Challenging The Dominance Of English

languagesIn a thought-provoking blog post, Naomi Barnes of Brisbane, Australia, recently asked what other white people were doing to break down the barriers built by whiteness. This is a very good question. One thing we can do is to challenge the dominance of English.

Language is not neutral in research or education. English is the dominant language of both, worldwide, as a direct result of colonialism. English is dominant even though it ranks only third in the world: more of the world’s people speak Mandarin Chinese, or Spanish. Studying for a PhD (or equivalent), or writing an academic journal article, is demanding enough when you can do it in your native language. Every year, around the world, millions of people have to study and write in English when that is not their native language, which makes already difficult work much more difficult. People like me, who are born into an English-speaking country, are unbelievably lucky and have a massive head-start. A lot of us, I think, don’t realise how lucky we are.

Professor Bagele Chilisa of Botswana, in her excellent book from 2012 on Indigenous Research Methodologies, calls this the ‘hierarchy of language’. (The English version of the search engine I use, duckduckgo, has never heard of her book, which rather proves her point.) The hierarchy of language comes with a range of ethical implications for native English speakers, and I will outline three of the main ones here.

First, we need to understand that there is not just one form of English, there are many: from Bangalore to Boston, from London to Lagos, from Sydney to Sao Paulo. This means we should not assume that someone’s ideas have less worth because their spoken English is heavily accented, or formulated differently from our own, or their written English is not entirely fluent.

‘Language-ism’ is embedded in structures such as academia and publishing. People who write non-standard English, regardless of the quality of the content, are less likely to have their work formally published in academic journals – or, at least, not the journals usually indexed by Google Scholar or the Directory of Open Access Journals. This is one of the ‘barriers built by whiteness’ referred to by Naomi Barnes. As a result, work in non-standard English is harder to find, so it is less likely to be used, shared, or cited. Yet some of these researchers are doing excellent work which is well worth exploring.

This is the second ethical point: we need to try harder to find, and use, work by non-native English speakers. Those of us who can read other languages have a head-start here. (Many non-English speaking countries teach languages, including English, to children throughout their schooling. In England in the 1970s, when I was at school, learning other languages was mostly optional – I spent just three years learning elementary French and have only needed to use it, since then, when actually in France. Even there many people speak better English than my French. This is another indication of the dominance of English.) But whether or not you can read other languages, you need to know where to look for research from beyond the countries where English is dominant. Here are some ‘starters for 10’ thanks to Andy Nobes of INASP on Twitter, in conversation with Raul Pacheco-Vega, Pat Thomson and Jo VanEvery:

African Journals Online

Bangladesh Journals Online

Central American Journals Online

Journals from Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal

Latindex (Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal – Spanish only)

Mongolia Journals Online

Nepal Journals Online

Philippine Journals Online

Scientific Electronic Library Online (Latin America, Spain, Portugal and South Africa)

Sri Lanka Journals Online

Many of these are supported by the research, knowledge and development charity INASP through its Journals Online project. Most have an English option on their website and some, if not all, articles available in English. Much of the content is openly accessible.

The third ethical point is to look at this the other way around. If we write in English, we should do all we can to get our work translated into other majority languages. There are 23 languages in the world that are each spoken as a first language by over 50 million people. The top 10 are: Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and Lahnda (a Pakistani language). Translation brings its own ethical problems, as there is not always a straightforwardly equivalent word for an idea or a concept, so translating from one language to another can involve some creativity and interpretation. However, a careful translation between any two majority languages will make your work available to many more scholars. In particular, translations from English help to reduce its dominance.

So there are three ways for white people (and native English speakers of colour) to challenge the dominance of English and so help to break down some of the barriers built by whiteness. If you can think of other ways to do this, please add them in the comments.

Let’s Talk About Research Misconduct

detective-152085__340Research misconduct is on the rise, certainly within hard science subjects, quite possibly elsewhere. Researchers around the world are inventing data, falsifying findings, and plagiarising the work of others. Part of this is due to the pressure on some researchers to publish their findings in academic journals. There is also career-related pressure on researchers to conduct accurate polls, produce statistically significant results, and get answers to questions, among other things. Some clients, managers, funders and publishers have a low tolerance for findings that chime with common sense or the familiar conclusion of ‘more research is needed’. They may expect researchers to produce interesting or novel findings that will direct action or support change.

