researchers

Research Ethics in the Real WorldThis post was requested by people in the Facebook group of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS – actually an international organisation despite its name). You don’t have to be an NCIS member to join the Facebook group, and if you’re an indie researcher or scholar I would recommend joining one or the other, both if you can. NCIS offers a range of benefits to members including an open access peer reviewed journal, networking opportunities, and grants.

Independent researchers often don’t have access to research ethics committees (aka institutional review boards in the US). These committees and boards are set up by institutions such as universities and health authorities. I studied this as background for my book on research ethics, and found that a minority do try to help researchers work more ethically, but the majority are focused on institutional protection. This post is not about the rights and wrongs of institutional protectionism, so I will just say that I think committees or boards that focus on institutional protection should be called ‘institutional protection committee/board’ not ‘research ethics committee’ or ‘institutional review board’.

I am interested to see that some communities and some organisations are setting up their own systems of ethical review, such that researchers who want to work with them have to satisfy the community or organisation’s ethical requirements. Indeed, I’m delighted to be advising some organisations on how to do this in a way that meets their needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to research ethics, and each community and organisation is best placed to figure out what constitutes ethical research practice for them.

There is also, interestingly, an independent research ethics committee: the New Zealand Ethics Committee (NZEC), set up in 2014. NZEC is run by volunteers to provide expert ethical advice for community-based researchers and others without access to an institutional ethics committee or board. Initially it offered its services free of charge, but it proved unexpectedly popular, so it is now charging a negotiable rate while it seeks sustainable funding.

Many professional bodies have their own codes of ethics that independent researchers can follow. I belong to the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA), and my clients often feel reassured when I tell them I follow the SRA’s ethical guidelines. In fact there are loads of free open access research ethics resources online and new ones appear from time to time. I’ve been working on the EU’s PRO-RES project, to create an ethics resource for all non-medical researchers. This is still in development but the website already contains a lot of useful information.

If you’re an independent researcher, you already know your work involves a lot of thinking for yourself. If you want policies and procedures to follow, you either have to find ones you like or write some of your own. The same applies with research ethics. OK, we rarely get the chance to spend days filling in a massive form to be challenged or approved by a committee. It might be showing by now that I’m not fond of the current research governance system, and I think its absence offers an important opportunity for independent researchers: we can do research that is more ethical than research done by institutions. If we choose, we can attend to the ethical aspects of research that research ethics committees rarely consider. These begin with the generation of a potential research question. Is it ethical to ask that question? Can the research to investigate be done ethically? And they span right through to aftercare for participants, data, findings, and researchers ourselves. Of course being independent also means we can operate scams, cheat, defraud people and be as unethical as we like. Which means it is vital for every independent researcher to think and act as ethically as possible, to uphold and improve our collective reputation.

There are no absolutes with research ethics. In fact there isn’t even an agreed definition; research ethics is a collection of diverse theories and practices. This is partly because context is a factor: what is ethical in one context may not be ethical in another. Slicing open someone’s belly with a knife? Definitely not ethical – unless you’re an accredited surgeon in an operating theatre, in which case it may be life-saving and therefore highly ethical. Context is crucial, and that is why we all need to learn to think and act ethically throughout our research practice. And that learning is never finished, because every research project is different and the world is always changing. So independent researchers need to be ethical ninjas: knowledgeable, skilled, responsive, and good at solving ethical problems.

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 $54 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $54 – 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 Variety Of Indie Research Work

varietyOne of the things I love about being an independent researcher is the sheer variety of projects I work on and tasks I might do in a day. Yesterday, I was only in the office for the afternoon, yet I worked on at least seven different things. Here’s what I did.

First, I checked Twitter, and found a tweet with a link to a blog post I wrote about an event that is part of a project I’m working on with and for the forensic science community. This is a new departure for me, in that I haven’t worked with forensic scientists before, though the work itself is straightforward. I’m supporting a small group of people with research to identify the best way to create a repository for good quality student research data, and it’s surprisingly interesting. So I retweeted the tweet.

Second, I dealt with the morning’s emails. The arrival of a purchase order I’d been waiting for weeks to receive – hurrah! I formulated the invoice and sent it off to the client. Then some correspondence about the creative research methods summer school I’m facilitating at Keele in early July – just three weeks away now, so the planning is hotting up (and there are still some places left if you’d like to join us – it’ll be informative and fun). The most interesting email was a blog post from Naomi Barnes, an Australian education scholar who is considering what it means to be a white educator in the Australian school system. This chimes with the work I am doing on my next book, so I leave a comment and tweet the link.

