The only way is ethics

flickr photo by cybass https://flickr.com/photos/cybass/176867465 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Right from the outset, one of the options I’ve tried to keep in mind is that of ‘publishing’ those data that are amenable. Publishing in this sense refers to sharing interview recordings, as podcasts, back with the community. This feels like the right thing to do; when teachers experiment with new techniques that someone else showed or explained to them, they often share those insights more widely. If that is the norm, why wouldn’t my research study, conducted within this environment, be any different? Well there are a number of reasons, mostly arising as a result of a researcher’s’ ethical sensitivities and obligations towards potential participants.

The default ethical stance is to maintain participants’ anonymity and confidentiality; with an interview transcript, this isn’t too difficult. If on the other hand, the audio file of the interview is shared, the potential for the participant to be identified is so much greater, even if personal identifiers are edited out of the audio. However, it could be argued (as I began to discuss here) that in the online performative space with which participants are comfortable, anonymising what they have created actually does them a disservice. Much better to acknowledge their co-authorship and give credit where it’s due. I wonder how many researchers conducting interviews as one of their methods, discuss the issue of ownership, copyright or intellectual property with their interviewees, beyond explaining where their data will be stored and how it will be used. In fact ‘for data collected via interviews that are recorded and/or transcribed, the researcher holds the copyright of recordings and transcripts but each speaker is an author of his or her recorded words in the interview.’ So I find myself speculating what the implications and potential consequences of that are? As Van den Eynden et al (2011) explain, an author could at some time in the future assert their rights over the words they provided and you would be obliged to comply. It is possible however for the researcher to have sought ‘transfer of copyright or a licence to use the data’ ideally at the outset of the project. There are even templates available through the Data Archive to make things easier. I wonder though whether taking the route towards Creative Commons licensing might provide a route forward? Potential participants are likely to be familiar with it; many will indeed use it with their own material. But that then has me wondering whether that’s permissible under the University regulations for PhD research (which of course I could doubtless find out), but also what the implications might be if you subsequently wish to publish your research through conventional commercial channels.

My work this morning has been with the apparently less sticky technical issues – where would the audio files be stored, how would they be served/streamed etc. In the past I’ve used the free versions of various podcast services like AudioBoom, SoundCloud, Spreakr etc, but they’re of course limited in some way and would not be adequate for several hour-long podcasts. Paying for upgrades is an option, but I don’t fancy picking up the tab of tens of pounds per annum, just for this project. Online storage can be bought for a much more manageable outlay through services like Amazon S3, or perhaps more ethically(?) through Reclaim Hosting, but which of course demand a higher level of technical capability to configure, manage and maintain the site. I probably have enough background to cope with that, especially if supplemented by online tutorials … and I have been considering securing a new domain name anyway. But then what happens in the longer term? How long will I need to maintain the site and content?

I can’t help but be drawn back to ethical principles, specifically those of non-malfeasance and beneficence. Would sharing podcasts of interviews be likely to result in any harm befalling participants and are there ways in which they might benefit? Is is not easy to speculate what harms an interviewee might incur, but not dissimilar perhaps than those from potentially any online activity. In most cases (assuming the material is not inflammatory or illegal) the most harm is likely to be reputational damage from an inappropriate or ill-judged comment. It might be possible that potential future employers might be put off by opinions or ideas expressed – if as a teacher, you expressed particular pedagogical approaches you favoured and they were at odds with the views of a potential employer who heard your interview, then s/he might be less inclined to offer an interview. Again though, if you hold a particular set of values and have an online presence, it’s likely you’ll have already burnt that bridge. This can of course be flipped and work in your favour as it did for Daniel Needlestone – a benefit? For those who share widely, seek exposure and an audience, then being provided with an opportunity for that through an interview, then this might indeed be considered to be in their interests. And of course, as for many research participants, but perhaps particularly for teachers, there is the sense that their participation is contributing the pool of knowledge from which we all sip … or gulp.

I’m obliged to also ask myself why I might want to do this; what do I stand to gain? Am I being selfish and actually seeking kudos from the community? Am I attempting to follow in the spirit of making research more open and more accessible? Am I attempting to be more faithful to my participants in seeking to ensure their voice is not lost through my transcription. Is this one way in which I can be more transparent about my analysis and interpretation? Is this an additional channel through which I can make my research accessible to a wider audience? Perhaps a little of all of the above?

So which way do I go? My easy route is to stick with the ethical issues I’ve already had ratified for my pilot study and go with participant anonymity. The difficult route, for all of the aforementioned reasons, is to seek to ‘publish’ the data and therefore have to write a new ethics submission incorporating all those issues and explaining how I would address them. That might be time consuming (both in the composition and in the approval process), but is not impossible; the edonis project by David Noble has already set a precedent in fact. Which option would you choose if a) you were me, and b) you were a potential participant – what would your preference be?

Van den Eynden, V., Corti, L., & Woollard, M. (2014). Managing and sharing data.

