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A Note on the Importance of Sensitising the Novice Researcher to the Realities of Ethics in Practice0

 

Discussions of research ethics have begun to centre increasingly on how research guidelines translate into ethical practice during the research process. In the paper which prompted the invitation to contribute to this blog (McEvoy, Enright & MacPhail, 2015), my experiences as a novice researcher conducting focus group interviews with a group of young people are illustrated and discussed. The consequence of a limited experiential base in research and not having previously read deeply on the topic of research ethics was that I encountered difficulties in recognising or determining the best course of action when faced with what Guillemin and Gillam (2004, p. 263) refer to as ‘ethically important moments’ in the research situation.

It is clear that unless researchers are sensitised to how research practices such as confidentiality, informed consent, etc. manifest in research encounters, on-the-spot decisions can test the veracity of a research project’s ethical promises. I am certainly not suggesting that experienced researchers hold the monopoly on research ethics, or that it is not possible for novice researchers to behave ethically. Rather, due to the immediacy of ethically important moments it is often a researcher’s instincts or reflexes which are operative. Therefore, just as when we learn any skill and certain elements become automatic with experience, it is important that researchers starting out on their careers are given every opportunity to develop and challenge their ethical practice in a way that ensures that those elements of their practice which become ingrained have the best chance of being ethically sound.

In reflecting upon the ethically important moments I encountered, and in reading the associated literature, I certainly improved my ethical sensitivity and understanding of how ethics are enacted in practice. However, from the perspective of the research participants in the given project, it was far from ideal that my learning was the product of ethical difficulties in the field. So how might novice researchers hone their skills and reflexes without exposing research participants to the possibility of ethical breaches borne of inexperience? We may certainly begin by providing research students with a wealth of examples of ethical dilemmas, discussing our research encounters with them, what we did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say, and prompting them to question what they would do or say in the given situation. Further, we can ensure that we educate novice researchers regarding the deeper thinking behind the principles of research ethics and the various ethical stances that abound (e.g. virtue ethics, relational ethics, feminist ethics, situational ethics, etc.) so that when faced with a less clear-cut ethical dilemma they will have the resources to adapt to the context by upholding the spirit of a given principle. The immediacy of the research situation requires instant decisions but that same immediacy results in the likelihood that such decisions are in fact the result of that which comes before the research situation itself. It is perhaps in the preparation that ethics is won or lost.

References:

Guillemin, M., and Gillam, L., (2004). Ethics, reflexivity, and “ethically important moments” in research. Qualitative Inquiry, 20, 261.

McEvoy, E., Enright, E., & MacPhail, A. (2015). Negotiating ‘ethically important moments’ in research with young people: Reflections of a novice researcher, Leisure Studies, doi: 10.1080/02614367.2015.1119877

Eileen Mcevoy
PhD student at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland and also works as a research co-ordinator in Ireland. She has co-ordinated research projects at the Physical Education, Physical Activity and Youth Sport (PEPAYS Ireland) Research Centre, as well as various other Irish educational institutions.
epmcevoy@gmail.com

This blog may be cited as:
Mcevoy, E. (2016, 22 April) A Note on the Importance of Sensitising the Novice Researcher to the Realities of Ethics in Practice. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/note-importance-sensitising-novice-researcher-realities-ethics-practice

Taking Time in the Midst of a Crisis: Prior Informed Consent, Sociability and Vulnerability in Ethnographic Research3

 

As an anthropologist, the way I work has particular features which are, in my view, both empowering and paralysing. This is especially the case when working with people who define themselves or who are defined as vulnerable, and in field contexts which are challenging, difficult or unpredictable. In this post, I would like to address Prior Informed Consent procedures as an example of the ethical challenges that I need to address in my new project which aims to interact and collaborate with one of the most vulnerable populations entering the European Union today: undocumented pregnant refugees and migrants.