Publishers are working to counteract misconduct in a variety of ways. Plagiarism detection software is now routinely used by most big publishers. Also, journal articles can be retracted (i.e. de-published) and this is on the increase, most commonly as a result of fraud. However, the effectiveness of retraction is questionable. The US organisation Retraction Watch has a ‘leaderboard’ of researchers with the most retracted papers, some of whom have had more papers retracted than you or I will ever write, which suggests that retraction of a paper – even for fraud – does not necessarily discredit a researcher or prevent them from working.

Some research misconduct can have devastating effects on people, organisations, and professions. People may lose their jobs, be stripped of prizes or honours, and be prosecuted in criminal courts. Organisations lose money, such as the cost of wasted research, disciplinary hearings, and recruitment to fill vacancies left by fraudulent researchers. And whole professions can suffer, as misconduct slows progress based on research. For example, in 2012 the Journal of Medical Ethics published a study showing that thousands of patients had been treated on the basis of research published in papers that were subsequently retracted. Retraction Watch shows that some papers receive hundreds of citations even after they have been retracted, which suggests that retraction may not be communicated effectively.

Yet even the potentially devastating consequences of misconduct are clearly not much of a deterrent – and in many cases may not occur at all. Let’s examine a case in more detail. Hwang Woo-Suk is a researcher from South Korea. In the early 2000s he was widely regarded as an eminent scientist. Then in 2006 he was found to have faked much of his research, and he admitted fraud. Hwang’s funding was withdrawn, criminal charges were laid against him, and in 2009 he received a suspended prison sentence. Yet he continued to work as a researcher (albeit in a different specialism) and to contribute to publications as a named author.

Closer to home, a survey of over 2,700 medical researchers published by the British Medical Journal in 2012 found that one in seven had ‘witnessed colleagues intentionally altering or fabricating data during their research or for the purposes of publication’. Given the pressures on researchers, perhaps this is not surprising – though it is deeply shocking.

The examples given in this article are from hard science rather than social research. Evidence of misconduct in social research is hard to find, so it would be tempting to conclude that it happens less and perhaps that social researchers are somehow more ethical and virtuous than other researchers. I feel very wary about making such assumptions. It is also possible that social research is less open about misconduct than other related disciplines, or that it’s easier to get away with misconduct in social research.

So what is the answer? Ethics books, seminars, conferences etc frequently exhort individual researchers to think and act ethically, but I’m not sure this provides sufficient safeguards. Should we watch each other, as well as ourselves? Maybe we should, at least up to a point. Working collaboratively can be a useful guard against unethical practice – but many researchers work alone or unsupervised. I don’t think formal ethical approval is much help here, either; it is certainly no safeguard against falsifying findings or plagiarism. Perhaps all we can do at present is to maintain awareness of the potential for, and dangers of, misconduct.

A version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association.

New Directions in Qualitative Research Ethics

TSRMcover 1..2I have co-edited a special issue of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology with my friend and colleague Dr Lucy Pickering from the University of Glasgow. It is online today – International Women’s Day, how timely! – and it’s called New Directions in Qualitative Research Ethics.

I am the ethics lead for the UK and Ireland Social Research Association, and Lucy is the ethics lead for the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth. Lucy and I both help our respective associations’ members with real-life ethical dilemmas (and trilemmas, and quadrilemmas). We have both found that the emphasis of the ethical review process on data gathering and participant well-being leaves researchers ill-equipped to cope with ethical difficulties at other stages of the research process. Overall, the ethics literature is similarly skewed, with most articles and chapters focusing on data gathering and participant well-being. Our aim was to produce a special issue that would help to shift this balance. We wrote one of the articles, on the ethics of presentation and representation, and of course the editorial. Other articles cover the teaching of research ethics, the ethics of recruitment and sampling, working ethically with participants who have profound intellectual disabilities, what to do when ethics committees’ stipulations prove irrelevant in the field, and some of the ethical issues raised by cross-cultural research. There is also a useful review essay of three recent books on research and social justice.

