Product Information:-

  • Journals
  • Books
  • Case Studies
  • Regional information

How to... conduct research ethically

Options:     Print Version - How to... conduct research ethically , part 2 Print view

Ethics and access

One of the most difficult aspects of research is one that comes up front: gaining access to the organization. Businesses are, after all, about profit rather than advancing the frontiers of knowledge, so finding synergy between your research and a willing organization can be difficult. It is at times like this when it's very important to have an ethical perspective as it can be all too easy to distort the truth or change the project in an unhelpful way.

First, we shall explore in a general way some of the issues around gaining access, which is also dealt with in "How to... use secondary data and archival material".

Gaining access

The first step is to get a foot in the door by using your contacts – preferably someone with whom you have a connection, for example, through your professional association, or an organization to which you belong such as a church or a social club. If you are studying part time while working, you may have a ready-made scenario, but you should take care that your place of work really can provide for you what you are looking for (see below).

Once you have decided on a contact to pursue, the next thing is to give them an initial call or send them an e-mail. It is important to present a succinct summary of what you are trying to achieve, together with what it will involve for the organization – what data you will be collecting and over how long a period, to whom you will need to speak, whether you will be able to maintain confidentiality, etc.

You are more likely to be granted access if you can offer the organization a specific benefit which matches their business needs – for example if you want to research ways of making the supply chain more effective and they have long been aware that this is an area of weakness.

Be sure that you have the right person who can take the project forward internally; if not, ask to be put through to someone who can act as gatekeeper.

Once you have an agreement, put something in writing so that both sides are clear about the project's scope and your role.

Gaining organizational access can be very time-consuming and you should make sure that you have allowed for this in your research schedule.

Access and ethics – avoiding coercion

Because gaining access can be tricky, there is plenty of scope on both sides for coercion.

On your side as the researcher: you should avoid the temptation to plead or be over persuasive. Not only does this violate the right of the other not to be subject to coercion, it is unlikely to gain the willing participation which you are after.

On the organization's side: they may manipulate you into agreeing to something which is more in their best interests than in that of your research. This may involve you modifying your initial proposal in such a way as to fail to reach the academic outcome you are looking for. All sorts of things can affect the research, for example the sponsor:

  • is more interested in finding an answer to a particular question which may be too slight, too specific, and will not allow sufficient scope for grounding in the theoretical background;
  • may offer too small a sample, either because a larger one isn't available or because they restrict access to the people they will allow you to meet.

More seriously (because it will be harder to retrieve the situation as more time will have been lost) is when the scope of the project changes because of events in an organization, or because people change their minds about allowing access to the data.

It is very important that you look at the impact of every change on your research. I once did research into the use of a virtual learning environment in a particular university. Two different pieces of software were going to be trialled, and I was advised just to concentrate on one group of learners. Unfortunately, the piece of software which they were due to use proved incompatible with other systems in the university, and so the group fell back on discussion groups. This meant that it was only possible to look at discussion in a much less sophisticated context, which in turn affected the richness of the findings.

Finally there is the danger that the organization may not like your findings, and try and control them or dictate outcomes.

Serving two masters

Whatever the vicissitudes of your relationship with your organization, you need to be aware that you have two different audiences for your report – the organization and your examiners or academic public. These two audiences will have different expectations.

  • The organization will be interested in practical solutions – how can things make a difference to the business.
  • The examiners/academic public will, depending on the level, be interested in your ability to produce a well crafted piece of academic work, and perhaps push forward the frontiers of knowledge.

You are often advised to produce a separate report for the organization – we shall look at this in greater depth in section 5: "Reporting and disseminating research".

You also need to be aware of the difference between a researcher and a consultant:

  • A researcher assumes objectivity and collects data with a view to confirming a hypothesis or looking at findings.
  • A consultant gives advice and helps to solve a problem.

Ethical issues may raise themselves as you try and balance these roles: are you getting too sucked into the role of a consultant and thereby losing your objectivity? Are you, simply by doing your research, raising expectations which you cannot fulfil?

Imagine, for example, if you were researching morale in a company which had been restructured. Might there not be a risk that people would use you as a way of articulating to the management their unhappiness?