Ethics Is Expensive

A while ago I turned down some potentially lucrative work on ethical grounds. I was approached by a global company I will call SubSidTech because it is a wholly-owned subsidiary company of one of the Big Five (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft). SubSidTech wanted help with creative research methods, and I was tempted, because I could have charged them a high fee and they might well have flown me to interesting places. But we didn’t get that far.

I turned down the work because I know that SubSidTech’s parent company works in some ways I consider to be unethical. I explained this to SubSidTech, politely; they sent a cordial email back thanking me for my candour and assuring me that they respected my views. I would have been very glad of the money. But I know turning the work down was, for me, the right thing to do.

It got me thinking, though, about the costs of acting ethically. Let’s start with consumption. I try to shop as ethically as I can: wherever possible I buy from companies with good policies and practices; I try to buy fairly traded and environmentally friendly products; I do what I can to avoid perpetuating cruelty to humans or animals. But living this way is often more expensive. For example, my phone is a Fairphone 3. The people who make this phone are paid a living wage, it is partly made from recycled plastic, and I can repair it myself with component parts available online at reasonable prices. It doesn’t have the built-in obsolescence of many mobile phones. But it was not cheap.

Sometimes being ethical can save money. I often buy second-hand clothes from online marketplaces or charity shops. But usually there is a premium to be paid for ethical consumption. And with costs rising as steeply as they are at present, I find myself rethinking a lot of my previously automatic choices. I love organic butter. It tastes like the butter of my country childhood, it’s not full of hormones, and it’s good for the planet – but its price has risen by 17% in recent weeks, and non-organic butter is cheaper. I don’t know how long I can maintain my ethical shopping preferences because, although I am not on a low income, my income is not rising. (It does go up and down a bit, but the average profit from my business over the last five years has been £24,964 per year; I can pay myself most of that.) And people who live on low incomes or welfare benefits have much more limited options for shopping ethically. The impact of the global financial squeeze on ethical consumption practices is already being recognised.

There is also a cost to doing research ethically. Taking the time to do proper participatory or other inequality-tackling research; paying or otherwise recompensing participants; providing suitable aftercare – these all cost more money, time and commitment than funders are used to funding or researchers are used to providing. Completing an ethics application form has a sizeable time cost, though some of the work done will save time later on. But there is still a time overhead, unless you are the kind of researcher who, having received their formal ethical approval, declares that they have ‘done ethics’ and will now get on with their research. And if you’re not that kind of researcher, if you aim to think and act ethically throughout your research work, then that also comes with a time cost and in some cases a financial cost too.

Because of the costs of acting ethically, we end up having to make compromises. Due to the rising cost of living I am consuming less of the ethically produced goods I like to eat and wear and use. My current choice is to consume less, rather than to buy unethically produced goods; this is a mark of privilege, and may have to change again in time. Perhaps there will also come a point where I cannot choose to turn down work from companies whose practices I regard as unethical. I hope not – but I know that, as for most people, if I need the money badly enough I will take any work I can get. But when it comes to research ethics, I plan to stand my ground. This is easier because someone else is paying the bill, most of the people I work for and with understand the purpose and value of research ethics, and often I can influence the ethical aspects of the research I conduct or support. That doesn’t mean research ethics is compromise-free – there are often compromises to be made where ethics is concerned. But I am happy to work in a profession where ethics, albeit expensive, is taken as seriously as I take it in my personal life.

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!

Rethinking Vulnerability and Sensitivity

Research ethics committees are very concerned with the potential vulnerability and sensitivity of research participants. So far, so laudable – but I don’t think they show their concern in particularly useful ways. Gaining formal approval from a research ethics committee is a hoop many researchers have to jump through, but then the real work of ethics begins.

For most research ethics committees, vulnerability is an attribute of some groups and not others. Groups who may be deemed to be vulnerable include children, older people, or adults with learning disabilities. These categories are specified by UKRI who oversee government-funded research in the UK. But if you look at this in more detail, it doesn’t stand up. Take children. Say a competent 14-year-old is a young carer for their single parent who lives with severe and enduring mental health problems and drinks alcohol all day. Which of those two people might be better able to give informed consent to the child taking part in research? Conversely, people are not necessarily vulnerable because they are older. President Biden is 79 and I can’t imagine him being seen as vulnerable. Learning disabilities don’t necessarily make people vulnerable either, as some of my dyslexic friends would no doubt agree.