We are proud that our authors are truly international, hailing from New Zealand, Australia, Finland, America and Thailand as well as the UK. The journal is paywalled, but there are 50 free downloads of every article, so get in quick if you don’t have access.

 

How ethical is it to write a book?

indigenous-research-meth-cover_Three bloggers and tweeters had an online conversation in December and this post is a response to that discussion, which  began when Naomi Barnes, aka @DrNomyn, posted her thoughts on qualitative research. She wrote of the politics and power of research and knowledge, and her realisation that there are ethical implications to every decision she makes as a researcher. Naomi describes that as ‘a huge and sobering responsibility’.

Naomi tweeted the link to her blog post, which was picked up by Ian Guest, aka @IanInSheffield. He responded, first on Twitter and then on his blog. Ian’s concern is with southern-theory-cover_the ethics of representation, and in particular what and who is missing from accounts of research and communication. This leads to his interest in where knowledge shared online may go, and what impact it may have, beyond that which is visible in tweets and blog posts.

Then Deborah Netolicky, aka @debsnet, joined in. She problematises the ethics of writing: how to represent the messiness of research (and life) within the inevitable neatness of writing, and how much – or how little – of the author’s self is, and/or should explicitly be, expressed in their academic writing.

research-as-ceremony-cover_Each of these points links to my current writing project: the book on research ethics which I have spent the last two years talking about and researching, and which, this year, I will actually write. Like Naomi, I’m aware that there are ethical implications to every decision I make as I work on this book. What I choose to read; what I choose to take from that reading; who I speak to; what I decide is significant from those conversations; how I select and place each word in the text; how I acknowledge my reading and conversations within that process; what I leave out, and why – Naomi is right, it is a ‘huge and sobering responsibility’.

decolonising-meth-cover_One of my proposal reviewers said, ” There is a considerable international literature on research ethics with which the author may not (yet) be familiar: Mertens and Ginsberg; Hammersley and Trianou; Tolich and Sieber; Posel and Ross; Iphofen; Israel; vd Hoonaard; Denzin, Lincoln and Smith; and even Stark; Schrag…” This was not a lack of familiarity – most of these are on my bookshelves or in my electronic folders – simply a lack of reference. But I am interested in the reviewer’s view of ‘international’ and – like Ian – in what, and who, is missing from that view.

Most of the work cited by this reviewer is written from Euro-Western locations. The chilisa-mertens-cram-cover_exceptions are Posel and Ross (South Africa) and Sieber and Tolich (New Zealand). Yet I would argue that these authors, too, turn a predominantly Euro-Western gaze on the topic of research ethics. For example, neither text addresses the impact of colonization on research worldwide, nor mentions the work to decolonize research methods or the Indigenous research being done in their country of origin. I am currently reading a different body of work which highlights this as a huge lacuna at best, and imperial epistemological violence at worst. Books on Indigenous research and decolonizing methods are opening my eyes to the value, power, and ethics of non-Euro-Western research practices.

decolonising-solidarity-coverSo of course I will include this body of work in my forthcoming book. To do that was an easy ethical decision: as soon as I knew the work existed, it was obvious that I should read and incorporate it into my own work. The hard part is how to do that. I guess I’ll figure it out as I write, but one thing’s for sure: it won’t be a tokenistic chapter or mentions in passing with a few footnotes.

Like Deb, I also need to figure out where and how to put myself into this writing. I am white, British, a descendant of some of the most predatory imperialists the world has yet seen. I benefit daily, hugely, from the legacy of colonization. I live in a country made rich on the profits of oppression, invasion, exploitation and slavery. I only speak English, because I only need to speak English, because my ancestors invaded so much of the land on this planet that now English is the most commonly spoken language worldwide. One thing I’m learning, in reading about Indigenous research, is that in many cultures worldwide, people value their ancestors as highly as their living relatives. For me, the dead are dead; if I was ever to have a relationship with my own ancestors, I would probably need to start by shouting at them for several years.

