The only way is ethics *

Here’s the first draft of a short guide to research ethics I’ve written for the Praxis site. (Praxis is going to develop a fair bit over the summer). Research ethics are important, but it can be a bit of a minefield for the novice researcher, so I’ve tried to keep things as simple as possible, hopefully without oversimplifying.** Please share any constructive criticism in the comments below…

Ethics
* Ethics is not the only way. Clearly, one can be unethical. But it is not advised.

This beginners’  guide to research ethics is aimed primarily at school-based practitioners carrying out small-scale research inquiries for the first time. School-based practitioners may not immediately appreciate the need to consider research ethics, since they may view professional development activities simply as a facet of their existing role as an employee of the school. However, as researchers it’s important to think about the ethical implications of our actions, and where necessary to take appropriate steps to minimise or mitigate against any negative consequences of our actions or inactions. This applies to school-based practitioners as well as external researchers.

ETHICAL ISSUES YOU MAY NEED TO CONSIDER

Informed consent 

  • Before embarking on a research inquiry, it may be necessary to obtain the informed consent of various stakeholders (e.g. head teacher, governors, parents/carers, pupils and/or staff). This will depend on the nature and scope of the inquiry. Also, there are different ways of acquiring consent. For example:
    • Active or passive? If the intervention is out of the ordinary, or carries clear ethical consequences – e.g. students being randomly assigned to a treatment or a control group – it might be necessary to gain written permission from the parents/carers of each pupil involved. Alternatively, it might be more appropriate simply to inform, and give them the opportunity to opt-out.
    • Written or verbal? Do you need to get permission in writing, or might a conversation or a phone call with a parent/carer be sufficient? Could a lack of consent cause problems down the line?

Openness and transparency

  • This is linked to consent. As a researcher, you should take steps to communicate as clearly as possible your intentions and motivations in carrying out a research inquiry, with all affected stakeholders.
  • It may be the case that your study design requires that pupils are not fully aware of the reasons for your actions, for example if you think this might influence their behaviour and thus bias the outcomes of your inquiry. In this case, the pupils and/or parents/carers should be debriefed after the event. However, it is difficult to foresee any circumstances in which it would be necessary to withhold your intentions from colleagues.

Permission to withdraw

  • All participants should be informed of their right to withdraw from a study at any point of their choosing. Equally, even where participants have already participated in data collection, they should have the right to withhold any data relating to them from any subsequent analysis and/or publication.
  • Obviously, this depends on context. If a timetabled lesson is the focus of an inquiry, this does not mean a pupil has the right to withdraw from the lesson! However they should have the right to withdraw any data which relates directly to them in any subsequent analysis and/or publication.

Data protection and confidentiality

  • Even if you do not intend to publish your data (but especially if you do!), you should take steps to ensure that individuals cannot be identified through your research, unless it is unavoidable (e.g. if they feature in video or photographs), in which case it should be done with the explicit written permission of both the pupil and their parent/carer.

Vulnerable individuals within schools

  • Researchers are often privy to sensitive information. While research participants should be assured of their right to anonymity and confidentiality, they should also understand that should any information come to light where a law has been broken, or somebody’s safety may be at risk, the researcher has an obligation to record any relevant information, and pass it on to the child protection officer as standard.

FOUR PRINCIPLES OF RESEARCH ETHICS

In addition to the practical steps outlined above, here are four guiding principles of research ethics which it may be useful to think about when planning a research inquiry

Justice 

As far as possible, the benefits and drawbacks of research inquiry should be distributed fairly among pupils and/or staff.

Beneficence 

The action or intervention being proposed should be done with the intent of benefiting pupils and/or staff.

Non-maleficence       

The action or intervention being proposed should bring no harm to pupils and/or staff. It is worth noting that ‘harm’ can include things like increased workload and embarrassment, as well as physical harm or mental anguish. School-based practitioners should consider carefully whether their research inquiry may lead to negative consequences for pupils and/or staff, either directly or indirectly.

Autonomy

Given the nature of school-based research, it may not be necessary to secure written consent from pupils in all circumstances. However, where research inquires carry consequences for colleagues, seeking consent is both principled and practical.


FURTHER READING

Should you wish to explore these issues further, here are some excellent guides to research ethics for beginners:

  • University of Strathclyde – Ethics in the Educational Research Context.
    This provides an excellent overview of research ethics, including a number of case examples and tasks with model answers, and links to even further reading!

** With thanks to Gary Jones, on whose blog some of this is based.

Leave a Reply