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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Ethical Self-Assessment: Excellence in Reflexivity or Corporatisation Gone Mad?0

 

Research ethics and integrity have always been at the forefront of my work, not only because the issues which I explore (self-injury, disability, gender and sexuality) are personal, sensitive and often stigmatised topics, but also because as a disabled, feminist researcher I have first-hand experience of the ways in which power, inequality and appropriation are often enmeshed in research methods and outputs. Conventional ethical protocols which originate in medical guidelines struggle to fully grasp and incorporate such ethical issues, as well as the dilemmas which emerge from social research more broadly. Ethical protocols rarely prompt a researcher to critically examine how issues such as power and marginalisation play out in social research, or even how to address specific issues emerging from their own project, such as how to respond to requests for specific information as in Anne Oakley’s (1981) now infamous research with first time mothers. Ethical review more often consists of tick-box protocols, which ultimately function to restrict who and what can be researched rather than to promote ethical skills, competencies and practices (see Inckle, 2015).

This mismatch between my own ethical sensibilities and the conventions of research ethics were so vast that, during my PhD research, I struggled to conceive how any research could ever be fully ethical and I became stymied with anxiety and doubt (see Inckle, 2007). Happily, since then, I have joined a research ethics committee, taught research methods and ethics, conducted, supervised and even participated in social research. As a result, I have become more reconciled with (although no less sensitive to) the possibilities of research being both an ethical and positive experience for all those involved – albeit when based on a reflexive, ethical sensibilities rather than rigid, pre-defined protocols.

Nonetheless, when I joined my current institution and discovered that ethical review operated on a self-assessment basis http://www.lse.ac.uk/intranet/researchAndDevelopment/researchDivision/policyAndEthics/ethicsGuidanceAndForms.aspx my first response was to laugh, a lot. Isn’t the whole point of ethical review, I chortled, to provide oversight and accountability via external reviewer/s? How does simply completing a self-assessment form ensure ethical competency? Isn’t this just another example of the corporatized university gone mad, where academics take on more and more administrative duties in a role of ever-increasing responsibilities and ever-diminishing autonomy?

However, with time, reflection and some experience – all of which are important ethical competencies! – my perspective on ‘ethical self-assessment’ has radically shifted. Firstly, self-assessment is not really a full description of this ethical review process. Student researchers require formal ethical validation from their supervisor, who acts as a proxy for the institution in granting approval and, in the case of staff research projects, the line-manager takes on this role. Furthermore, in certain situations, such as when required by an external funder or participating body, the researcher is compelled to present their work before a university ethics committee proper.

Secondly, while the ethical ‘self-assessment’ form requires the respondent to answer a number of fairly standard questions about their research project – including, whether deception will be used, are the participants ‘vulnerable’, will sensitive/personal issues be explored – the process nonetheless allows for nuanced and discipline-specific accountability. For example, rather than a ‘yes’ to any of these questions rendering the research unethical and in need of redesign, the researcher is invited to complete another section of the form providing further information which contextualises the project and outlines protective protocols. What is most important, is that these justifications and protections are reviewed in a discipline specific context, thus moving the entire process away from universalised assumptions and locating it within specific field of the researcher. For example, in a medicalised context a non-clinician interviewing those who are defined as ‘vulnerable’ by virtue of their experience of disability and/or self-injury would be considered highly problematic. Similarly, an insider-researcher with shared experience of such a ‘health’ or disability experience would be considered compromised in their role and unable to ‘objectively’ and reliably conduct the research. However, from a social sciences (and rights-based) perspective, using these kind of labels to position certain individuals as compromised and/or inadequate researchers is in itself unethical and discriminatory.

Indeed, ethical ‘self-assessment’ has proven beneficial for my current research regarding the health, identity and social impacts of cycling for people with physical disabilities, including its impacts on their experience of themselves as able/disabled. In a standardised context it is likely that a number of ethical problems would be highlighted with this project: exploring sensitive issues amongst a ‘vulnerable’ group; an insider-researcher (I am a disabled cyclist); and quite possibly the assumption that the topic is so anomalous as to not justify the research at all – it is a commonplace assumption (especially among medical professionals) that people with physical disabilities cannot cycle, despite it being significantly easier than walking or wheelchair propulsion for many disabled people http://www.wheelsforwellbeing.org.uk/. However, ethical ‘self-assessment’ enabled me to position myself, my research participants and the value of the research within a critical social science and rights-based perspective which locates disability as a social identity rather than an individual vulnerability. However, this does not mean that I have avoided thinking clearly and carefully about the ethical protocols. I have taken time to consider the research, it’s potential impacts at the individual, social and policy levels, and to work to ensure that it is a positive and empowering experience for all those involved (including me). I have also developed my information, consent and researcher commitment forms in line with best practice in feminist and sensitive research (Byrne, 2000; Inckle, 2007; 2015).