Sometimes I wonder whether I have any right to even write about this body of work. But then I think that the risk of perpetrating epistemic imperialism by leaving it out is worse than the risk of perpetrating epistemic violence through inept inclusion. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s even ethical to write books at all. I have discovered, since I began to write professionally, that being an author is a way of claiming authority. Is that ethical? I guess it depends on how you do it. My aim is not only to write about ethics but also to do so ethically. As Deb says, there will be ‘moments of awkwardness, uncertainty, openness, weakness, resistance, emotion’, and I want to reveal as many of these as I can. That, too, seems like an ethical approach. Yet I wonder how ethically I can write, given that I write with enormous privilege: access to structures such as universities and publishers, and social capital that is denied to most Indigenous researchers. I’m not arrogant enough to think I can write a book which will change that situation. But at least, perhaps, I can move the goalposts by acknowledging and including work on Indigenous research and decolonizing methods alongside Euro-Western methods and ethics. Also, I want to acknowledge the Euro-Western location of Euro-Western research methods and ethics, rather than maintaining the common assumption that these are the only methods and ethics on the planet.

fork-in-the-roadIt’s a tough and daunting task. I’m not even sure whether I’m going in the right direction – or whether there is a “right direction” at all. But I aim to consider all the ethical implications of each decision I have to make and, at each fork in the road, to choose the most ethical path. I think that’s the best I can do.

Research Ethics For Your PhD

REFYPhD_purple_compasses_LC_RGB.jpgWhile I’ve been away on holiday (yes, lovely, thank you!) a lot has been happening on the writing front. To begin with, the fifth e-book in my PhD Knowledge series is out. For my new followers (hello, new followers!) this is a series of six short e-books, each around 10,000 words, for potential and actual doctoral students in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Although the titles mention PhDs, the books are also relevant for those doing professional doctorates such as EdDs, DBAs and so on. These e-books are designed to be readable by anyone with internet access – you don’t need a separate e-reader, you can download free software such as the Kindle App for your laptop, tablet, or phone. The first e-book in the series, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, is free to download, and the others are each around the same price as a take-away coffee. They are: Gathering Data For Your PhD, Analysing Data For Your PhD, and Writing Your PhD. I have produced them separately to keep them affordable, and so that doctoral students can have the information and advice they need, when they need it, rather than having to buy a whole big expensive book all at once.

The fifth in the series is Research Ethics For Your PhD: An Introduction. Whether or not you have to go through a formal process of ethical review, your examiners are likely to want to see evidence that you have at least considered ethical issues during your doctoral research. Research ethics is a large and complex topic. This e-book offers a straightforward introduction that will help you decide how far you want and need to engage with ethics during your doctoral study.

Some people think ethics is a dry, boring subject. I find it endlessly fascinating because, for me, it’s about people and the choices they make. I’m working on a full-length book about ethics and I’m determined that it won’t be dull and turgid; I want it to be lively and readable, even – if I can manage it – compelling. I lead on ethics for the UK and Ireland Social Research Association and, due to my interest in ethics, Dr Katy Vigurs asked me to collaborate on a journal article. Which has just been published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology! It’s called Participants’ productive disruption of a community photo-elicitation project: improvised methodologies in practice; there are some free downloads available and you might get one if you’re quick.

I have other writing news, as well, but that will have to wait for the next post. I hope you, too, have had a pleasant and productive summer, and I wish you all the best for the new academic year.

Research Ethics – Can You Help?

telephoneDear Internet

I wonder whether you can help me. I need people, from outside the UK, to talk to about research ethics. They can be academics or practitioners, from any discipline or field, and they need to have some interest in research ethics. If they fit that specification, and they’re based outside the UK, I’d like to talk to them.

This is for my next book which will be on research ethics. I’ve done a bunch of interviews with people from the UK, but I want to take a more global look at the topic. I’ve asked everyone in my networks but I’m getting nowhere, so I’m throwing this out to you in the hope that you may know one or more people who might be willing to talk.