Vulnerability is not an attribute, it is a state we all move into and out of in different ways. The start of the Covid-19 pandemic made this abundantly clear. Quite suddenly we were all vulnerable to illness, perhaps death; to increased anxiety; to fear for loved ones who fell sick; to bereavement. Heads of state were no safer than ordinary people living in apartments or suburbs, and researchers were every bit as vulnerable as their participants. Perhaps one small positive side-effect of the pandemic is this: we can see more clearly that we are all vulnerable to changing circumstances resulting in trouble or trauma. Which does not mean we are all vulnerable all the time – but that any of us may be, or may become, vulnerable at any time. As researchers, I think it is essential for us to be aware of this, and ready to face and manage it when it occurs.

Vulnerability and sensitivity have something in common. Just as it is not possible to predict from group membership who is and is not vulnerable, so it is not possible to predict who will and will not be upset by a topic. Of course some topics are likely to be upsetting: female genital mutilation, suicide, sex work, and so on. And we need to put whatever precautions we can in place if we are investigating topics like these, that are evidently sensitive: to make the experience as safe as possible for our participants, and for ourselves. But we cannot be sure that everyone will find these topics equally sensitive; there are people who can take such topics in their stride.

Conversely, some people may be upset by apparently innocuous topics. Suppose a market researcher is investigating people’s perceptions of homewares. In one interview, the researcher asks their question about teapots, and realises their participant is struggling to hold back tears. The participant explains that the last gift ever given to them by their beloved mother, who died exactly one year ago, was a teapot. Perfectly plausible; impossible to foresee.

So, we can’t always predict everything everyone will be sensitive about, and we shouldn’t pretend we can. But, again, we need to equip ourselves with the mental and emotional intelligence and dexterity to be able to deal with the unexpected. Because if there is one thing we can predict, it is that at times we will face the unpredictable.

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!

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!

Research and Stories, Part 2

My recent post Research Is All About Stories got a big reaction on the socials. I encouraged people who tweeted me to add their comments to the blog, which several of them did. They made some really useful points that I’m going to amplify in this post. Also on Twitter Hoda Wassif recommended The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr which I am now reading. It’s an excellent book and quite an eye-opener, even to someone who has been interested in stories and storytelling for many years.

In my last post I said that stories are used all around the world, and I stand by that, but I have learned from Storr’s book that there are cultural differences in the types of stories which are told. Stories told in Europe (and therefore, by extension, stories told by European settlers and their descendants in the US and Canada) generally focus on a courageous individual who can create change, and have a clearly defined ending. Stories told in China usually focus on a group or community, involve multiple perspectives, and have an ambiguous ending which the reader can figure out as they please. European readers take pleasure in a story’s resolution; Chinese readers take pleasure in deciding on their preferred solution to narrative puzzles.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. There are elements of ambiguity to the ending of some European stories, and I would suspect there are elements of resolution to the ending of some Chinese stories. And other cultures treat stories differently again. The Indigenous writer Jo-ann Archibald/Q’um Q’um Xiiem, in her book Indigenous Storywork, tells us that in the oral traditions of Indigenous peoples, stories are used for many purposes, such as education, entertainment, healing, ritual, community, and spirituality. A storyteller will select a story for a particular occasion and reason, and will tell it in their own way, as honestly and clearly as they can. The listener is expected to listen fully, engaging their emotions as well as their cognition, and visualising scenes and interactions.

The key point for us, as researchers, is to understand that if we are using stories with participants and/or audiences from a variety of cultures, they may have a different understanding of what constitutes ‘story’ and what stories are for. We need to know about this if we are to do our work effectively.

In response to my last post on stories, Pauline Ridley helpfully questioned my assertion that ‘we all do know, when we read or hear or watch a narrative, whether it tells a truth’. She pointed out that ‘Unfamiliar stories, outside the listener’s experience, may take longer to penetrate before they ring true.’ This chimes with the information I have gathered about the different ways in which stories are told and used within different cultures. I should know better by now than to treat anything as widespread as stories as a single homogenous category, but clearly I have some way to go!

