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!

Research Ethics Podcast

osu-logoHello lovely blog readers, I’m back from my summer break (short holiday, long stretch in writing cave) and will be blogging regularly again through till mid-December. Though this week’s blog post is in fact a podcast! The estimable Katie Linder interviewed me for her Research in Action podcast at Oregon State University in the US.

Here’s the link to RIA # 169: Dr. Helen Kara on Research Ethics. Which also tells you that if you like podcasts and you’re interested in research, there are another 168 episodes for you to check out with some stellar speakers. I’m proud to be in their company.

If you listen, please let me know what you think. I don’t have much experience of doing podcasts so I’d welcome constructive feedback.

This blog – and my podcast work – is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $23 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $23 – 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!

Australasian Research Ethics

AHRECS logoSystems of research ethics regulation differ around the world. Some countries have no research ethics regulation system at all. Others may have a system but, if they do, it is only available in their home language so people like me who only speak and read English are unable to study that system (Israel 2015:45). The main English-speaking countries tend to have formal systems of research ethics regulation, stemming from biomedical research in response to ethical crises such as Nuremberg and Tuskegee. These are usually implemented through research ethics committees or their equivalents such as institutional review boards in the US.

One big difference in Australasia is that work on research ethics by and for Indigenous communities seems to be further ahead in Australia and New Zealand than in any other continental region as a whole. Australia has the Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies produced by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). AIATSIS is a statutory organisation, set up by white settlers in the 1960s and governed by a Council, with the first Aboriginal Council member joining in 1970. The Council is now predominantly made up of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. The latest edition of the Guidelines is dated 2012 but they are under review at the time of writing. In New Zealand, Māori people with experience from research ethics committees came together to write Te Ara Tika, a document offering guidelines for Māori research ethics published in 2010. These kinds of guidelines help Indigenous peoples to claim their right of research sovereignty, i.e. control over the conduct of and participation in research that affects them. However, they are not necessarily aligned with each other, or with other systems of ethical governance for research that may exist in the same jurisdictions. This may hamper collaborative or multi-area research and lead to increased separation rather than reconciliation between peoples (Ríos, Dion and Leonard 2018).

So it’s a complex and fascinating picture. I am fortunate to be working on a project at present with three experts in Australasian research ethics: Gary Allen, Mark Israel, and Colin Thomson. (The sharp-eyed among you may notice that I cited Israel in the first paragraph above. He has written a rather good book on research ethics subtitled Beyond Regulatory Compliance and now in its second edition.) Together they are the senior consultants of the Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy (AHRECS), established in 2007 to provide expert consultancy services around research ethics in Australasia and Asia-Pacific. AHRECS also works with Indigenous consultants from both Australia and New Zealand, one of the latter being Barry Smith who is a co-author of Te Ara Tika.

The amount of expertise in AHRECS is enormous. Better still, they offer to share some of this expertise to anyone who wants to sign up for their free monthly e-newsletter on research ethics (and I can confirm from experience that they don’t spam you). Link here (scroll down, it’s on the right). Their blog provides a useful archive and they accept guest posts on relevant topics; I just wrote one for them on The Ethics of Evaluation Research. So you get two for the price of one this week!

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $17 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $17 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons 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!

Book Launch And Reviews

Research ethics in the real world [FC]My book launch was yesterday afternoon, and it was a peak experience – I’ve written about these before; they don’t come along often. I gave a free seminar on research ethics at City University in London, which was well received, and my lovely publisher kindly put on a wine reception afterwards. It was an amazing night with friends old and new making up an attentive audience who asked insightful questions. I had so much fun I forgot to take any photos!

I am absolutely amazed that, just a week after publication, this book already has two five-star reviews online. That is unprecedented in my experience. And no, they’re not by people I’ve paid to write them, or by my Mum – they’re by genuine readers. One review is on Amazon and says ‘New researchers and seasoned academics can learn much’ from the book, and also describes it as ‘an enjoyable read’ (that was my favourite part!). The other is on Goodreads and describes the book as ‘an invaluable resource for the researcher’.

Of course these are very pleasing reviews, but that’s not all they are. The time between publication and first reviews is always quite nerve-racking for an author. I know that aspects of this book are controversial. Some of the typescript reviews were very negative, and I’m not expecting all of the book reviews to be positive either. So it is a huge relief to me that the first reviews, at least, are favourable.

My book is properly out in the world now and I’ll stop banging on about it after this – but honestly it has dominated my life for the last couple of weeks and I really haven’t had anything else to write about! Normal service, as they say, will be resumed next week.