Interviews are taking about an hour and can be done by phone or Skype. The interviews will be kept confidential, and I’m happy to email over my questions for someone to look at before they decide whether or not they want to take part. I won’t use anyone’s name in connection with the book. I am compiling a list of the roles and countries of origin of the people I’ve spoken to, to give my readers some idea of the breadth of contributions, with interviewees choosing their own designation e.g. ‘senior lecturer in social work, British university’ or ‘independent researcher, UK’, but if someone doesn’t even want to go that far, that’s OK with me. Some of the people I’ve spoken to have held several roles in connection with research ethics but have chosen to speak to me from just one of their roles, which is fine. Some have chosen not to answer all my questions, or to answer several in one; that’s fine too.

I would be particularly interested in talking to people doing, or who have done, research in countries with authoritarian rather than democratic governments – though I’d also love to talk to Australians, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and so on. In fact I’d like to talk to people from pretty much anywhere outside the UK, though I only speak English.There’s no big rush; I’m hoping to get the interviews done some time in the next 3-4 months.

Obviously I wouldn’t expect you to give me someone’s contact details, but if you know people you think might be willing and able to help, perhaps you could draw their attention to this post and then, if they want to get in touch, they could email me through the contact form.

Here’s hoping…

Are You An Ethical Writer?

word cloud of this blog, to date

Professional writers and speakers know that the way we think and feel influences the words we choose to write or speak. We may not understand so clearly that the words we choose to use can influence the thoughts and feelings of others.

A generation ago, women lobbied for changes to terminology which gave the impression that men were dominant – as indeed they were in Western society at that time. Up to 1978, for example, a woman could be fired from her job in the US for being pregnant, and up to 1982 UK pubs could refuse to serve women. But at the same time, women were beginning to take roles traditionally assigned to men, which led to some linguistic oddities. I remember feeling rather uncomfortable with being designated the ‘chairman’ of a committee, when ‘chairperson’ or simply ‘chair’ would have served as well. There were fierce arguments between those who believed that traditional language use supported the discriminatory status quo, and those who thought it made no difference.

Some people went further than I thought was sensible, replacing ‘history’ with ‘herstory’ (I can see the point of that in some circumstances, but the etymology of the word suggests that it’s much more about the ‘story’ than the ‘his’) or ‘woman’ with ‘womyn’ (I didn’t get that one at all). This kind of terminological tinkering led to the phrase ‘political correctness’ being used to discredit all attempts to replace sexist terms with existing, sensible, neutral terms. I still wince when I see reports of women ‘manning a stall’ – what’s wrong with ‘staffing’? But it’s now quite usual to speak of a ‘police officer’ rather than ‘policeman’ or ‘policewoman’, and a ‘flight attendant’ rather than an ‘air hostess’ or ‘steward’. These changes in terminology have moved in parallel with increasing opportunities and equality for women in the Western world over recent decades.

However, there is some new terminology that I think is unhelpful for some sections of society. I read an interesting article in the Guardian last week in which the non-fiction writer Steven Poole gave a very thoughtful analysis of the unintentional difficulties caused by the phrase ‘first world problems’. The article is worth reading if you have time. He shows how the reductive use of ‘first world’, with its implicit opposition to the ‘third world’ (which is itself an unfashionable term these days), enables people to condescend, patronise, humblebrag, sidestep compassion, and generally dehumanise pretty much everyone.

Also last week, on social media, I questioned someone’s use of the American phrase ‘wife beater’ to describe a sleeveless t-shirt. I’m not naming the person here because they didn’t welcome my questioning and I don’t want them to think I’m trying to start some kind of online war. The person I questioned is someone I follow because, in my view, they do valuable work online to highlight social inequality. Their casual use of the phrase ‘wife beater’, with its implication that domestic violence can be acceptable, seemed to sit oddly with their pro-equality stance. I am sure this was unintentional on their part; I can think of a number of other words and phrases that I’m sure they wouldn’t use at all because of the discriminatory implications.

