Ethics 1 – Introduction

flickr photo by Louisa-Chan shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

During a break time at the last doctoral students awayday, a small group of us were discussing the preceding session on ethics. One, conducting research into a mid-eighteenth century history, didn’t foresee any issues. Nor indeed did another whose focus was 19th century literature. Until then, and based on my own prelimary thoughts, I’d thought that the ethical issues would be a big deal for all of us. The naivety flannel once more slapped me across the face.

No matter what the research topic, we’re all obliged to undertake an ethical review of our study. The formal part of this begins with a sequence of questions we have to ask of our research; though if you are conducting research into an area within which ethical issues are significant, it’s likely you’ll have come across some of them during your reading. At Sheffield Hallam University, as doubtless at many others, the process begins as we submit our formal request for approval of our research programme. We work through a series of questions on a form called SHUREC1 in order to establish whether our research project and plans need to be submitted for ethical review . There’s no secret here; in fact quite the contrary. It’s published for the world to see as part of the ethical approval process through which all university research is required to pass, prior to commencing. It’s important for us, as researchers and members of the university, to conduct our research with integrity, ethical sensitivity and by adopting principles of good practice. The statements, policies and procedures on the website make what we do open to public scrutiny. They are available for anyone who might read about the research we do, or perhaps more importantly, become participants in our research, to explain the framework within which that research has been conducted.

The ethical considerations of research projects can be viewed across a spectrum. The research of my fellow students mentioned earlier will perhaps be towards one end of the scale, whereas mine tends to the other. The crucial aspects understandably, are whether your research involves ‘human subjects,’ will be conducted in co-operation with the National Health Service, with Social Care/Community Care or the Criminal Justice Systems. If it does, then the ethical issues inevitably become more complex and a more detailed examination of your research is required. Once you have conducted this assessment, you submit your proposal to be considered by an ethical approval panel who will examine your proposed procedures, the ethical issues you have acknowledged and how you intend to accommodate those issues. They may approve your research, or more commonly, highlight unforeseen areas of concern and suggest possible amendments. Until your research has been approved by the panel, it cannot proceed.

When your research involves human participants, as mine does, there are a number of factors to consider. Are you working with people who are sick or on medication? With people who have learning disabilities or would be unable to provide their consent for the research. With people who are vulnerable in some way – young, elderly, bereaved, marginalised. Whether your procedures might be demanding, invasive or intrusive. Whatever the situation, as researchers, we are guided by a body of knowledge, experience, guidance and legislation which began to be built around the mid-twentieth century. There’s a helpful overview here, but the ethical framework within which we work began with the Nuremburg Code (1947), was further refined through the Declaration of Helsinki (1964, aimed primarily at medical research) and more recently in the Belmont Report (1979). The latter enshrines the ethics which now guide us via the principles of respect, beneficence and justice. These fundamentals have been interpreted and extended by professional, academic and governmental bodies, to address the issues specific to certain circumstances or within particular disciplines.

My research is within the social sciences, will involve human participants and will largely be conducted through the Internet using a digital ethnographic methodology. In addition to my university’s institutional policies, I will be guided by the ethical principles of associations and organisations like the British Sociological Association, the British Educational Research Association, the American Educational Research Association, the Sociological Research Association, the British Psychological Society, the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth and the Association of Internet Researchers. There is no shortage of guidance, but that which refers specifically to research conducted on and through the Internet (where there is any) can be somewhat generic and sometimes, the guidance from one body conflicts with that from another. This is hardly surprising given the pace at which the Internet has developed. This is where the integrity of the researcher, supported by ethical review procedures, is so important; in helping the emerging ethics associated with Internet research to evolve. It is also worth noting when these guidelines were published; some as far back as 2002. Some researchers have suggested a centrally managed, regularly updated set of guidelines specific to Internet research would be helpful. Others feel that the general principles can and should be applied to any situation; it is the responsibility of the researcher to adopt a continually reflexive approach which interprets the general principles in each new set of circumstances.

That then is what I intend to do over the next few posts. To consider the context of, and specifics within my study and how I should apply fundamental ethical principles and specific ethical advice from the aforementioned guides.

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