 

Researching Research Ethics

Research ethics in the real world [FC]I have written on this blog before about my book launch which is now only four weeks away (or less, if you’re reading this after 11 October). It’s a free event and you’re welcome to come along if you’re in London that day; details here. Copies of the book itself should arrive in the next 2-3 weeks. Exciting times!

I’ve written this week’s blog post on SAGE MethodSpace, talking about the research I did into research ethics around the world as background for writing the book. Head on over and have a read, and please feel free to leave a comment there or here.

I Finished The Book!

Research ethics in the real world [FC]For the last three-and-a-quarter years I have been writing a book on research ethics. It has been like doing another PhD, only with reviewers instead of supervisors. Four sets of reviewers: two sets of proposal reviews and two sets of typescript reviews. I have to thank my lovely publisher, Policy Press (part of Bristol University Press), for giving me so much support to get this book right.

This has been the hardest book I’ve written and I hope never to write another as difficult. On the plus side, I’m happy with the result. It is different from other books on research ethics in three main ways. First, it doesn’t treat research ethics as though they exist in isolation. I look at the relationships between research ethics and individual, social, institutional, professional, and political ethics, and how those relationships play out in practice in the work of research ethics committees and in evaluation research. That makes up part 1 of the book.

Second, it demonstrates the need for ethical thinking and action throughout the research process. In part 2 there is a chapter covering the ethical aspects of each stage of the research process, from planning a research project through to aftercare. There is also a chapter on researcher well-being.

Third, the book sets the Indigenous and Euro-Western research paradigms side by side. This is not to try to decide which is ‘better’, but is intended to increase researchers’ ethical options and vocabularies. I am writing primarily for Euro-Western readers, though the book may be of use to some Indigenous researchers. There is a sizeable and growing body of literature on Indigenous research and ethics, including books, journals, and journal articles. Using this literature requires care – as indeed using all literature requires care (see chapter 7 of my forthcoming book for more on that). But Indigenous literature, as with other literatures by marginalised peoples, requires particular care to avoid tokenism or appropriation.

Many Euro-Western researchers are completely ignorant of Indigenous research. Some know of it but are under the misapprehension that it is an offshoot of Euro-Western research. In fact it is a separate paradigm that stands alone and predates Euro-Western research by tens of thousands of years. Some Indigenous researchers and scholars are now calling for Euro-Western academics to recognise this and use Indigenous work alongside their own. My book is, in part, a response to these calls.

It was so, so hard to cram all of that into 75,000 words – and that includes the bibliography which, as you can imagine, is extensive. There was so much to read that I was still reading, and incorporating, new material on the morning of the day I finished the book. I’ve found more work, since, that I’d love to include – but I had to stop somewhere.

I awaited my final review with great trepidation, aware of the possibility that the reviewer might loathe my book – some previous reviewers had – and that that could put an end to my hopes of publication. Was I looking at three-and-a-quarter years of wasted work? I was so relieved when my editor emailed to say the review was positive. Then the reviewer’s comments blew me away. Here’s one of my favourite parts: “In my view the author through excellent writing skills has covered very dense material (a ton of content) in a very accessible way.”

I was even more delighted because this review came from an Indigenous researcher. She waived anonymity, so I have been able to credit and thank her in the book. I will not name her here, as I do not have her permission to do so; you’ll have to read the book if you want to find out.

Finishing a book feels great, and also weird. It’s like losing a part of your identity, particularly with a book you’ve lived with for so long. Though there’s still lots of work to do: I have to write the companion website, give input on the book’s design, read the proofs, start marketing… publication is due on 1 November, which feels a long way off but I know how quickly five months can pass.

I think this book will be controversial. A senior and very knowledgeable academic told me that one reason I could write such a book is because I’m not in academia. I’m glad if I can use my independence to say things others cannot say – as long as I’m saying useful things, at least.

More than anything else, I hope the book helps to make a difference. In particular, I would like to make a difference to the current system of ethical regulation which is too focused on institutional protection and insufficiently focused on ethical research. It is also terrible at recognising and valuing the work of Indigenous research and of Euro-Western community-based or participatory research. When I was preparing to write the book, I interviewed 18 people around the world and promised them anonymity. Some were research ethics committee members and others had sought formal approval from ethics committees (or institutional review boards in the US). I heard tales of people completing ethical approval forms with information that committees wanted to see rather than with actual facts; people teaching students how to get through the ethical approval system instead of teaching them how to conduct ethical research; people acting ethically yet in complete contravention of their committee’s instructions; people struggling to balance ethical research with Indigenous communities with the inflexible conditions set by ethics committees. Although many of the people who serve on ethics committees are highly ethical, the system within which they are forced to work often prevents them from acting in entirely ethical ways. It seems to me that this system is not currently fit for purpose, and there are many other people who think the same. I hope the evidence I have gathered and presented will help to create much-needed change.