Overall then, my experience suggests that my initial incredulous laughter at the thought of ethical self-assessment was misplaced. In an era of increasingly regimented ethical protocols which unilaterally apply limited, discipline-specific assumptions across the entire research community, and thereby curb the possibilities of who can conduct research, about which topics and with whom, then discipline-specific ethical self-assessment provides a new opportunity for contextualised ethical review. This kind of approach, coupled with a nuanced, reflexive approach to the development of ethical competencies could offer a significant way forward for ethical review in the social sciences.

References

Byrne, A (2000) Researching One An-Other, pp.140-166 in A Byrne and R Lentin (eds) (Re)Searching Women: Feminist Research Methods in the Social Sciences in Ireland. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

Inckle, K (2015) Promises, Promises… Lessons in Research Ethics from the Belfast Project and ‘The Rape Tape’ Case, Sociological Research Online 20(1): 6 http://www.socresonline.org.uk/20/1/6.html

Inckle, K (2007) Writing on the Body? Thinking Through Gendered Embodiment and Marked Flesh. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Oakley, A (1981) Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms, pp.30-61 in H Roberts (ed) Doing Feminist Research. London: Routledge.

Contributor
Dr Kay Inckle
Course Convener in Sociology
LSE
Blog/Bio | K.A.Inckle@lse.ac.uk

This post may be cited as:
Inckle K. (2017, 24 April) Ethical Self-Assessment: Excellence in Reflexivity or Corporatisation Gone Mad?. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/ethical-self-assessment-excellence-reflexivity-corporatisation-gone-mad

Abuse of prisoners in the United States0

 

Mike Adorjan and Rose Ricciardelli’s edited collection, Engaging with Ethics in International Criminological Research, was recently published by Routledge. Of course, the book examines the likely suspects – ethical practices in relation to studies of policing, imprisonment and vulnerable populations. However, there are more unusual pieces on illuminating the Dark Net, carceral tours, and working in Hong Kong and China. My own contribution (Israel, 2016) examined the sad history of abuse of consent in research involving prisoners and prisons in the United States. It is an account of the exploitation of prisoners and a failure of criminologists to have any impact on the regulation and review of prison-based research.

Consent procedures have been created by research ethics regulators to protect research participants from abuse. In the United States, prisoners have been particularly vulnerable to the exploitative practices of researchers. However, contemporary consent procedures also stop researchers from uncovering institutional practices that exploit non-autonomous individuals. In doing so, research ethics regulation forms part of a broader strategy of self-protection established by public and private correctional services. Some scholars outside the United States have used covert research to evade prison protectionism. However, few have sought to link criminology’s understanding of state and state-corporate violence to the abuse of prisoners by researchers or extend their critique of protectionism to the work of research ethics regulators… I explore how requirements to obtain consent have been systematically evaded within prison-based research in the United States to the detriment of prisoners, but also how responses to scandal have led to the overprotection of institutions at the expense of prisoners’ ability to exercise autonomy, access justice, and benefit from the research process. Sadly, this chapter also demonstrates the apparent irrelevance of criminologists to the reform of regulation of research ethics in American prisons.

References

Israel, M (2016) A Short History of Coercive Practices: the Abuse of Consent in Research involving Prisoners and Prisons in the United States, in Adorjan, M and Ricciardelli, R (eds) Engaging with Ethics in International Criminological Research. London: Routledge. pp69-86. https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138938403

Contributor
Mark Israel is a senior consultant with AHRECS, adjunct professor of law and criminology at Flinders University and a visiting academic at The University of Western Australia.

This post may be cited as:
Israel M. (2016, 19 September) Abuse of prisoners in the United States. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/abuse-prisoners-united-states

Technology research in sensitive settings: A workshop on ethical encounters in HCI1

 

In May this year, a group of researchers gathered in San Jose, California, to attend a workshop on “Ethical Encounters in HCI”. HCI is human-computer interaction, an interdisciplinary field of research that covers a broad spectrum of activities, ranging from ethnographic research that aims to understand people to inform design, to lab-based studies that aim to develop and evaluate new technologies.

Why worry about ethics in HCI?

The field of human-computer interaction emerged in the 1980s, when personal computing was in its infancy. This was a time when computers sat on desktops, usually in the workplace. Initially, the aim of this nascent field of research was to create usable and efficient systems that supported people’s work activities. Much of the work in HCI at the time was conducted in laboratory settings or the workplace, with an emphasis on reducing errors and improving efficiency as people – or ‘users’ – learnt to perform tasks using computers.

