Putting Research Ethics Into Practice

ethicsDoing research ethically is not about finding a set of rules to follow or ticking boxes on a form. It’s about learning to think and act in an ethical way. How ethical an action is, or is not, usually depends on its context. Therefore, everything must be thought through as far as possible, because even standard ‘ethical’ actions may not always be right. For example, many researchers regard anonymity as a basic right for participants. However, if your participants have lived under a repressive regime where their voices were silenced, they may feel very upset at the thought of being anonymised, and want any information they provide to be attributed to them using their real names. In such a context, claiming that they must be anonymised because of research ethics would in fact be unethical, because it would cause unnecessary stress to your participants.

In my role as ethics lead for the UK’s Social Research Association, I’ve been helping a group of people from the Academy of Social Sciences who have been developing some common ethical principles for social science. This has involved a long and multi-faceted consultation process, during which a number of people spoke in favour of ‘virtue ethics’, or the idea that a good person will be an ethical person.

I fundamentally disagree with this position. As demonstrated in my last post, we are all subject to cultural conditioning which is bound to influence us as researchers. We are also all vulnerable to cognitive biases such as confirmation bias (giving more weight to views or phenomena that support what we already believe) and hindsight bias (seeing events as having been predictable when they happened). Given this, it doesn’t matter how virtuous we are, we’re not going to be as ethical as we could be if we put some simple steps in place.

The first step is to acknowledge, and try to identify, your own cultural conditioning, and to learn about the cognitive biases that may affect you. Although we’re notoriously bad at identifying our own cognitive biases, we are better at spotting other people’s, so if you’re working with others it can be helpful to look out for each other’s biases.

Then articulate the value base for your research. If you’re working alone, you need to devise this for yourself; if in a team, produce it collectively. And don’t just write a list of words; think through the meanings of the values you choose. For example, if you want your research to be ‘honest’, what does that mean in practice? We all tell lies all the time, even to ourselves, and research is no different. For example, researchers think it’s perfectly OK to lie in the interests of maintaining participant confidentiality. So if you want your research to be honest, you need to consider how honest you think it can actually be.

Try to identify your own assumptions. While it’s important to try not to make assumptions about other people, research is usually based on some assumptions, and it helps to act ethically if you know what these are. For example, are you assuming that your research is not intrusive? Or that it will be as high a priority for others as it is for you? Are you assuming that your sample is representative? Or that your data is accurate? Why are you making each assumption? What are the implications of your assumptions for your research?

Grounded theorists Strauss and Corbin suggested watching out for absolutes as a useful way to guard against biases and unhelpful assumptions. So if you find yourself, or a participant, using words like ‘never’ or ‘always’, or phrases like ‘couldn’t possibly’ or ‘everyone knows’, take time to work out what is behind the statement. You may well discover an obstructive bias or assumption, and then you can begin to search for a way to counteract that bias or assumption.

As social scientists, we try to include a wide range of people as research participants, but we can forget to take the same approach to literature. So another step is, when you’re reading, try to find relevant work by people with different backgrounds and perspectives from yours. This could include people from different nationalities, disciplines, genders, professions, and so on. Then, when you’re writing, try to draw on the work of a wide range of people too – though only if that work is relevant and worth citing, otherwise you are being tokenistic which is not ethical.

It is of course impossible to write a full set of ethical guidelines in a blog post. However, following these suggestions will lead you to a wider, more fully ethical approach to your research. If you want to delve further into the whys and wherefores of ethical research, there is plenty of material online. Here are some useful links:

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Framework for Research Ethics – the ESRC is one of the UK’s biggest research funders, and this Framework was updated in January 2015.

The Research Ethics Guidebook – actually a website with a wealth of information, linked to the ESRC principles.

Association of Internet Researchers Ethics Guide – a wiki containing useful pointers for doing ethical research online.

Interpretation and Bias in Research

As researchers, a key part of our work is translation and interpretation. We translate data into findings, and add interpretation to make our work more understandable for its readers and users. Translation and interpretation are very vulnerable to bias, particularly bias caused by prevailing cultural norms.

I come from the indigenous white culture which is dominant in England, where I was bbiasorn and where I have always lived. I grew up in a highly racist culture. For example, I can remember, as a child, people using the phrase ‘nigger brown’ to describe a colour, or saying someone was ‘Jewy’ to mean he or she was careful with their money. These were matter-of-fact phrases used descriptively among white people in the entirely white town where I lived, rather than phrases used as direct abuse to people of other ethnicities. Yet it was nonetheless abusive terminology, and must inevitably have influenced my mindset. On the other hand, my parents bought me a black doll, wouldn’t buy me a golliwog (or buy Robertson’s jam), gave me books to read that were by and about black people, and banned Enid Blyton – and explained why they made these choices. That, too, no doubt influenced the way I think.