Another one is the new-ish way of designating something as in some way poor by saying ‘it gets old really fast’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, and I am becoming increasingly aware of the discrimination and difficulties experienced by the older members of our society. I would prefer colloquial usage of the word ‘old’ to have positive connotations.

These examples have become stock phrases, akin to cliches. And cliches are evidence of lazy thinking. All this has implications for us as writers. Writing is a creative process, and that includes academic writing. Stories must be told, words and structures chosen, and these processes are permeated with creativity. Academics, altacs and researchers, earn our livings with our brains. I would argue that we have an ethical responsibility to avoid the lazy cliche and express our new thinking in fresh language. Also, we should try to remain aware of the potential effects of our creative choices on our readers. It is our responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that we don’t use language in a way that could support discriminatory actions or practices.

Data

blimageLast week I received a #blimage challenge from @debsnet aka the édu flâneuse. When I came to the photo she had posted to inspire her challengees, it only took me a moment to link those overflowing hands with the data we researchers love to gather.

Data is a Latin plural word meaning ‘things that are given’, though it is used in English as plural or singular (e.g. ‘a piece of data’). In English it refers to information of various kinds: numbers, words, facts, opinions, pictures, tweets – the list is long. Social scientists can amuse themselves for hours by arguing about what constitutes data. There is a popular saying that ‘anecdote is not data’ although, when a qualitative researcher collects anecdotes from interview and focus group participants, data is exactly what they become.

Different types of researchers have different ideas about what constitutes data. To an anthropologist, an interview transcript may be only interesting for its textual content, while for a conversation analyst, the length of the pauses may be a fascinating aspect of that data. Some researchers treat focus group data just like interview data, while others see the interactions between people in the focus group as an enriching layer of extra data. For some people, data is collected; for others, it is constructed. I use ‘gathered’ when I want to encompass both perspectives.

Then there is ‘big data’: data generated by national governments, or by technology, which is so copious that it requires whole new methods of analysis and new words to describe its size like exabyte, zettabyte, or snakebyte (I might have made up one of those). Big data challenges the etymological suggestion that data is ‘given’ because big data is often a by-product of other activity, such as using social media or loyalty cards. This is an ethical minefield. For example, people may not realise that their data is of value to the companies running the facilities they use, and it can be difficult to track individuals down to seek consent for their data to be used in research.

You can do all sorts of things with data. For example, you can prepare data, code data, analyse data, synthesise data, visualise data, present data – and, if you’re like me, you can love data. In fact, I adore data! A new dataset to explore is so exciting because I never know what I might discover. I guess it’s the same feeling an archaeologist gets when they’re starting a dig, or an antiques dealer opening a box from a house clearance. There might be treasure in here! And even if there isn’t, even if there are only mundane things, I will still have seen something I hadn’t seen before, and maybe learned something new, or at least increased my experience.

You can also abuse and misuse data, by picking out the parts that support the argument you want to make, rather than preparing, coding, and analysing data as rigorously and honestly as possible. We are all susceptible to biases such as confirmation bias and hindsight bias, and there is only so much any one of us can do to counteract these. This is part of the reason for the scholarly peer review process, where others can scrutinise your work to check for bias. It is also why researchers encourage each other to track the links in our writing from research design, through data collection and analysis, to findings and conclusions, so that our processes and influences are clear to readers and they can make their own mind up about any biases they may perceive in our work.

It’s not only individual researchers, though, who abuse and misuse data. Research commissioners in every sector regularly bury data-based findings that don’t align with their political or organisational aims. And the media is notorious for putting spin on such findings. This has led to the establishment of independent fact-checking organisations such as Fact Check in the US and Full Fact in the UK.

It is easy to develop conspiracy theories about the ways in which governments, corporations, and the media use and misuse data. It is harder to do the tough research work necessary to counteract this, as far as we can, by producing firm findings, based on enough good-quality data, and presenting those findings in clear and understandable ways. To do that, we have to gather our data carefully, with a solid rationale for why we gathered it in the ways we did, so that we can be confident about the status and limitations of our data and about the findings we draw from its analysis. This is not easy – but it is possible, and it is our responsibility as researchers to do this work to the best of our abilities.

best spiderwebsNow, a #blimage challenge for Naomi Barnes: I look forward to seeing what she makes from this picture. And if anyone else would like to use it for inspiration: help yourself!