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10 thoughts on “The only way is ethics

  1. If I were to put my Reclaim hat on, I think that we need to be mindful in depending on spaces like SoundCloud for storing audio. What I love about Reclaim is that they will support you each step of the way. Of late I’ve been exploring the use of Known as a respiratory. I have a feeling Ian O’Byrne has started using it for Podcasts/audio, but not sure of the workflow.

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    • Thanks for the feedback Aaron, and the hat-tip for Reclaim. I’m definitely leaning that way. I hadn’t been aware of Known, so will now look into that too.
      Could you say what your concerns are with the more commercial(?) podcast hosting platforms?

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  2. First of all, I definitely agree with the thinking about sharing the research information out online. This is one of the tenets in our Digitally Literate Research Project (http://digitallyliterate.net/) and one of the reasons why I started compiling a series of posts about podcasting (http://wiobyrne.com/?s=podcast). I’ll finish this series soon.

    I have a series of interviews that I’ve collected during my time as a department editor for a literacy journal. I’m sharing this out using WithKnown and using my Reclaim Hosting space (http://wiobyrne.com/4q4/).

    I like WithKnown, but one major issue is that you can’t go back in and edit the date of a post. For me, that’s a problem. If you decide that you want to change the order of the posts, or change the URL of a post, it’s almost impossible. I have considered using Tumblr, but instead might use WordPress and a minimal theme to rebuild the site for the podcasts.

    Also, I quickly ate up my hosting with only six podcasts. I secured a small amount of grant funding to pay for Soundcloud. I’m moving my materials over there soon. I like the fact that Soundcloud can allow for annotation of the clip. I don’t like the fact that Soundcloud seems like they’ll go out of business soon.

    I could pay for more hosting with Reclaim and most likely be cheaper than Soundcloud. I could also pay for hosting with Amazon or some other provider. I do (as I indicate in the podcasting posts) upload the files to the Internet Archive as a backup. There are some that solely use the Internet Archive to build their podcasts.

    So, in short, WithKnown worked, but I’ll switch to give me something with a bit more flexibility in editing posts. Reclaim worked well. I’ll move to Soundcloud for the environment/community, and to make it easier for others to annotate the audio clips. Definitely upload everything to the Internet Archive.

    Hope that helps. 🙂

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    • Thanks for such a fulsome and informative response William. I’m definitely minded (with permission) to share the interviews in full. It’s always bothered me that an hour’s interview gets turned into a plain-text transcript and even if the more sophisticated transcription annotations are used, some meaning is inevitably lost. In fact for those not familiar with the typographic conventions of transcription, the transcript can be less clear than plain text! Then comes analysis and the writing of an article or thesis and our participants words are gone, or at best hidden behind pseudonyms. I’m grateful for the link to the Digitally Literate project; there were a couple of references there which were new for me and will doubtless prove helpful.

      Thanks too for those technical insights. It seems there isn’t necessarily an ideal solution and I guess making a particular choice will depend on the nature of the recordings, how they might be shared and the needs of an (as yet unknown) audience. I also get the sense that it might be wise to maintain a flexible approach which can adapt to changes in circumstances.

      Thanks once again. Really appreciate it.

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      • No problem at all. Good stuff…and good ideas.

        I think there are many benefits to sharing the data (or at least as much as possible) online. The negatives usually revolve around the fact that no one (or at least not many) is trying to do this as of yet. You will most likely need to teach people why you’re doing it…and trust your gut. 🙂

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  3. Hi Ian,
    I’d go for reclaim style self hosting.
    1. more fun
    2. control/ownership
    3. Lower cost
    4. I remember posterous, had a huge job getting the audio we had there onto WordPress.

    Edutalk is hosted on Reclaim, it is, imo, particularly suitable for self hosted media on WordPress, the file upload sizes are much bigger than most other shared hosting (we requested that one).

    We woulds be more than happy to set you up on edutalk.cc as a author, you could host and share audio there if you like?

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    • Fun?! Fun?! I haven’t got time for fun my friend!
      But I know exactly what you mean. I had a blast last night getting my S3 pilot configured and a web page with an html5 tag playing a sound file on a rudimentary page. Lots of mistakes, but so, so satisfying when I sorted it. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

      With all three of my commenters recommending Reclaim, I suspect I’m going to go that way, even if only for my personal needs.
      And thanks for the generous edutalk offer. It was always in my mind that if I can get this through ethics approval, that there might be edutalk listeners who would find it interesting. So if my application is successful, hopefully I’ll be coming back to you.

      Thanks John.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Definitely go with Reclaim. Best opportunity out there. Best support as well. They’ve bailed me out tons of times when I’ve tried to muck about and hack things together.

        I’m thinking that I might investigate using Reclaim for my hosting of the podcasts. I’ll ping them tomorrow to try and figure out how much it might cost me.

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  4. […] What hasn’t changed are some of the fundamental ethical considerations: that my participants are unlikely to be considered vulnerable members of society; that the topics we’re discussing are largely non-sensitive; that my study has taken steps to ensure non-malfeasance and participants will not come to harm; and that where possible, the study pr…. […]

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