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How to... conduct research ethically

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Ethics and research design

The research design stage, if carefully executed, should anticipate the likely problems in data collection and determine the instruments used; it should likewise bring up the major ethical issues and propose ways of tackling them.

Most ethics committees will scrutinize your research design before giving permission to proceed. It is therefore of great importance that you look at ethical issues as carefully as you look at your data collection methods, and consider ways to resolve them.

We shall look first at two key principles of research ethics before examining issues inherent in particular methods.

Privacy and confidentiality

The right to privacy is the cornerstone of research ethics. You may be the recipient of some highly sensitive information, and people have the right not to have that information disclosed in the wrong circumstances and to withhold information should they so wish.

Imagine what the concerns of your research participants would be in the following circumstances:

  • you were carrying out research into people's career aspirations in a particular organization, and whether or not that organization met those aspirations with its employee development programme,
  • you were looking at the approach of senior management to succession planning.

It doesn't take much imagination to see that in the above circumstances, participants would not want to be identified, and might be cautious about answering certain questions.

The right to privacy thus involves the right:

  • not to participate in the research;
  • not to be subject to undue pressure to participate;
  • to remain anonymous;
  • to be approached at times which are convenient (and ideally agreed beforehand);
  • not to be questioned for longer than the time previously agreed, i.e. if you have agreed with someone previously that the interview will last 30 minutes, you should not prolong it;
  • not to be questioned in a confrontational manner, or subject to questions that give rise to undue stress;
  • not to have the scope of the interview widened beyond that already agreed.

Informed consent

Informed consent means that both the participants and the gatekeepers are fully aware of the scope of the research, the exact nature of their participation, and the use to which the data will be put. The following table provides a checklist of the requirements for informed consent. The principle was first developed in the Nuremberg Code, in response to the medical experiments of the Second World War.

Image: warning sign. Note that if you are interviewing participants under 18, you will need written consent.

Checklist of the requirements for informed consent
Nature of the research What is its purpose; who is doing it; who is funding or sponsoring; who will participate i.e. what is the sampling frame; what is the progress of the research hitherto?.
What is involved in taking part? What type of data will be sought; how (e.g. through interview, observation, etc.); how much time will be required and when?
What are the implications of taking part and the rights of the participants? Assurance that participation is voluntary and that participants have the right to say no; they should have the right to control whether or not what they say is recorded; they have the right to withdraw from an interview; what are the risks and benefits of participating; assurance that they will remain anonymous and that data will be confidential.
To what use will the reported data be put? Who will have access to the data? How will the research be disseminated? What are the safeguards on anonymity and confidentiality of participants? What will happen to the data after completion?

Adapted and summarized from Saunders, M., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2003), Research Methods for Business Students, Pearson Education.

Informed consent is linked to the principle of honesty in research, and the importance of not deceiving. There may well be times when it is not possible to reveal, or at least not totally, the actual purpose of the research as so doing would skew the data. There are a number of ways around this as far as informed consent is concerned: you can be truthful, but vague and imprecise, or you can rely on the reputation of the educational organization with which you are working or studying; you can get informed consent afterwards. It is very important in such a case to debrief participants fully after the research is completed.

One experiment involved going up to people in trains and asking them to give up their seats, on the grounds that the interlocutor was someone in authority. The vast majority of participants gave up their seat without complaint. The experiment, which would on ethical grounds probably not be allowed nowadays, was looking at people's reactions to authority. If participants had known this they would probably have responded very differently!

Ethical issues of particular methods

Particular research methods have their own concerns, which we examine below.

Qualitative research – simply by its probing nature and its ability to provide depth – raises ethical issues of privacy, confidentiality and boundaries.

In interviews, the researcher must secure a balance between probing and being pushy and over zealous. Certain issues may be raised by one participant which the interviewer may wish to pursue with others. Care should be taken that in so doing identities are not revealed: it is often better to steer the conversation in that direction rather than quote, even anonymously.

In observation, certain areas should be out of bounds, for example private telephone calls. There are moral problems with covert observation, when participants are not told that they are being observed. This is dealt with further in "How to... use ethnographic methods and participant observation". Debriefing the observed is particularly important.

Quantitative research is considered to have fewer moral problems, as the questions in a survey (for example) are generally less probing. However, there are still issues of privacy, confidentiality and anonymity of data.

If you are carrying out an experiment, you have to consider the effect on your control group of denying them a treatment which may be beneficial. Imagine, for example, that you are trying out the effectiveness of a new educational programme on a particular group. What about the effect on the control group, who are denied this programme?

Use of secondary data raises issues of privacy, for example personal data obtained through personnel records must be treated as confidential.