While on Twitter, I got side-tracked by a tweet announcing #AuthorsForGrenfell, an initiative set up by authors for authors to donate items for auction to raise funds for the Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund to help survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. I’d been wanting to help: my father is a Londoner, I have always had family in London, I lived in London myself from 1982-1997, and one member of my family is working in the tower right now to recover bodies. So it feels very close to home. But I’m not in a position to give lots of money, so I was delighted to find this option which I hope will enable me to raise more money than I could give myself. I have offered one copy of each of my books plus a Skype consultation with each one. My items aren’t yet up on the site, but I hope they will be soon because bidding is open already. If you’re one of my wealthy readers, please go over there and make a bid!

Then I spent some time researching aftercare for data. Yes, indeed there is such a thing. So far I’ve come up with two ways to take care of your data after your project is finished: secure storage and open publication. They are of course diametrically opposed, and which you choose depends on the nature of your data. Open publication is the ethical choice in most cases, enabling your data to be reused and cited, increasing your visibility as a researcher, and reducing the overall burden on potential research participants. In some cases, though, personal or commercial sensitivities will require secure storage of data. There may be other ways to take care of data after the end of a project, and I’ll be on the lookout for those as I work on my next book.

By now it was 6 pm so I did a last trawl of the emails, and found one from Sage Publishing with a link to a Dropbox folder containing 20 research methods case studies for me to review. They publish these cases online as part of their Methodspace website. I like this work: it’s flexible enough to fit around other commitments and, like other kinds of review, it tests my knowledge of research methods while also helping me to stay up to date. Best of all, unlike other kinds of review, Sage pay for my expertise. So I downloaded all the documents, checked and signed the contract, and emailed it back with a ‘thank you’. By then it was 6.30 pm and time to go home.

As the old saying goes, variety is the spice of life. I certainly like the flavour it gives to my work. Some days I work on a single project all day; those days are fun too. Yesterday I worked in my own office, today I’m out at meetings locally, tomorrow I’m off to London. It’s always ‘all change’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Being My Own Patron

love writingYou’ve probably worked out by now that I love to write. I still remember the joy of winning a class story competition when I was 7 or 8 years old. I filled most of an exercise book with the story of four children who had adventures in a flying car. It was an incredibly derivative Chitty Chitty Bang Bang/Swallows and Amazons mash-up, but I didn’t know, then, that you’re not supposed to nick other people’s ideas. I did know that writing, for me, was enormously satisfying.

It was a habit I never lost. As a young adult I found that I couldn’t not write: I wrote on buses, in bed, on holiday and at work, and when I wasn’t writing I was often thinking about writing. There’s a game I still play with myself when I have a bit of spare brain: which words would I use to describe the way sunlight shimmers on that wheat field, the taste of this flavoursome curry, how I feel when my partner is unexpectedly late home and I don’t know why. I’m looking for precision. I don’t want to conjure up any old wheat field, curry, or emotion, I want to describe the quality of light on that wheat field, the joy of this spice mix making my taste buds sing, the bittersweet combination of love and anxiety I’m experiencing right now.

I love to rewrite, too. In the previous paragraph, I originally wrote of the spice mix ‘exploding on my tongue’. That was a bit too cliched even for a disposable blog post. Then I tried ‘colonising my taste buds’, which pleased me because of the reverse colonisation implication for this UK resident, but then I began to doubt that phrase in case, even though I had associated it with joy, it could be read in the opposite way by someone with racist tendencies. So I went for ‘sing’ which has pleasing links with joy and mouth. As this is a blog post, which I am writing when I should be doing client work, I plumped for the third idea. If I was writing a book, I might have run through many more possibilities before making my choice.

If I didn’t love to write, I wouldn’t write. I certainly don’t do it for the money. When people find out that I’m a writer, they sometimes assume I’m rich, JK Rowling-style. Nope. It’s particularly dumb being an academic writer, whose average annual earnings are the lowest of all the categories at an average of £3,826 per year in the UK. I’m not sure of my own exact average, but in the 12 years since my first book was published, I know it is somewhere around £350 per year. I don’t earn anything for book chapters or, usually, academic journal articles, though I did get paid £1,500 for writing one in 2014. If I count my average earnings from writing over the three years since my first research methods book came out in 2012, that one single payment pushes it up to somewhere around £850 per year.

However, the calculation of direct earnings is not the whole story. In academic circles, my writing confers credibility and, quite literally, authority. I know I have obtained paid work, from academic and non-academic institutions (including, ironically given recent events, HM Government), as a direct result of my writing. But writing takes a lot of time and, when you’re self-employed, time is money. One of the really, really annoying things about being an indie researcher is that you can’t get funding from anywhere. Research councils will only fund institutions, I’m not arty enough for the Arts Council, not literary enough for a Royal Literary Fellowship, and even the Independent Social Research Foundation doesn’t do what I thought it did. I got all excited when I saw the name, but it seems to be the Foundation which is independent, not the researchers it funds who are all employed by academic institutions.