My ERC-funded project, entitled ‘Intimate Encounters in EU Borderlands: Migrant Maternity, Sovereignty and the Politics of Care on Europe’s Peripheries’ is a comparative study of maternity care delivery towards undocumented pregnant migrants in EU Borderlands. Research will be carried out in 7 maternity care services located in the densely crossed borderlands of 4 EU Member States. Most of the maternity care services in question are in the Mediterranean, in Italy, Spain and Greece, but two field sites are also located in Overseas France, in French Guiana and Mayotte (in South America and in the Indian Ocean respectively). All of the field sites are to be found on Europe’s external borders, in remote peripheries which have very specific social and economic identities in relation to the rest of the country. My main interest lies in studying doctor-patient interaction from a moral and biographical point of view, and in documenting life in these peripheries from the perspectives of the full range of actors involved. Ethnographic data will be collected during a 16 months long fieldwork period which will span the second and third years of the project, and which will involve all project team members (that is myself and three other researchers).

Research will be carried out through long-term participant observation of everyday life in the field locations. Commitment to the research from all research participants will have to be total, as my team and myself will have to physically move (taking our families along with us) to the field sites for the whole duration of the fieldwork. Working times will vary according to circumstances, but could involve day and night-time work, every day of the week. This kind of research requires flexibility, adaptability and resilience.

Long-term participant observation is peculiar: it is an ecosystem of its own, which may appear intense and exotic, but which often feels awkward, lonely and frustrating. Time takes on a different texture and daily routines are upset by the turns of events. Building social relations based on amity at first, and trust in the long-term with a wide range of people is not generally something which can happen overnight. For this reason I am convinced that when working with vulnerable subjects, the investment of time affords a great advantage in contributing to ethically-sound research.

Anthropologists approaching a field site have to prepare their fieldwork through an extensive, collaborative, multi-level process of introduction, presentation, authorisation and consent, which works concurrently at communal and individual level. It is very common to hear that for anthropologists fieldwork starts at home, as they slowly gather the first contacts and points of reference, through which they will seek affiliations, authorisations, permits, and translate their research objectives according to the audiences they deal with.

As anthropologists, our entry into a field context often follows a gradual scoping process based on information and presentation, which navigates several levels of leadership and authority. Only once all authorisations are cleared can fieldwork at community-level begin. And from community-level, one can approach individuals or family units. Because the personal and emotional involvement of fieldwork is so high, the social bonds which develop through long-term fieldwork are deep and long-lasting. In this context, consent in research is to be considered as a flexible, long-term commitment to the well-being of the source communities, and their regular updating on the progress of the research. This commitment can last a lifetime.

In the context of my new research project, a good proportion of the persons I will be working with belong to a highly mobile and invisible population with whom the nurture of social bonds may not be easy to maintain, to say the least. My ERC-funded project includes, among other research participants, undocumented migrants. Some of these migrants will be pregnant, others may be minors, and some will be both. This means that they represent another category of vulnerability than people I had been previously working with who belong to remote ethnic minorities (I have been working with Amerindian communities of northern Amazonia in Suriname and French Guiana since 2003). The social and political contexts in which research is carried out are always shifting, and there is no single definition of vulnerability, nor one single form of social interaction during ethnographic fieldwork. Approaching each specific social context requires good prior knowledge and a great deal of flexibility. For instance the pregnant patients I might have to interview are generally likely to have higher levels of literacy than the indigenous women with whom I was sharing the intimacy of daily life in the interior of Suriname. It may be easier to establish some form of initial communication, since there are likely to be more common cultural references. Personal, emotional and physical circumstances may however be extremely different. Moreover, whereas I have been working since 2005 in clinical contexts, these can vary greatly, and medical environments can be extremely hierarchical structures in which self-determination and agency can be challenged by the most simple acts.

In such challenging research environments, single solutions are impossible to envisage as circumstances can change very rapidly. As others have noted, ‘prior informed consent of research participants does not in itself make human-subject research ethical’ (Rosenthal 2006: 119), nor does it guarantee that all research participants and other human subjects will behave ethically. Obtaining prior informed consent in such challenging contexts first of all requires time. Having time to use the appropriate channels to seek authorisations in due course, to develop an extensive web of social contacts, and only gradually to approach the most vulnerable research participants. To ensure as independent and unbiased a process as possible, researchers in the field have to be aware of local circumstances and dynamics, and resist the temptation to rush into a challenging research environment currently at the centre of a media frenzy over what is often portrayed as an escalating EU migration crisis.

Reading a newspaper in Italy – and any other EU Member State for that matter – is a painful experience. I am constantly exposed to images of despair and tragedy unfolding in my country’s territorial waters. I often feel like rushing there to finally get started documenting the voice of those who remain invisible, but rushing is not the way to go about it, despite the climate of crisis and urgency. Ethically-sound research takes time, even more so in the midst of a crisis.