Damian Milton and Olumide Adisa on Twitter, and Hala Ghanem on the blog, all made the important point that we need to consider who is telling a story and whose stories are being told – and heard, and acted upon. Storytellers have power, and for some years researchers thought a good, ethical, use of our power was to use our stories to ‘give voice’ to marginalised people. More recently we have begun to see this as paternalistic and to recognise that others’ voices are not ours to bestow. Marginalised people already have perfectly good voices, which researchers might usefully amplify at times, by helping to ensure those voices are heard by people in power. One reason stories are useful for research is that a story poses and investigates a question. So does a research project, albeit in a different way, but the parallel is clear. Stories are useful for research in a multitude of ways: on funding applications, as data, in reports and presentations, among others. I’m not sure it would be possible to complete a research project without involving a story somewhere, somehow. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to try. My human brain is hardwired to create stories; I would rather recognise and acknowledge this, and work with it rather than against it. Bring on the stories!

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 $68 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $68 – 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!

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 Pandemic And Difficult Real-World Ethical Questions

scales-309810__340As you probably know, I am interested in research ethics in the real world. The global pandemic has highlighted a number of difficult real-world ethical questions. These are always with us, but usually they rumble away in the background. Now they are occupying a lot of column inches, airwaves, and discussion time.

At national level, how should we balance people’s health needs with a country’s economic needs? We are seeing very different conclusions about this being drawn and implemented in different parts of the world. It is easy to say ‘we should all have done what New Zealand did’ but New Zealand is an island nation, over 1,000 miles from the nearest land mass, with a small population of highly co-operative citizens and an intelligent and empathic leader. Imagine a country with a couple of land borders, a large population of citizens who prize individual freedom over co-operation, and a sociopathic leader. I expect you can think of one or two which fit that description. So clearly not every country could have done what New Zealand did.

I learned early in my research career, from Strauss and Corbin’s book on grounded theory, that absolutes are red flags for ‘not enough ethical thinking’. So, while ‘we should all have done what New Zealand did’ might pass muster at the dinner table, the ‘we should all’ formulation raises my ethical antennae. So do words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, or their more subtly presented equivalents such as ‘everyone knows…’ or ‘that’s not how we do things around here’. As researchers, we need to learn to spot these red flags and then think beyond them.

A perennial difficulty for any kind of democratic government is to balance the need to create policy with the individual and collective freedoms of its citizens. If a policy is too vague, the citizens wail, ‘they’re the government, they should be making things clear’. If it is too specific, the citizens bellow, ‘they’re overstepping their authority, they can’t tell us what to do’. How can we write policy which is just specific enough?

Even when policy is really specific – ‘stay home, save lives’ – people don’t always comply. Everyone, all of the time, is balancing their own physical and mental health needs with the needs of others: family, friends, employers, creditors and so on. We all know people who didn’t entirely comply with the lockdown rules. Most of us are those people. I know I am. I broke the rules twice, once to buy a flowering shrub to plant in my garden while my mother, who died from COVID19 in April, was being cremated with none of her family present; and once to drive a few miles to see a friend for a distanced walk around country lanes during the difficult early phase of bereavement. I also took myself into isolation around 10 days before my government required me to do so. We all make up our own minds how much, or how little, to comply with policy and regulations. We think we’re right, or at least justified, in our actions.

This highlights more difficult ethical questions: who is right, and how do we decide? Freedom of speech is a fine principle and, like all principles, requires people to exercise responsibility alongside their rights. In a modern democratic society, we might decide that freedom of speech is not permitted where that speech incites hatred and abuse of others. That means misogynistic, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and other such statements are not allowed because women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, Jewish people and others have a right to live free from oppression, This trumps the freedom of speech of those who would oppress. So far, so straightforward – in theory, if not, alas, in practice. How, though, do we decide who is right in arguments which don’t run along such easily identifiable lines of oppression? What about the pro- and anti-vaccination movements? Vaccination has become very topical in recent months. The pro-vaccination movement cites scientific evidence and protection of vulnerable people; the anti-vaccination movement cites a range of evidence sources and freedom of choice; and religious arguments are cited by religious people to support both sides of the debate. This causes more difficulties at policy level: should governments support public health by making vaccinations compulsory, or support individual liberty by making them optional?

One question we should always ask ourselves as researchers is: ‘those people who think differently from me, what if they are right?’ It’s important to read arguments that we disagree with, and to consider them carefully. Why do we disagree? What can we learn from other arguments? And it is essential that we are willing to change our minds. If we don’t deal with all evidence as even-handedly as possible, how can we expect others to take seriously the evidence we generate?