I have wondered whether to try using the web for its potential rather than its usefulness and go for some kind of crowdfunding. I’ve thought about Kickstarter, or Unbound, or Patreon. They all have slightly different models. With Kickstarter, you propose a project, set a funding limit, and offer ‘rewards’ which can be as nominal as funders getting their name in the acknowledgements/credits or as tangible as you like: a copy of the book, dinner with the author, feedback on a draft of your own work – whatever you want to offer for varying levels of contribution. Unbound is a bit like Kickstarter but specifically for books. And Patreon is a way in which fans of artists can pay a set amount per week, per month, or per output, again in return for rewards chosen by the artist to suit the size of the contribution.

cliffhangerI think these are interesting, useful platforms for creative people. I don’t think they’ll work for me. For a start, I don’t have millions of fans. Some projects get funded even though their generators don’t have millions of fans, because they have an idea that captures enough people’s imaginations. I don’t think my current project, a multi-disciplinary research ethics book, is going to capture many people’s imaginations. My ideas aren’t earth-shaking, though they may cause a small bounce in a few odd corners of academia. But they matter to me. And that’s why I am my own patron.

I am lucky that I can use my income to fund my writing habit – and that writing is the habit I want to fund; far more destructive habits are available. I am also lucky that I’m not materialistic. But I’m also not completely stupid when it comes to running a business. So I’ve decided that, where my writing is concerned, it’s time to diversify. I alluded to my Top Secret Project back in April, and now it’s almost ready to… ooh, is that the time? I’ll have to tell you the rest next week!

My Next Book

Having got my creative research methods book safely launched, and cleared away most of the smaller writing projects that piled up while I was writing that, I’m slowly starting to get into gear for my next book. I’ve written several books now, including two on research methods, and the process for each book is different. For my first research methods book, essentially I wrote down what I knew about research methods and doing research, worked out where the gaps were in my knowledge, learned what I needed to know to fill those gaps, and wrote that down too. The second one was more of a stretch (at one point I found myself whingeing on Facebook about ‘that difficult second research methods book’) but primarily involved collation, as there was a huge amount of relevant work in journal articles and a few pertinent books. It did involve some hard thinking – in fact, they both did but, like childbirth, the pain is soon forgotten.

Unlike childbirth, I expect the labour for my third research methods book to be more painful than for either of its older siblings. This is because my third book will be on ethics. Writing down what I know about ethics wouldn’t take long, and collating other people’s work on ethics would be fairly pointless. For this next book, I need to read, and think, and take it slow, and learn, and think some more, and come up with some new and different ideas and approaches. My embryonic ideas are that I want to show how research ethics is linked with wider-world ethics, at individual, institutional/organisational, and national/political levels. Also, I’d like to unpack the impact of wider-world ethics on ethical thinking, acting, and decision-making in research. This may be ridiculously ambitious, but it feels compelling; it’s something I want to understand, and would like to communicate in a useful way.

ethics bookshelf

My ethics bookshelf

So far, I’ve collected a load of books and some journal articles. I’ve read about a third of one book and about a quarter of another. I haven’t written a word yet, and have barely thunk a thought. I haven’t blogged the process of writing a book before, so this is new, too. It’s quite difficult to write about a process from such an early stage that I don’t really know what I think yet. Also, publishers tend to advise authors to keep ideas close to their chests, in case someone else steals the idea and writes the book faster and better than the author can. So blogging the process feels a bit weird – but I figure this is hardly a commercial bestseller in progress, and it’ll be more useful all round if I share my ideas rather than keeping them to myself.

I’ve started interviewing some experienced researchers, in academia and in practice, to find out how they get on with trying to do ethical research. I want to learn some stuff about how this works, both in terms of research ethics governance and ethical review, and in people’s actual practice. I am regularly frustrated by the over-emphasis on ethics at the data-gathering stage, and the narrow focus on the welfare of participants, at the expense of ethical considerations at other stages of the research process and the welfare of people other than participants. In my view, there are ethical considerations to take into account at all stages of the research process, and everyone touched by a research project deserves to be thought about and cared for. That includes researchers themselves: research can be a stressful and difficult undertaking, and we do nobody any favours if we don’t look after our own welfare as well as that of others.

Remember when I said writing down what I know about ethics wouldn’t take long? That’s pretty much it. Well, OK, maybe there’s a little more. I could probably pontificate about deontologicalism versus consequentialism for a sentence or two, but I’m not that keen to lose readers. This reminds me of another aim for my book: that it should be readable. I talked to my partner about this recently, and he suggested I have an early chapter called ‘The Academic Verbiage’ (actually he used a rather less polite word than ‘verbiage’), so I could put all the complicated words in one place. Then, he said, I’d be able to write the rest of the book in ordinary language. I’m not sure I’ll go quite that far, but I do intend to try to make it clear and understandable. At least, I hope I can…