How to get into conferences for free

burglarI picked up a blog post from Twitter yesterday that left me very cross. I decided not to retweet it, mainly because I couldn’t fit all my crossness into a one-word comment on the original tweet, and partly because I didn’t want anyone to think I was condoning the views expressed by the blogger.

The post was published anonymously by someone calling themselves ‘Weasely’, who complains about the cost of a recent four-day conference priced at £120 for early birds or £150 for late bookers (£100/£130 for postgraduates), plus a year’s membership of the British International Studies Association (BISA) if you’re not already a member (£30). Weasely thinks that if you can’t afford to go to a conference, you should simply gatecrash – he or she suggests that forging a badge would be helpful – and take everything you can while you’re there, including food and drink for later. Carry tupperware and flasks for this purpose, advises Weasely, and help yourself to a bottle of wine from the wine reception. Get your tenured friends, or those with permanent posts, to help you gain illicit entry. The blog post is titled ‘Steal This Conference’.

The conference Weasely complains about was run by BISA which, like the Social Research Association (SRA) on whose Board I sit, is a learned society and a registered charity. The Boards of these organisations are made up of volunteers who work hard in their own time, alongside a small number of paid staff to put on events like these – who, because they are very dedicated people, also work in their own time as well as their paid time. BISA has one full-time member of staff, the SRA has the equivalent of approx 1.5 full-time staff, and these people are not highly paid. Also, learned societies, being registered charities, are not for profit. If we’re lucky, we do make a surplus from our events, which is used to support our other activities for public benefit, and to build up reserves against the times when we’re not so lucky and we make a loss.

Attending a conference without paying either reduces the surplus or increases the loss. This practice would push up costs. Even Weasely’s suggestions are likely to have that effect, as learned societies will now have to consider buying more expensive badges, perhaps with bar codes or holograms and the equipment to read them.  They will also have to consider paying people to monitor entry to individual sessions as well as to the conference as a whole.

I don’t know why Weasely thinks it’s OK to steal a conference place, food and drink etc. His or her commenters are more measured. One uses shoplifting as an analogy, which seems quite reasonable in the circumstances, and Weasely responds rudely with the view that ‘shoplifting can be essential for survival, so screw you’. I don’t agree with the tone or the content of that comment. Debate is vital; rudeness is neither necessary nor collegial. Conference attendance is not essential for survival, even in career terms. Asking for help can be essential for survival; shoplifting is stealing. Stealing is rarely defensible, and stealing from volunteer-led charities is despicable.

I think BISA did really well to keep the price of their conference so low. Postgraduate members were being charged £25 per day, which has to be a loss leader as that wouldn’t cover the cost of venue hire, food and drink, let alone the delegate pack, admin support, and all the other costs. I suspect there was a great deal of work behind the scenes, e.g. to attract support from sponsors, persuade suppliers to offer discounts, and find funding for speakers. But I do realise that even such low costs are out of reach for some people – because I am one of those people. As an indie researcher, I would have to pay at least £150 (early bird booking fee plus a year’s membership) plus travel and accommodation, which hikes the cost dramatically, and be prepared to spend four days not earning any money. That is often the clincher.

But sometimes there are conferences I really want to go to. So I’ve found out how to go to conferences for nothing, and do so ethically: offer to volunteer. Conference organisers often need people to do all sorts of things: staff reception desks, babysit important speakers, run around at plenary sessions with roving microphones. If you have the skills, you can convene or chair a panel or two. And, as with festivals, helping for some of the time gets you free entry the rest of the time, often with travel and accommodation thrown in. Plus you get to meet the organisers who are often influential people. So all I have to contribute is my unpaid time, and that feels like a fair exchange to me.