Our own views are part of our identity, and we cannot understand our identity without understanding the existence of others. Also, identity is not singular but plural: one person may be a man, a father, an artist and an academic; another may be non-binary, a mother, a football player and an evaluation researcher. Each identity is affiliated with a group of people who also hold that identity. And each identity and group has its ‘others’: people of other genders, ethnicities, political persuasions, religious beliefs, and so on. This is an inescapable part of human life. As researchers, we need to consider the role of our own identities. Who are our ‘others’? How does this affect our work?

These are not easy questions – but then that’s ethics for you!

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 $56 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $56 – 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!

Bureaucracy and Ethics

bureaucracy #2I was doing a telephone interview for a client this morning and my interviewee, let’s call them Ali, said something that made me stop and think. Ali had spent around 35 years working for local government and was talking about the devastation of public service budgets in the UK which has left some local areas with no services for those in need of support as a result of mental health problems, domestic violence, chronic illness, and so on.

“People are seeing a need,” Ali told me, “and setting up projects in neighbourhoods to help each other. But they’re quite naïve. They don’t understand the need for proper health and safety procedures, DBS checks, and compliance with other statutory regulations.”

What I wanted to say to Ali, but didn’t because I was being a professional interviewer at the time, was that I don’t understand the need for those things either. This reminded me about the Casserole Club, set up by the UK coalition Government in 2011, the idea being that those who were able to cook an extra plate of food could share it with a hungry lonely person nearby. What a great idea, I thought, and went to check it out. I found that I needed to fill in a lengthy application form, pass a food hygiene test – and, yes, have a DBS check to confirm that I have no criminal record.

After my grandma died, my 88-year-old grandfather struck a deal with a nearby neighbour to bring him a plate of dinner every evening. He paid for the ingredients but she cooked the food and brought it round with love, for four years until he also died. She didn’t fill in an application form, pass an exam, or interact with bureaucracy in any way; she just did what her neighbour needed, and he contributed what he could.

I didn’t join in with the Casserole Club. I was put off by the bureaucracy. I was also a little bit ashamed of myself for being deterred by having to fill in a few forms and take a test – but nevertheless that was the case. The Club appears to have fizzled out at a national level and many local levels too – the most recent posts on the national Facebook page and on the page from my locality are dated 2015 – and I wonder how much of a role bureaucracy played in that failure.

I think bureaucracy is often counter-productive. Yesterday I was teaching ‘Ethical Thinking and Decision-Making In Practice’ to doctoral students at the University of Manchester. Several students spoke of their concerns about the system of ethical approval at UK universities. As they talked, I could see that they viewed ethics as a barrier to get around, a hurdle to jump, a bureaucratic obstruction to their research. I feel sad that our ethical governance systems have moved so far from helping researchers to work more ethically. They seem all about compliance and policing, and not at all about raising ethical standards or improving ethical practice.

I’m not advocating total anarchy; researchers certainly need to operate within the laws of the country or countries where we work, and I believe we should act as ethically as we can. But it seems to me that for researchers to be more ethical, we need less regulation and more education.

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 $47 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $47 – 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!

Reviewing Work by Indigenous Scholars

Indigenous methods booksA year ago I launched my book on research ethics which draws on the work of Indigenous researchers from around the world, setting the Indigenous research paradigm and literature side-by-side with the Euro-Western research paradigm and literature. I state in the book that I am not an expert on Indigenous research or ethics. And I never will be – I am a student of the literature, aiming to decolonise my own thought and practice. When I was writing the book I realised that after it came out, Euro-Western institutions would try to position me as an expert by offering invitations to speak about and review the work of Indigenous scholars. And indeed they have.

I have turned down all invitations to speak that would constitute me speaking for Indigenous scholars, and I will continue to do so. I tell whoever has invited me that Indigenous researchers and scholars need to take these assignments, and give them pointers on how to contact suitable people. I can, and do, speak about Indigenous research and ethics in the keynotes and workshops I give. For example, when I was asked to focus on the history of creative research methods in my keynote for the recent Manchester Methods Fair, I included what I know of the history of Indigenous research. I know some Indigenous scholars think I shouldn’t speak on this topic at all, while others call for inclusion of their work in Euro-Western scholarly spaces. I am working to respond to these calls because my own view, currently, is that dialogue is more important than segregation.