As an independent researcher, I am self-employed. This means I do all my writing in my own time; I don’t have a salary to support my work. Do you like what I do on this blog, or in my books, or anywhere else, enough that you might buy me a coffee now and again if we were co-located? If so, please consider supporting my independent work through Patreon for as little as one dollar per month. In exchange you’ll get exclusive previews of, and insights into, my work. Thank you.

Free Online Research Ethics Resources

freeAre you grappling with research ethics? If so, fear not, for there are numerous free resources online to help you. Here are some examples.

Ethical codes and guidelines

There are loads of ethical codes and guidelines online. For example, some countries have national codes of research ethics, such as the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, or the Canadian Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. This was developed in partnership between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

There are also codes of research ethics produced by Indigenous peoples who wish their own ethical principles to be followed by any researchers who wish to work with them. Examples of these include Te Ara Tika, Guidelines for Māori Research Ethics, from New Zealand, and the San Code of Research Ethics from South Africa.

Then there are professional and disciplinary codes of research ethics. Examples include the UK-based Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct, and the Code of Ethics of the Australian Association for Research in Education.

There must be a huge number of these kinds of codes and guidelines worldwide. They are not all the same, and the careful reader can find places where one code or guideline may contradict another. This is because of cultural (in its widest sense) differences in ideas of what is ethical. Nevertheless, they can be useful to read for learning, ideas, or of course specific contextual information.

Applying to a research ethics committee

If you have to apply to a research ethics committee for formal ethical approval, you might find it useful to see some other researchers’ successful application forms. You can find examples of these on The Research Ethics Application Database (TREAD), originally set up by Martin Tolich at Otago University in New Zealand and now hosted by The Global Health Network and the Social Research Association. This database holds copies of successful ethics applications from around the world which you can search and use for inspiration and learning. Applications are anonymised, though the researcher(s) must be named. Researchers often submit accompanying documents, such as consent forms and participant information sheets, which can be very useful to look through for ideas. The database managers are keen to add more applications, to help make formal ethical approval processes more accessible and less onerous. If you have an application you could submit, there is information on the website about how to share it via the database.

General guidance

The Research Ethics Guidebook is intended to provide general guidance for social scientists, but may also be useful for people from other fields. The Guidebook is supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, with the Researcher Development Initiative of the National Centre for Research Methods, and London University’s Institute of Education. Like TREAD, the Research Ethics Guidebook holds useful information about applying for formal ethical approval. However, it also covers other areas such as ethics in research design, conducting research, reporting, and dissemination. The Guidebook is ideal for reference at the start of a project, and also during research as unforeseen ethical dilemmas occur.

Ethics training

There are two free online courses in research ethics which are primarily geared towards health researchers and so focus heavily on participant wellbeing. Both have been through peer review and other quality assurance processes, and both offer certificates to students who complete the course successfully with a score of 80% or more. One is called Research Ethics Online Training and is adapted from an e-learning course and resource package designed and produced by the World Health Organisation. It contains 14 individual modules, plus resources in the form of a glossary, a “resource library” (aka bibliography), some case studies, examples of ethics guidelines, videos on research ethics, and links to other ethics websites. The second is Essential Elements of Ethics, adapted from an ethics tool kit created to support researchers at Harvard University in America. This course contains 11 modules, plus resources including a workbook and checklist of points to consider, and a discussion forum though this is not very active.

Free research ethics modules with a wider perspective are offered by Duke University in America. These cover topics such as cultural awareness and humility, ethical photography, power and privilege, and working with children. They are delivered through videos with transcripts also available.

Online research

For internet-based research, the Association of Internet Researchers has some useful resources free for download. The British Psychological Society offers Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research. The South East European Network for Professionalization of Media has produced Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics.

Visual research

The International Visual Sociology Association has produced a Code of Research Ethics and Guidelines covering visual research.

Ethics of research publication

The Committee on Publication Ethics has a whole range of downloadable resources covering how to detect, prevent and handle misconduct, responsible publication standards for editors and authors, ethical guidelines for peer reviewers, and much more.

This list of resources is by no means exhaustive. There are loads more out there. It would be a huge task to identify them all. These are the ones I have found particularly useful. If there are any you like to use, which aren’t in this post, please add them in the comments below.