My culture is still racist, though I believe to a lesser extent than it was 40 years ago. This is a good thing but not an excuse for complacency. We have a very long way to go before racism is eradicated – if it ever is, given the human tendency to compare ourselves against others and decide who is in ‘our group’ and who is ‘the other’. As a researcher, I need to be aware of my biases, and to do all I can to guard against them. If you think you don’t have any yourself, or you’re unsure, I recommend you check out Project Implicit, a fascinating piece of international research into people’s unconscious thoughts and feelings which has been running since 1998. You can check out your own levels of bias around topics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. The results are very likely to surprise you.

Talking of which, while I come from the side of the oppressor where race is concerned, I am on the other side as a disabled bisexual woman. You might think that would mean I don’t have to worry about bias in those areas. I wouldn’t agree. Oppression can be internalised – though it isn’t always, but if it is, it’s unconscious, so I wouldn’t know about my own internalised oppression. Which means I still need to consider the biases I may hold in these areas, and in the areas of age, body weight, nationality, and other human attributes we use to distinguish between ourselves and others.

In practice, this means I have to be very, very careful when I’m translating data into findings and interpreting those findings for my audiences. Essentially, the key is to never assume anything. In particular, don’t assume that because someone is X they will be/think/feel Y. Recognise the key principle of intersectionality: that nobody is ever ‘only’ male, black, fat, German, young, whatever. Everyone has a race AND a gender AND a sexual orientation and so on and so on. The intersection of these attributes within the individual is called intersectionality.

Never assume’ is easy to say, but very, very hard to do. I try, and fail; try again, and fail again. Trying is important, and so is noticing when you fail. I’ve noticed some of the micro-aggressions I have committed against others. No doubt I’ve missed some too. Here’s a recent one I didn’t miss. I met a younger woman, a friend of a friend, who wanted to talk to me about her PhD. We were in a cafe, having a great chat, and she made reference to her partner. In reply, I stupidly, thoughtlessly, used the pronoun ‘he’. I saw her stiffen and pause. I was horrified at myself, immediately apologised, did what I could by way of repair. But I couldn’t unsay my word, couldn’t unassume my assumption. At least I did us both the favour of not promptly coming out as bisexual to try to make myself seem somehow more acceptable. I would have tried that at one time.

Here’s another. Recently I was coming out of Sainsbury’s at New Cross Gate in London, on my way to stay with a friend, pushing a small trolley holding two bags of groceries and my rucksack containing my laptop and valuables. As I reached the entrance doors, a group of half a dozen young men burst through them, bouncing on the balls of their feet, poking and high-fiving each other, exchanging loud exclamations. They startled me and, in reaction, I grabbed my rucksack from the trolley and clutched it to my chest. As the group divided to pass me by, I realised they were exclaiming joyfully not aggressively, and one of them met my gaze. A young black man with hurt written on his face as vividly as a name in lights. My fear, the assumption that he saw I’d made, had hurt him. He was no threat. He would have helped me if I’d needed it. I expect he saw me as racist. And indeed perhaps I was – though I think I was afraid because they were male rather than because they were black.

I have been physically and sexually assaulted by men – only white men – in private and public spaces. I will not let this define me. I will not let it define men for me. Yet I think sometimes, in some ways, it does, without my permission, against my will.

I must bring all this knowledge into my research, and I must carry on noticing, reflecting, learning. As I work, I must stay aware of the possibility, even in the most careful interpretation, of mis-interpretation. It would be so easy to add a little emphasis, or take a little away; to misuse my power to include or omit.

That’s some of what I think I ought to do as a researcher. Next week I’ll talk about how I go about trying to do these things as I conduct and write research.

New Year’s resolution

moneyI think the time has come to declare that I will not do any more unpaid work for rich organisations.

This can be hard to call when you’re self-employed. Some unpaid work is necessary to gain paid work. Unpaid work can have real benefits, whether it’s working on a bid for a contract, making useful contacts through networking, or someone I’ve chatted with on Twitter deciding to buy my book. Every self-employed person needs to work on their business as well as in their business, and at times it can be difficult to separate ‘unpaid work’ from ‘essential marketing’.

Also, I’m not very good at saying ‘no’ to things which interest me. That’s where I need to improve.

‘Pay’ doesn’t always have to mean ‘money’. For example, I will swap some of my time and skills for, say, a free place at a conference I want to go to (though that would need to be a fully free place, i.e. including travel and accommodation). I do some unpaid work for the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham in exchange for access to paywalled academic literature. And I will still collaborate on bids for contracts without expecting payment for my work on the bid, as long as the contract includes some paid work for me if the bid is successful.

I have been inspired in this respect, recently, by Charlotte Cooper. I knew of her work, then I heard her speak at the launch of The Para-Academic Handbook in December. Charlotte is also an indie researcher, and an activist, and a terrific speaker. And she is uncompromising about not working for rich organisations without pay. This made me realise that I’m a bit feeble. ‘Oh but they’re nice people… maybe it’ll help my career… anyway it would be fun…’ and there goes another day, week, or month of my life, spent giving away my skills and expertise to organisations that could well afford to pay.

