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Should we Reframe Research Ethics as a Professional Ethics?0

 

Dr Nathan Emmerich
Research Fellow in Bioethics at ANUMS

Despite the fact that one of the urtexts of bioethics—Beauchamp and Childress’ principles of biomedical ethics—offers a set of concepts that purport to apply to both research and medical practice it is nevertheless the case that we standardly contrast research ethics with professional ethics. The operating presumption seems to be that a proper grasp of professional ethics requires an understanding of the unique role professional’s play, whereas the same cannot be said of research ethics. Here the presumption is that researchers are not unique but interchangeable. Furthermore, their individuality is inimical to good, and therefore ethical, research.

Whilst both healthcare professionals and researchers should be objective, the professional enters into a singular relationship with their patients. The position of the researcher can, however, be occupied by any relevantly qualified individual and their function is to report their scientific observations. Thus, underlying this contrast is an epistemological point. The perceived importance of the relationship between doctors and patients means that whilst the ethics of the preeminent profession, medicine, are predicated on professionalism they are equally predicated on something that is distinctively (inter)personal. In contrast, the notion that there might be an (inter)personal dimension to the relationship between researchers and research participants is inimical to the requirement for objectivity, at least for a certain value of objectivity.

COMMENTARY
Nik Zeps, AHRECS

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In this thought-provoking blog, Nathan Emmerich challenges the notion that there is any distinction between research ethics and professional ethics when it comes to social science research. That is, the very nature of the enterprise requires that the researcher be deeply engaged in ethical discourse throughout the conduct of the study and not simply at a point in time to satisfy the regulatory requirements of ethics committees to obtain their approval. Whilst the argument is reserved for the social sciences, and there is some hesitancy to extend it beyond this, it is clear that the arguments made are true for all research, including biomedical. There is a reluctance to challenge notions about the divide between research and clinical practice that have been with us for over 50 years, but perhaps it is time to have a proper discussion about whether this is or is not applicable any longer. Patient centered research with an emphasis on co-design with consumers upends the notion that this type of research maintains a separation between researchers and research participants. Social science research provides an immediate opportunity for rethinking how we behave ethically, but biomedical research should follow hot on the heels.

Therein, of course, lies the rub. According to Stark, the differentiation between research ethics and professional ethics can be traced to the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA, circa 1950. Given the existing competition between the codes of professional ethics promulgated by medicine’s sub-specialties, the nascent idea of a research ethics was conceived pragmatically and in aprofessional terms. When it came to biomedical research, and the epistemology of the natural sciences, this was not an issue. However, consistent with Schrag’s critique of the subsequent development of research ethics as neglecting concerns expressed by social scientists, this is more problematic when it comes to the social sciences, particularly at the more interpretive end of the spectrum.
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In qualitative social science the unique perspective, position or standpoint of the researcher is essential to understanding socio-cultural reality and, therefore, to the process of conducting research. Furthermore, it is not something that can be eliminated by the use of (replicable) quantitative measures. This does not mean qualitative research cannot be objective. Rather, it means that the notion of objectivity differs between the natural and social sciences. Doing qualitative social science does not mean embracing subjectivity. Rather, it requires qualitative researchers to embrace epistemological reflexivity and to aim at objectivity as a value, virtue, or standpoint of social research.
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When this is coupled with the fact that such research often seeks to give expression to the ‘lived experience’ of research participants, one can see how a concern for the (inter)personal must return to center stage in discussions of social scientific research ethics. One way of doing so would be to rethink the ethics of social scientific research as a form of professional ethics. Thus, rather than simply ‘frontloading’ ethical decision-making as a part of the design of proposed research, which can then be subject to peer review or evaluation by committee, we can more clearly acknowledge that engaging with the ethical dimension of research requires ongoing attention. The range of ethical issues researchers might encounter, both in the field and as a function of their role, are such that we cannot hope to fully address them preemptively. In this context, and consistent with the contemporary concern for the integrity of both research and researchers, we might draw on the idea of researchers as professionals and, in so doing, embrace the view that they ought to be guided by a set of internal professional norms or ethics.
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Of course, this is not exactly a solution to the ethical issues social scientists might encounter in the course of research. It does, however, invite further engagement with such questions. Indeed, one can say more than this. Rather than thinking of the ethics of research as something to be addressed and codified by external commentators, such as bioethicists, the idea that research might benefit from a professional ethics invites researchers themselves to lead the discussion. No doubt questions remain, not least on what might constitute a profession or professional group in this context. Nevertheless, this proposal suggests that both professional groups and professional researchers should play a privileged role in creating, interpreting and putting into practice the substantive commitments of their own professional ethics. Furthermore, it is for them to set forth, justify and communicate the stance they adopt to other stakeholders.
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This suggestion stands in relatively stark contrast to conceptions of research ethics, where external standards and evaluations are seen as having priority. To me, the difference is akin to the one we find when comparing research ethics committees and clinical ethics committees. The former tends to be rather one-sided; it assesses and offers judgment on research proposals or documents. The latter engages with professional actors and, through a process of mutual dialogue and discussion, facilitates and contributes to the individual’s own ethical formations. Which approach is more likely to promote the ethics and integrity of research, particularly social scientific research, seems self-evident.
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Dr Nathan Emmerich is a Research Fellow in Bioethics at ANUMS. The ideas presented in this post stem from a book chapter entitled ‘A Professional Ethics for Researchers?’ (online first) recently published in Iphofen (Ed) Handbook of Research Ethics and Scientific Integrity (Springer) as well as an earlier publication ‘Reframing Research Ethics.