The Ethics of Expertise

expertLast week I wrote about the ethics of research evidence, in which I cited Charles Knight’s contention that evidence should be used by people with expertise. Knight also questions how we can identify people with expertise. He suggests they would ‘have to do the sorts of things experts do – read the literature, do research, have satisfied clients, mentor novices, and so on’. He adds, ‘This approach is not likely to concentrate expertise in a few hands.’ (Knight 2004:2)

I like Knight’s attempts to widen the pool of acknowledged experts. He is evidently aware of the scope for tension between expert privilege and democracy. Conventionally, experts are few in number, specialists, and revered or at least respected for their expertise. However, this can also be viewed as exclusionary, particularly as most experts of this kind are older white men. Also, I’m not sure Knight goes far enough.

Knight was writing at the start of the century and, more recently, different definitions of ‘expert’ have begun to creep into the lexicon. For example, the UK’s Care Quality Commission (CQC), which inspects and regulates health and social care services, has defined ‘experts by experience‘. These are people with personal experience of using, or caring for someone who uses, services that the CQC oversees. Experts by experience take an active part in service inspections, and their findings are used to support the work of the CQC’s professional inspectors.

In research, there is a specific participatory approach known as critical communicative methodology (CCM) which was developed around 10 years ago. CCM takes the view that everyone is an expert in something, everyone has something to teach others, and everyone is capable of critical analysis. This is a fully egalitarian methodology which uses respectful dialogue as its main method.

However, in most of research and science, experts are still viewed as those rare beings who have developed enough knowledge of a specialist area to be able to claim mastery of their subject. There is a myth that experts are infallible, which of course they’re not; they are human, with all the associated incentives and pressures that implies. It seems that experts are falling from grace daily at present for committing social sins from fraud to sexual harassment (and getting caught).

Perhaps more worryingly, the work of scientific experts is also falling from grace, in the form of the replication crisis. This refers to the finding that scientific discoveries are not as easy to replicate as was once supposed. As replication is one of the key criteria scientists use to validate the quality of each other’s work, this is a Big Problem. There is an excellent explanation of the replication crisis, in graphic form, online here.

My own view is that replication is associated with positivism, objectivity, the neutrality of the researcher, and associated ideas which have now been fairly thoroughly discredited. I think this ‘crisis’ could be a really good moment for science, as it may lead more people to understand that realities are multiple, researchers influence and are influenced by their work, and the wider context inevitably plays a supporting and sometimes a starring role.

As a result of various factors, including the replication crisis, it seems that the conventional concept of an expert is under threat. This too may be no bad thing, if it leads us to value everyone’s expertise. Perhaps it could also help to overturn the ‘deficit model’ which still prevails in so much social science, where (expert) researchers focus on people’s deficits – their poverty, ill-health, low educational attainment, unemployment, inadequate housing, and so on – rather than on their strengths and the positive contributions they make to our society. The main argument in favour of the deficit model is that these are problems research can help to solve, but if that were true, I think they would have been solved long since.

For sure, at times you need an expert you can trust. For example, if your car goes wrong, you’ll want to take it to an expert mechanic; if you develop a health problem, you’ll want to seek advice from an expert medic. It doesn’t seem either ethical or sensible, to me, to try to discard the conventional role of the expert altogether. But it does seem sensible to attack the links between expertise and privilege. After all, experts can’t exercise their expertise without input from others. At its simplest, the mechanic needs you to tell them what kind of a funny noise your car is making, and under what circumstances; the medic needs you to explain where and when you feel pain. Also, it doesn’t seem sensible to restrict conventional experts to a single area of expertise. That mechanic may also be an expert bassoon player; the medic may know more about antique jewellery than you ever thought possible.

In my view, the ethical approach to expertise is to treat everyone as an expert in matters relating to their own life, and beyond that, as someone who has a positive contribution to make to a specific task at hand and/or wider society in general. Imagine a world in which we all acknowledged and valued each other’s knowledge, experience, and skills. You may say I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one.

The Ethics of Research Evidence

Like so many of the terms used in research, ‘evidence’ has no single agreed meaning. Nor does there seem to be much consensus about what constitutes good or reliable evidence. The differing approaches of other professions may confuse the picture. For example, evidence that would convince a judge to hand down a life sentence would be dismissed by many researchers as anecdote.

evidenceGiven that evidence is such a slippery, contentious topic, how can researchers begin to address its ethical aspects? A working definition might help: evidence is ‘information or data that people select to help them answer questions’ (Knight 2004:1). Using that definition, we can look at the ethical aspects of our relationship with evidence: how we choose, use, and apply the evidence we gather and construct.