Reference:

Rosenthal, J. 2006. ‘Politics, Culture, and Governance in the Development of Prior Informed Consent in Indigenous Communities’, Current Anthropology 47(1): 119-142.

Vanessa Grotti
European University Institute
Vanessa’s EUI page
Vanessa.Grotti@EUI.eu

This blog may be cited as:
Grotti, V. (2016, 26 January) Taking the Time in the Midst of a Crisis: Prior Informed Consent, Sociability and Vulnerability in Ethnographic Research. AHRECS Blog. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/taking-the-time-in-the-midst-of-a-crisis-prior-informed-consent-sociability-and-vulnerability-in-ethnographic-research

Is the sky falling? Trust in academic research in 20152

 

For anyone that has been paying even the slightest attention to scholarly publishing over the past few years, it will have been impossible to ignore what seems to be a growing number of astonishing advances published in prestigious journals presented at press conferences by proud scientists, which is then followed by questioning of said findings first on twitter, then on blogs, then in newspapers, with finally the very same scientists facing up to the same media, but this time to have to report that their findings were not correct, maybe even fabricated. Corrections follow, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, of whole or part of the published research. Those outside academia wonder what is going on.

In the background it might actually seem that the issue is worse. For every dramatic case that hits the headlines, there are many more where researchers only make their findings partially available or when asked can’t find or make available to others the data that underlie their findings – not because of fraud or fabrication but because of sloppiness, or poor training, or simply a lack of proper structures in place around the research.

What’s going on? Underlying it all is the often poorly appreciated fact that academic advances (especially in science) rarely, if ever, advance in clear quantum leaps. More often research findings are messy and incremental. Yet despite this fact, current ways of measuring academics and academic institutions incentivise – even require – academics to compete for publication in highly selective journals and punish those that don’t, and thus reward behaviour that fits with this system. This issue was acknowledged explicitly by the UK Nuffield Council on Bioethics in their report, the Culture of Scientific Research in the UK which noted that the “‘pressure to publish’ can encourage the fabrication of data, altering, omitting or manipulating data, or ‘cherry picking’ results to report.”

However, the good news is that reform is in the air about how science is assessed and viewed. This reform is  partly derived from external pressures resulting from the high profile cases, but more constructively, and probably sustainably, arise from the many conversations circulating over the past several years among academics and more enlightened publishers, policy makers and funders.

Such initiatives have started with an increasing understanding that measuring worth and rewarding tenure on the basis primarily of a single, commercial, measure of journals’ (and by implication scientists’) worth – the Thomson Reuters journal impact factor is now out-dated (if it was ever valid). An important element of the change is the technical development of practical alternatives such as new article level and alternative metrics, which aim to measure multiple different ways of impact, (e.g. those from PLOS, Impact Story, Altmetic). Crucially, these technical developments are now increasingly backed by international agreement that change is needed, highlighted by DORA, and the UK’s HEFCE.

Other initiatives, such as governments’ (including the Australian Government’s) interest in wider societal impact and especially business competiveness – none of which seem to be well predicted by current journal-level metrics – could, and probably should, also lead to an unpicking of the dominance of older metrics. Equally important however, is the culture of openness that is now increasingly permeating academia, which includes open access to research but more crucially in this context also openness to the research process itself, including to the processes and underlying data. And all of this feeds into another increasingly importantly concept, that of transparency in reporting and reproducibility, which can counteract waste in research and the changes needed for that.

So we are at a time of great change, when the technology that supports open availability of data and publications, new methods of research and academic assessment and a prioritizing of reproducibility are all moving to a research system that has the potential to better support society’s needs. How quickly these opportunities are all taken up remains to be seen – and points to the harder challenge – that of changing the mindset of individuals and institutions.

Dr Virginia Barbour, COPE Chair
Brisbane, Australia
email: cope_chair@publicationethics.org
web: http://publicationethics.org/

These comments reflect my personal opinions and not necessarily those of COPE or my employers

This blog may be cited as:
Barbour, V (2015, 26 July) Is the sky falling? Trust in academic research in 2015. AHRECS Blog. Retrieved from https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/is-the-sky-falling-trust-in-academic-research-in-2015

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