Fastforward 30-plus years and computing has moved off the desktop and expanded into every realm of our lives. HCI, too, has expanded. No longer confined to the office or laboratory, HCI research has moved into the home and beyond, into settings where doing “ethical research” means more than getting your participants to sign a consent form (Bruckman, 2014). It is not unusual now for HCI researchers to conduct fieldwork in places like hospitals, schools, and residential care facilities, and to work closely with participants who might be considered vulnerable, such as people experiencing homelessness, chronic illness, or recent bereavement. Research in these settings can be rewarding and valuable, but also fraught with concerns about how to ensure the research is conducted in an ethical manner. In these settings, we can’t always predict and plan for every contingency, and there is not always a clear right or wrong way to proceed when researchers encounter a dilemma (Munteanu et al, 2015). In addition, HCI research might involve not only working closely with people to understand their lives, but also designing and implementing new technologies. We cannot always predict the impact these technologies will have on people’s lives and we have to be especially mindful of the possibility of unexpected negative effects when working in sensitive settings (Waycott et al, 2015). Social media, too, has highlighted the complexity of ethics in HCI and technology research; many researchers are now using publicly available social media posts as research data, sometimes to explore sensitive topics.

Workshop outcomes

With these challenges in mind, we gathered in San Jose to discuss the common ethical issues people have faced when doing this research and to explore possible ways of addressing these issues in the future. The workshop, held as part of the International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2016), brought together HCI researchers working in sensitive and difficult settings who wanted to communally reflect on ethical issues they had encountered in their work.

Participants included a PhD student working on designing information systems for families of children in palliative care, researchers whose work aims to preserve the “voices from the Rwanda trial” in post-genocide Rwanda, and crisis informatics researchers who analysed Twitter posts to understand the role of social media during Hurricane Sandy. Prior to the workshop, participants submitted position papers describing their “ethical encounters”, available here: https://ethicalencountershci.wordpress.com/chi-2016/position-papers-chi-2016/

The workshop aimed to provide these researchers with an opportunity to discuss the challenges they have faced, and to brainstorm potential “solutions” and ideas that might help HCI researchers navigate ethical issues in the future. Challenges included:

  • tensions between meeting institutional ethics review requirements and managing situational ethical issues that emerge during fieldwork;
  • managing both participants’ and researchers’ vulnerability and wellbeing;
  • the temporal nature of consent (should consent be a one-off procedure, or something that we revisit throughout the research process?);
  • managing participant and stakeholder expectations about the technologies we design and introduce;
  • deciding what happens at the end of the project, and managing expectations around this;
  • working with stakeholders, gatekeepers, organizations, and being aware of inter-organizational politics;
  • deciding who gets to participate and who doesn’t; and
  • dealing with sensitive (yet public) data that can trigger difficult responses for researchers, participants, and others exposed to the research

These challenges can occur in any research that involves fieldwork in sensitive settings; but they can be exacerbated in HCI because researchers in this field may not have been trained in dealing with these issues, and because designing and introducing technology into these settings adds a layer of complexity to the research.

The workshop participants identified a number of ways of providing support to HCI researchers in the future. Suggestions included looking to other disciplines (e.g., anthropology, sociology) to see what lessons we can take from them; gathering together resources and cases from previous projects (e.g., building a database of consent forms and other documents); and developing a professional advisory group to provide guidance and to promote consideration of research ethics within the HCI community. Some of these suggestions are already being achieved through initiatives like AHRECS.

References

Bruckman, A. (2014). Research Ethics and HCI. In J. S. Olson and W. A. Kellogg (Eds). Ways of Knowing in HCI. Springer

Munteanu, C., Molyneaux, H., Moncur, W., Romero, M., O’Donnell, S., & Vines, J. (2015). Situational ethics: Re-thinking approaches to formal ethics requirements for human-computer interaction Proc. CHI 2015 (pp. 105-114): ACM Press.

Waycott, J., Wadley, G., Schutt, S., Stabolidis, A., & Lederman, R. (2015). The challenge of technology research in ‘sensitive HCI’. Paper presented at the OzCHI 2015, Melbourne, Australia.

Workshop information:

https://ethicalencountershci.wordpress.com/

Waycott, J., Munteanu, C., Davis, H., Thieme, A., Moncur, W., McNaney, R., . . . Branham, S. (2016). Ethical Encounters in Human-Computer Interaction. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Contributor
Jenny Waycott is a Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne. After completing her PhD at the Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University UK, Dr Waycott has worked on several projects in the fields of human-computer interaction and educational technology. Her research is broadly concerned with understanding the role technologies play in people’s learning, work, and social activities. Her recent work has focused on the design and use of social technologies for/with older adults, ethical issues in the design and use of new technologies in sensitive settings, creative uses of new technologies for social inclusion, and the use of social technologies in higher education. For more information see: http://www.jwaycott.com/
jwaycott@unimelb.edu.au

This post may be cited as:
Waycott J. (2016, 29 July) Technology research in sensitive settings: A workshop on ethical encounters in HCI’. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/technology-research-sensitive-settings-workshop-ethical-encounters-hci

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

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