References:

Beauchamp, T.L., and J.F. Childress. 2009 [1979]. Principles of Biomedical Ethics. 6th Edition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Emmerich, N. 2016 ‘Reframing Research Ethics: Towards a Professional Ethics for the Social Sciences’. Sociological Research Online 21(4):7 http://www.socresonline.org.uk/21/4/7.html

Emmerich, N. 2019. ‘A Professional Ethics for Researchers?’ In Iphofen, R. (Ed) Handbook of Research Ethics and Scientific Integrity. Springer. Online First: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76040-7_34-1

Iphofen, R. (Ed) Forthcoming 2020. Handbook of Research Ethics and Scientific Integrity. Springer, https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-3-319-76040-7

Stark, L. 2011. Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research. University of Chicago Press. https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo12182576.html

Schrag, Z.M. 2010. Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009. The Johns Hopkins University Press. https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/ethical-imperialism

This post may be cited as:
Emmerich, N. (1 October 2019) Should we Reframe Research Ethics as a Professional Ethics? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/should-we-reframe-research-ethics-as-a-professional-ethics

Sage Methods Minute. January Spotlight: Research Ethics0

 

January’s Methods Minutes, a monthly newsletter produced by Sage Publishing, is a special issue focused on social research ethics. It reviews two articles and one book from Sage’s extensive collection on research ethics and also links to an article by Janet Salmons on the importance of research ethics in an ethics-challenged world. Finally, it introduces a video of Mark Israel (AHRECS) discussing the importance of integrating ethical principles in the design of the project from the outset.

The full page can be seen at http://info.sagepub.com/q/1fcUbqkq9C2tGu15bd0Q65f/wv

Contributor
Dr Mark Israel. Senior Consultant AHRECS
AHRECS profilemark.israel@ahrecs.com

This post may be cited as:
Israel, M. (26 February 2019) Sage Methods Minute. January Spotlight: Research Ethics. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/sage-methods-minute-january-spotlight-research-ethics

AHRECS Human research ethics workshop in Thailand0

 

One of our consultants (Dr Lindsey Te Ata o Tu MacDonald) recently facilitated a seminar on research ethics in the department of politics and governance at Mahasarakham University, Thailand. After 5 minutes setting out the institutions and codes of Thailand, Lindsey’s session was a practical ‘how to guide’ on research ethics for students and staff. Lindsey has often been called on to give such talks as Chair of the New Zealand Ethics Committee (see nzethics.com) and in his earlier role as Chair of the University of Canterbury Human Ethics Committee. Interestingly, the way in which Lindsey asks researchers to ‘imaginative engage’ with the ethics of their project by asking them how they would design their project if their Grandmother wanted to participate, and it was a stranger doing the research – what Lindsey calls the ‘grandmother test’ – translated directly in to Thai, as the ‘Yai test’.

For more on ‘imaginative engagement’ see Guillemin, M., Gillam, L., Rosenthal, D., & Bolitho, A. (2008). Investigating human research ethics in practice: Project report. Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Centre for Health and Society, The University of Melbourne. , and For Lindsey’s first paper setting out the ‘grandmother test’ see. MacDonald, L. T. A. O. T. (2018). Ethics and Politics. In M. Tolich & C. Davidson (Eds.), Social Science Research in NZ (4th ed.). Auckland: University of Auckland Press.