Evidence is often talked and written about as though it is something neutral that simply exists, like a brick or a table, to be used by researchers at will. Knight’s definition is helpful because it highlights the fact that researchers select the evidence they use. Evidence, in the form of facts or artefacts, is neither ethical nor unethical. But in the process of selection, there is always room for bias, and that is where ethical considerations come into play.

To choose evidence ethically, I would argue that first you need to recognise the role of choice in the process, and the associated potential for bias. Then you need to consider some key questions, such as:

  • What is the question you want to answer?
  • What are your existing thoughts and feelings about that topic?
  • How might they affect your choices about evidence?
  • What can you do to make those choices open and defensible?

The aim is to be able to demonstrate that you have chosen the information or data you intend to define as ‘evidence’ in as ethical a way as possible.

Once you have chosen your evidence, you need to use it ethically within the research process. This means subjecting all your evidence to rigorous analysis, interpreting your findings accurately, and reporting in ways that will communicate effectively with your audiences. These are some of the key responsibilities of ethical researchers.

Research is a process that converts evidence into research evidence. It starts with the information or data that researchers choose to use as evidence, which may be anything from statistics to artworks. Then, through the process of (one would hope) diligent research, that evidence becomes research evidence. Whether and how research evidence is applied in the wider world is the third ethical aspect.

Sadly, there is a great deal of evidence that evidence is not applied well, or not applied at all. Most professional researchers have tales to tell of evidence being buried by research funders or commissioners. This seems particularly likely where findings conflict with political or money-making ambitions. In some sectors, such as third sector evaluation, this is widespread (Fiennes 2014). How can anyone make an evidence-based decision if the evidence collected by researchers has not been converted into evidence they can use?

The use of research evidence is often beyond the control of researchers. One practical action a researcher can take is to suggest a dissemination plan at the outset. This can be regarded as ethical, because such a plan should increase the likelihood of research evidence being used. But it could also be regarded as manipulative: using the initial excitement around a new project to persuade people to sign up to a plan they might later regret.

It seems that ethics and evidence are uneasy bedfellows. Again, Knight tries to help us here, by suggesting that research evidence should be used by people with expertise. This raises a further, pertinent question: what is the ethics of expertise? I will address that next week.

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

Dissemination, Social Media, and Ethics

twitterstormI inadvertently caused a minor Twitterstorm last week, and am considering what I can learn from this.

I spotted a tweet from @exerciseworks reporting some research. It said “One in 12 deaths could be prevented with 30 minutes of exercise five times a week” (originally tweeted by @exerciseworks on 22 Sept, retweeted on the morning of 10 October). The tweet also included this link but I didn’t click through, I just responded directly to the content of the tweet.

Here’s their tweet and my reply:

 

The @exerciseworks account replied saying it wasn’t their headline. This was true; the article is in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) which should know better. And so should I: in retrospect, I should have checked the link, and overtly aimed my comment at the BMJ as well.

Then @exerciseworks blocked me on Twitter. Perhaps they felt I might damage their brand, or they just didn’t like the cut of my jib. It is of course their right to choose who to engage with on Twitter, though I’m a little disappointed that they weren’t up for debate.

I was surprised how many people picked up the tweet and retweeted it, sometimes with comment, such as this:

Rajat Chauhan tweet

and this:

Alan J Taylor tweet

which was ‘liked’ by the BMJ itself – presumably they are up for debate; I would certainly hope so. (It also led me to check out @AdamMeakins, a straight-talking sports physiotherapist who I was pleased to be bracketed with.)

Talking to people about this, the most common reaction was to describe @exerciseworks as a snowflake or similar, and say they should get over themselves. This is arguable, of course, though I think it is important to remember that we never know what – sometimes we don’t know who – is behind a Twitter account. Even with individual accounts where people disclose personal information, we should not assume that the struggles someone discloses are all the struggles they face. And with corporate or other collective accounts, we should remember that there is an individual person reading and responding to tweets, and that person has their own feelings and struggles.

Twitter is a fast-moving environment and it’s easy to make a point swiftly then move on. Being blocked has made me pause for thought, particularly as @exerciseworks is an account I’ve been following and interacting with for some time.

I stand by the point I made. It riles me when statistical research findings are reported as evidence that death is preventable. Yes, of course lives can be saved, and so death avoided at that particular time. Also, sensible life choices such as taking exercise are likely to help postpone death. But prevent death? No chance. To suggest that is inaccurate and therefore unethical. However, forgetting that there is an actual person behind each Twitter account is also unethical, so I’m going to try to take a little more time and care in future.