Part of the problem is that I’m doing more academic-type work now. Academic employees are paid comfortable salaries and have the freedom to do things like work on the boards of academic journals as part of their academic role. Academic journals don’t expect to pay their board members, because they’re already academic employees earning comfortable salaries. Except now academic journals are reaching out to indie researchers – which is great; we have a lot to offer – but it’s an odd experience, being the only volunteer in a group of well-paid professionals, treated as a peer in all respects but the rather important one of remuneration. I also recognise that this is not the fault of any individual, or in any individual’s gift to fix. It’s a structural imbalance with historical roots. But I’m coming to realise that this won’t get rebalanced unless people like me start saying ‘no’.rock and hard place

Yet is there a rock and a hard place here? Do I need to demonstrate my value first? This is the question I keep coming up against – but Charlotte Cooper’s example is helping me a lot. And, as I’m a researcher, I decided to do some research.

The journal on whose board I currently sit is published by Taylor & Francis, which is part of the Informa Group, a very wealthy company which is listed on the Stock Exchange. In 2012 the Informa Group made operating profits of £350 million; in 2013 they paid out £114 million in dividends to shareholders. And I am working, for this phenomenally rich organisation, for no pay. Finding this out has helped to focus my mind. I plan to finish my term on the Board – I don’t pull out of commitments I’ve made – and, on the same basis, I will finish a couple of other pieces of work I’m currently doing, unpaid, for wealthy organisations. But after that I’ll stick to doing unpaid work for charities. Such as the UK’s Social Research Association (SRA), a registered charity, not for profit, on whose Board I sit. According to its annual accounts, the net income of the SRA in 2012-13 was £24,379. It’s organisations like this where I should be, and will be, giving my unpaid time and skills from now on.

The importance of self-care

2014-12-08_1418066953Very unusually for me, I don’t feel like working. I have a list of my current projects, all of which are interesting, and usually I’d look at the list and decide what to focus on next: either the most urgent, or the most appealing. But right now – and this hardly EVER happens – none of them are urgent. And, oddly, I’m finding it hard to motivate myself to work on any of the non-urgent ones either. Even though they do need doing, and will become urgent if I don’t do them at some point.

I love my work and am usually highly motivated. Also, I don’t work well under deadline pressure, so prefer to finish tasks with time to spare. I’m not ill, and I don’t have any difficult personal stuff going on. So I’ve been asking myself: why this unusual lack of interest in, or motivation to do, my work?

I think the answer is simply that I need a few days’ break. I’ve had such a busy year, without much downtime: a ten-day holiday in France in June, a handful of long weekends, and a week in Wales in October when I was finishing the second draft of my book. Talking of which, the book has taken up a huge amount of time this year, and I’ve also been working on several papers and a couple of book chapters, with one of each accepted for publication. I spend quite a bit of time, most weeks, on Board work for the UK’s Social Research Association, and editorial board work for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology also takes up time. Then of course there’s my paid work: I’ve had two big and demanding national research projects to work on with clients, and several smaller projects. As a result of all this, I rarely work fewer than six days a week, though I do try hard to have one full rest day each week.

I find it hard to take more time off, partly because I love my work, and partly because I find the gear changes difficult to manage. It’s not easy to wind down, and equally problematic to rev up again. Sometimes it feels simpler just to keep going. But that’s not sensible, is it?

If anyone else was telling me this story, I’d be saying: for goodness’ sake, you fool, take a break! For once I’m telling myself that – and I’m listening. My plan is to have complete rest and recreation for the rest of this week, when I’m at home with no big commitments. I hope then I’ll be ready to rev up the following week, and get some of the tasks on my list done before they become urgent.

There seems to be a lot of it about this year. Hugely productive researchers and writers like Pat Thomson and Raul Pacheco-Vega are advocating self-care in general and taking time off in particular. I know this can be particularly difficult for PhD students – several of the doctoral students I interviewed for my last book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, spoke about the difficulty of taking time off when your head is full of your thesis. Other forms of writing can also have this effect; it’s hard to pick up a piece of work if you put it down for too long, whereas writing ‘little and often’ can help you to maintain the essential flow of ideas. But even if you’re doing a PhD, or have publishers’ deadlines – try to have at least the occasional rest day here and there, and ideally a proper break. Really, this is I an ethical requirement: certainly for researchers, who won’t produce good quality research if they’re exhausted and stressed. And I believe it’s important for writers too. If you’re working seven days a week, try reducing it to six, and having a proper rest day on the seventh. I bet you’ll get as much work done and be less exhausted. But whatever you decide, I wish you a happy holiday, and I’ll be back in 2015.