Reviewing written work is a different matter. I have been asked, by prominent Euro-Western academic journals, to review articles by Indigenous scholars. Here is an example of actual email correspondence I have had with such a journal (which I will not name as that seems unfair):

Me: Hi. I can review this if you can confirm that at least one of the other reviews will be done by an Indigenous scholar/researcher. I’m not sure COPE has caught up with the ethical aspects of Indigenous scholarship, research, and publishing. Essentially, it’s not ethical for non-Indigenous people to make pronouncements about anything to do with Indigenous issues without Indigenous input. I’m hoping you’re already aware of this and have one or more Indigenous reviewers lined up – in which case, I’m in.

Journal editor: We understand the importance of this and I have forwarded your concerns on to the internal editorial team to ask them for further information. However, please be aware that we do operate our external peer reviews on a largely blind basis in terms of names, background etc. For example, when the authors receive the reviewer’s comments they do not see the names of the reviewers. I only receive the names of the reviewers from the editorial team who are the ones with the in depth knowledge concerning the reviewer’s research specialties etc. Thus, at this point I’m unsure as to the backgrounds of the reviewers we have invited as I only communicate with them through the manuscript and e-mail system we use.

Me: I take your point about blind peer reviews. This of course is in direct opposition to the Indigenous ethical principle of accountability which I expect your author has addressed in their article. My own engagement with the Indigenous methods literature, plus a small amount of work directly with Indigenous researchers and scholars, has brought me to my current position. This is that I won’t act as any kind of authority on Indigenous issues unless I know for sure that Indigenous people are involved at the same level. And ‘authority’ includes peer reviewing.

Having solely non-Indigenous people act as authorities on Indigenous issues is analogous to having solely men act as authorities on women’s issues. I’ve fought against the latter all my life. It would be hypocritical of me then to take an equivalent stance in another arena.

Internal editorial team rep: Thank you for this, and for the important point you raise. Supporting and finding a space for indigenous scholarship and methodological discussion is something that, as a new editorial team, we take seriously and are currently discussing. We will endeavour to recruit an indigenous reviewer (with the recognition with all that is bound up with this category and how often it is a little too broad for each context) and will be reviewing policy on this matter at our next meeting.

This did nothing to reassure me so I declined to review.

From dr.whomever on Instagram, aka Em Rabelais from the University of Illinois in the US, I have recently learned that the preoccupation of Euro-Westerners with the ‘evidence base’ is colonialist and gets in the way of a lot of anti-oppressive work. Many Indigenous peoples have a different view of evidence: for example, if someone has lived through a phenomenon, event, or relationship, they know about it and so can provide evidence. In Euro-Western cultures, we accept this kind of evidence to convict people of crimes and call it a ‘witness statement’, but we will not accept it in research where we dismiss it as ‘anecdote’. This seems to me an anomaly, and one I have never understood.

Imposing this approach to research on people from other cultures who take a different view, as dr.whomever says, is epistemic violence. Last week I spotted this tweet by Grieve Chelwa from the University of Cape Town in South Africa:

I’m now wondering whether I should accept invitations to review because at least I understand this and have some knowledge of Indigenous ethical principles. But I’m also aware that the little knowledge I have can be a dangerous thing. And I don’t want to end up being seen as “an expert” on Indigenous scholarship, or even “a go-to person”.

In an ideal world, I would like Euro-Western and Indigenous scholars to review each other’s work with a good understanding of each other’s perspectives. I was very grateful to receive a review of the draft manuscript of my book on research ethics from Indigenous scholar Deborah McGregor from York University in Canada, who waived anonymity to enable dialogue, and was helpfully constructive with her criticism and generous with her praise. However, in our far-from-ideal world, I recognise that Indigenous scholars have higher priorities than reviewing the work of a privileged Euro-Western scholar.

I think waiving anonymity would help a lot in these situations. I would be happier to review the work of Indigenous scholars if I knew they were happy for me to review their work, and that we could have a dialogue to ensure mutual understanding.

Having said all that, I definitely want to support Indigenous researchers (and other marginalised researchers) whenever I can do so ethically. But figuring out when and how to do that is not straightforward. If you have any ideas or suggestions to contribute I’d love to read them in the comments.

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 $44 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $44 – 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!