Participants in the seminar on Ethics in human subject research at the College of Politics and Governance, Mahasarakham University, Thailand

Prof Cherngcharn Chongsomchai, Dean and Head of the College of Politics and Governance, debating a point with students and staff during the seminar.

Contributor
AHRECS Team | Our Services | engage@ahrecs.com

This post may be cited as:
MacDonald, L. T. A. O. T. (22 December 2018) AHRECS Human research ethics workshop in Thailand (2018). Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/ahrecs-admin/ahrecs-human-research-ethics-workshop-in-thailand

Stop centring Western academic ethics: deidentification in social science research – Anna Denejkina0

 

This blog will provide a discussion of issues present in deidentifying marginalised research participants, or research participants who request to be identified, in the publication of qualitative research. As my research is mixed-method (quantitative and multi-method qualitative) it included several data collection techniques and analyses. For this discussion, I will specifically focus on the face-to-face and Skype interviews I conducted with participants in Russia and the United States.

My PhD study investigates intergenerational transmission of combat-related trauma from parent to child, focusing on the Soviet–Afghan war, 1979–89. This research includes interviews with Soviet veterans and family members of veterans; it was these interviews that raised questions of participant erasure and agency. From 12 face-to-face and Skype interview participants, one participant requested complete deidentification; one requested that their real name not be used but their location and other identifying details remain; two participants requested that only their first names be used and their location and other identifying details remain; the eight remaining participants requested that they be fully identified, with some participants sending me photographs of them and their families for inclusion in research publications. Given the social and political sensitivity that persists in Eastern Europe around the discussion of the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, I had to consider and discuss with participants that requested they be identified the issue of their safety.

My research participants are marginalized participants by virtue of the topic of my research, the Soviet–Afghan war, and the ongoing silencing treatment they’ve received during and following the war by the state:

To take just two examples: in the hope of obscuring the true impact of the war, some local authorities refused to allow special areas in cemeteries to be set apart for the graves of soldiers killed in Afghanistan; while others forbade the cause and place of death to be stated on gravestones or memorial shields. (Aleksievich, Whitby & Whitby 1992, p.5–6)

Given academic broad-stroke standards of deidentifying research participants, we must review the ethics of this practice as it can promote and perpetuate erasure of marginalised participants and the silencing of their voices. Some textbooks on the topic of ethics in the social sciences approach anonymity and deidentification of participants from the angle that anonymity is part of the basic expectations of a research participant, without elaborating that anonymity is not always desirable nor ethical (see for example Ransome 2013), essentially replicating the medical model of human research ethics developed for the regulation of biomedical research in the United States (Dingwall 2016, p.25). Such an approach does not address the issues of presenting anonymity as a status-quo in social research, and makes a sweeping – and a Western academic – generalisation that anonymity is one of the vital assurances researchers must give to their participants to keep within their duty of care (that is, that researchers have at least some obligation to care for their research participants).

This approach to research ethics negates participant agency, particularly those participants that request they be identified in research. Furthermore, forced anonymity can be an act of disrespecting participants (Mattingly 2005, p.455–456) who may have already experienced invisibility and who are then further erased through anonymity by researchers (Scarth & Schafer 2016, p.86); for example, “in some Australian and, in particular, some Indigenous cultures, failing to name sources is both a mark of disrespect and a sign of poor research practice” (Israel, Allen & Thomson 2016, p.296).

As researchers, we must also question if presenting this approach as a vital tenet of social research can become a damaging rule-of-thumb for new researchers who might, therefore, not question the potential undermining of participant agency, and use deidentification unethically as a sweeping regulation within their research without consideration for the individual situations of their research participants. This is part of the issue created by applying a medical model of ethics assessment processes to the social sciences, in which the prevailing interpretation is that deidentification is also required within social research, whereas the reality is that specific agreements between the researcher and the research participant must be honoured.

The ethical dilemma, therefore is: can researchers ethically deidentify participants at the expense of the participants’ agency, potentially perpetuating the historical and symbolic erasure of their voices and experiences? I argue that, based on research design and data collection methods, this decision-making process is an ‘ethics in practice’ and must be approached in context, individually for each study, and for each individual participant.
As scholars, we want to minimise or eradicate harm that might come to our participants through our research. While we think “in advance about how to protect those who are brought into the study” (Tolich 2016, p.30) this must be a continual process throughout our project, in which we “work out the meaning of what constitutes ethical research and human rights in a particular context” (Breckenridge, James & Jops 2016, p.169; also see Ntseane 2009). This is important to note, because protection does not only refer to participants but also to others connected to them. For example, the use of a real name at the request of a participant may expose their family member(s) who were not part of the research.

