Archive

Posts Tagged ‘principles’

The ethics of researchers researching research

February 12th, 2010

Following our recent research announcement about writing a conference paper about shiftingthinking.org, it’s been exciting to see some of our shiftingthinking community members post comments of encouragement and interest. As promised, we’d like to keep blogging about this process as it evolves, and I hope that at least some of you will keep reading and commenting over the next few months!

So, what’s been happening lately? You’ll see from our research announcement that one of the first things we’ve had to think about is the ethical implications of our proposed AERA paper. Those of you who’ve done any kind of formal research will know that seeking ethical approval is a normal beginning-stage part of the research process. Those who haven’t perhaps don’t know very much about the kinds of ethical considerations that researchers need to take into account at each stage of the research process. I won’t go into too much detail here – as there are dozens of good textbooks and whole university courses that teach about research ethics – but I just wanted to write a bit about the ethics process “behind” our AERA research announcement because it was a little different to the usual.

At NZCER, as in most universities and other research organisations, we have a group of people drawn from within the organisation that meets to review research ethics proposals – our ethics committee. The normal process goes something like this:

  • For every new project, the project leader(s) write an application that explains the research, including quite a lot of detail about exactly what the researchers are proposing to do, how various kind of ethical issues will be addressed, and often copies of interview questions or survey questions or whatever other research tools are going to be used, etc.
  • A small ethics committee, drawn from a wider pool of researchers not directly connected with the proposed project, reviews all this material, has a discussion about any potential ethical issues they can see with the project.
  • The committee’s discussions and recommendations are conveyed back to the project leader in writing and a verbal summary, so that he/she can revise their project plans, research instruments, information letters, etc. to a point where the committee is satisfied and gives approval for the research to go ahead.

So the question is, what constitutes an ethical issue in research? And how is an ethics committee supposed to decide what is an issue and what isn’t? Broadly speaking, there are at least two ways a committee might approach this. The first is to be quite rule-based or guideline-based – i.e., having a checklist of all the different areas where there might be ethical issues, and asking project leaders to demonstrate how each and all of these will be addressed, and then having some kind of rule or guideline that the committee can use to decide whether the researcher’s plan is up to scratch or not. The second approach is to deal more at the level of ethical principles. This approach takes ethical thinking to a higher level, where the committee is working hard to uncover and critique the ethical principles that underpin a researcher’s proposed approach, and decide whether those principles – and the way they are being expressed in the project –are consistent with our organisation’s values etc, and whether they are the kind of principles we would want to carry forward into our future work.  Over the years, NZCER has been moving away from the former approach, towards the latter, and the depth and quality of discussions we’ve had about ethics in our organisation have increased as a result.

It’s lucky for Jennifer and me that all this has been happening, because our AERA ShiftingThinking research project could be seen as a bit of a curveball for an ethics committee. Firstly, the AERA paper asks us to turn the spotlight back on ourselves as researchers in a way that most of our other research projects don’t. Our AERA paper says we want to look at how this website has evolved “as a qualitative research methodology”. But we (and our colleagues) are the ones who generated this site, and a great deal of its content, in the first place! We’re both researchers AND research subjects. Further than this, shiftingthinking is a project that has involved the input of so many different people WITHIN NZCER, that there is an inevitable overlap with the constitution of the ethics committee that reviewed our application. In other words, some people are both researchers and research subjects, others are both research subjects AND members of the ethics committee that has to decide on the ethics of the proposed research, and so on.

Since this project is unusual and involves so many people within our organisation, our ethics committee decided to take a slightly unusual approach. Instead of having a small committee, the ethics convener invited all the people who have played a significant role in the ethics committee’s ongoing evolution to be part of the meeting. Instead of the project leader being absent from the meeting, I (as a project co-leader) was invited to the meeting to be involved in the discussions. And in those discussions, we talked about both the particular ethical issues that we could see within this proposed project (you can read how we address some of these issues in our research announcement), AND the wider implications of this project for our ongoing thinking about, and approaches to, research ethics within our organisation.

One of our colleagues commented that a key consideration for our ethics thinking ought to be to deeply examine what each project claims to be doing, and to evaluate the ethical principles  it instantiates in relation to these claims. In the case of the AERA shiftingthinking research project, our project claims to (at least attempts to) “shift the boundaries” around our own thinking about how and why we do (qualitative) research. It seems appropriate that it opened up an opportunity for us to reflect on and re-examine the boundaries of our ethics processes.

Shifting research , , , , ,