This isn’t widely advertised, and may not be available at all conferences, but it isn’t hard to ask. For me, asking would be easier than stealing. So if you want to go to a conference, but the cost is more than you can afford, give the organisers a call or drop them an email. Explain your predicament, tell them about your skills and abilities, and ask whether you can offer your services in exchange for a conference place (and, if necessary, travel/accommodation). Do this as far in advance as you can – though it’s always worth a try, even if you only find out about a particular conference at the last minute. I’d be very surprised if you didn’t receive a sympathetic hearing at the very least, and you might well find yourself with a good deal and some new friends into the bargain.

Cross-Cultural Research Ethics

cross-culturalLast week I presented at a seminar at the University of Nottingham hosted by BAICE, aka the British Association for International and Comparative Education. Like the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA), on whose Board I sit, BAICE is a learned society and an organisational member of the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS). I was presenting, in my SRA role, on behalf of the AcSS. This always makes me slightly uncomfortable as I’m not a Fellow of the AcSS and don’t really feel qualified to speak for the Academy. Luckily another of my SRA colleagues, who is a Fellow, was at the seminar and was able to help me out.

The seminar was on ‘cross-cultural research ethics in international and comparative education’. Presenting for the AcSS on this topic was an interesting exercise, as the Academy is not a very cross-cultural organisation: the Fellows are 93% professors, 69% male, and my contacts with them suggest that the white middle classes are in a massive majority. My presentation focused on the five generic ethical principles the AcSS has developed for its member societies to use. I’ve been working on a redraft of the SRA’s ethical guidelines based around these principles, and had already registered that they are focused around concepts which are not culturally neutral, such as democracy and inclusivity. There are cultures that despise democracy, seeing it as a discredited belief system, and others that either do not practise inclusivity or practise a very different version from that which the UK educational and social research culture espouses.

Perhaps because BAICE is focused on international matters, ‘culture’ was in danger of being conflated with ‘nationality’, so I argued that it is a much wider issue. The previous day I had been in a workshop for a piece of evaluation research that had included service users, volunteers, staff, partners, and evaluators. That’s five different cultures, right there. Then of course those professionally defined cultures intersect with people’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc, to create a whole world of cultural complexity.

The other presentations covered a wide range of related questions. How should we manage cultural conflicts within and beyond academic departments? How ethical is it to use RCTs in educational or social research when you know that members of control groups will be disadvantaged? How can we be inclusive as researchers in situations where including marginalised people, or those living in difficult circumstances, may put them at risk? How can we support researchers and teachers who are operating in a global environment, whether physical or virtual, to work in ethical ways?

Then we were asked to discuss whether we thought it would be possible to formulate generic ethical principles for cross-cultural research. We didn’t reach firm conclusions, but we did agree that if such principles were to be devised, the fundamental value should be respect, and the key process would be dialogue. Any generic principles would need to be broad, neither prescriptive nor vacuous, and should be tested in a variety of locations. Generic principles will always be open to interpretation, and may in some contexts conflict with each other, so they would need to be constantly negotiated. But generic principles could be useful in overturning the current myth of cultural neutrality in some academic mechanisms such as anonymous peer review.

We also agreed that ethical research is not, and should not be, only or predominantly about data collection; it is relevant to all stages of the research process. And we agreed that it is not only students, researchers, and teachers who need educating in ethics, but also funders and members of ethical review committees.

As researchers and educators, we have an ethical duty to keep educating ourselves, because ethical approaches to research change as the world changes. It is essential to take a reflexive approach to this, including locating ourselves culturally. It helps to realise that the same ethical issues arise in lots of different types of work in different disciplines and locations, so if you look beyond your professional and geographic boundaries, you can often learn from others rather than re-inventing the ethical wheel.

We concluded that, from an ethical perspective, the quality of human interactions should be fundamental to the quality of research and teaching. This is especially the case in cross-cultural work, where people may be operating with very different assumptions. However, this is not considered relevant by the current arbitrators of quality in research or teaching. Our view, though, is that it would be more ethical all round to shift the focus away from regulations and bureaucracy and towards human well-being.

While I am, generally speaking, irrepressibly optimistic, I do wonder whether that will happen in my lifetime.