Consequentialist approaches to ethics suggest that “an action can be considered morally right or obligatory if it will produce the greater possible balance of good over evil” (Israel, 2015: 10; also see Reynolds, 1979). This is an approach we could take to issues around deidentification; however, this also means that researchers must know what is good or bad. In studies like mine, this would mean knowing (or making an attempt, or an assumption to know) what is good or bad for my research participants. This action is infantilising, and places the researcher above the research participant by making the final call ourselves, which is to remove participant agency – if we can assume participants are autonomous during the research consent process, we must also assume that they are autonomous in making decisions with respect to their identification (Said 2016, p.212). Additionally, this action may be culturally insensitive given that Western human research ethics committees follow Western cultural guidelines, centring the dominance of Western academia.

The ethical issues I faced during my PhD research highlight why researchers cannot take a sweeping approach to deidentification in qualitative research – not even for a single study. ‘Ethics in practice’ means that each participant’s situation is analysed individually, and issues around erasure, safety, and their agency weighed against each other to reach a conclusion. I propose that if this conclusion is at odds with the preference of the participant, that it must then be taken back to the participant for further discussion. Not implementing this aspect of ‘ethics in practice’ goes against social science ethics, that we must avoid doing long-term and systemic harm, both of which come through erasure and silencing. We must also remember that “any research project has the potential to further disenfranchise vulnerable groups” (Breckenridge, James & Jops 2016, p.169), and ignoring the wishes of participants regarding their identification due to a Western model of ethics can cause further damage to these groups.

References:
Aleksievich, S., Whitby, J. & Whitby, R. 1992, Zinky Boys: Soviet voices from a forgotten war, Chatto & Windus, London.

Breckenridge, J., James, K. & Jops, P. 2016, ‘Rights, relationship and reciprocity: Ethical research practice with refugee women from Burma and New Delhi, India’, in K. Nakray, M. Alston & K. Whittenbury (eds), Social Sciences Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Routledge, New York, pp. 167–186.

Dingwall, R. 2016, ‘The social costs of ethics regulation’, in W.C. van den Hoonaard & A. Hamilton (eds),The Ethics Rupture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 25–42.

Israel, M., Allen, G. & Thomson, C. 2016, ‘Australian research ethics governance: Plotting the demise of the adversarial culture’, in W.C. van der Hoonaard & A. Hamilton (eds),The Ethics Rupture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 285–216.

Mattingly, C. 2005, ‘Toward a vulnerable ethics of research practice’, Health: An Inderdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 453–471.

Ntseane, P.G. 2009, ‘The ethics of the researcher-subject relationship: Experiences from the field’, in D.M. Mertens & P.E. Ginsberg (eds), The Handbook of Social Research Ethics, 1st edn, Sage, Thousand Oaks, pp. 295–307.
Ransome, P. 2013, ‘Social research and professional codes of ethics’, Ethics and Values in Social Research, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, pp. 24–53.

Said, D.G. 2016, ‘Transforming the lens of vulnerability: Human agency as an ethical consideration in research with refugees’, in K. Nakray, M. Alston & K. Whittenbury (eds),Social Sciences Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Routledge, New York, pp. 208–222.

Scarth, B. & Schafer, C. 2016, ‘Resilient Vulnerabilities: Bereaved Persons Discuss Their Experience of Participating in Thanatology Research’, in M. Tolich (ed.), Qualitative Ethics in Practice, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 85–98.

‘Tolich, M. 2016, ‘Contemporary Ethical Dilemmas in Qualitative Research’, in M. Tolich (ed.), Qualitative Ethics in Practice, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 25–32.

Statement of interest
No interests to declare.

Contributor
Anna Denejkina | Casual Academic and PhD  candidate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, researching intergenerational trauma transmission UTS | Staff profileAnna.Denejkina@uts.edu.au

This post may be cited as:
Denejkina A. (24 May 2018) Stop centring Western academic ethics: deidentification in social science research. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/stop-centring-western-academic-ethics-deidentification-in-social-science-research-anna-denejkina

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