Introduction: What is research ethics? *
Research ethics is a broad term and practice, with different approaches and levels of analysis. It can generally be understood ‘as the evaluation of attitudes and behaviour based on a combination of ideas of values and reality’ (Lidén, 2020, p. 61).
While this evaluation can be done at the level of the values to guide attitudes and behaviour in research, it can also focus on the reality of the decisions and research practices, for example by assessing their impact.
Either way, the ethics of research seeks to ensure that research practices do no harm and do not create conditions for the occurrence of harm (in other words, the risk of harm). However, defining what is harm and what is doing harm is context specific. To address this, organizations, groups or other entities reflect on practices that are acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in their particular context and community of practice.
In research this has been broadly translated into the process to avoid harming research participants, organizations, facilitators and research-related actors. In more specific terms, this is sometimes translated into guidelines and norms of conduct, such as the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (KNAW et al., 2018).
The core tenet ‘do no harm’, which originated in medical research ethics, most importantly the Belmont Report (1979), captures principles of ‘beneficence’, ‘justice’ and ‘respect for autonomy’, mainly envisioned for research participants. Research ethics now complements them with principles assuming the capacity of research to create social value, principles of transparency, independence and responsibility.
Because research occurs in many different contexts, addresses a multitude of issues and interacts with a myriad of people and institutions, recognizing what negative consequences our practices and decisions may have in a particular context is not enough; as researchers we also need to take decisions and actions that help prevent or mitigate the negative consequences of our research practices.
In this process other variables come into play, such as our research question, methodology, methods, or how we will disseminate the results of our research. Research ethics is, therefore, a reflexive act, which dynamically balances out ethical considerations of different aspects of research along the whole research process.
Why research ethics?
1. Research care
For the most part, research depends on the participation of others as research participants, staff and partners. In that we see the primary importance of engaging in ‘care labour’ when doing research. We speak of ‘human subject research’. Effectively ‘doing no harm’ first reflects on the relationship with research participants who volunteer their time, experiences and knowledge and often make a cognitive and/or emotional effort:
'Far from being simply “subjects” participating in a qualitative study, the informants who are willing to share their life histories and stories are human beings with complex everyday lives characterized by unique social circumstances’ (González-López, 2011, p. 448).
González-López develops an idea of ‘mindful research’ as subject-centred, ethically conscious and alerted of the circumstances of the participants, such as ‘their emotional, physical and political safety’ (ibid. 2011).
Managing this relationship ethically and mindfully, that is, practising a principled ‘do no harm’ approach, can be complex and demands care. Dilemmas arise continuously and unexpectedly, particularly so in the absence of ideal initial conditions and an equal researcher-participant relationship (Fujii 2012).
Thinking through this relationship and its complexity is not all when it comes to care. Another aspect of it, one which is rather integral to research is: when choosing to work around certain topics, research also expresses a commitment to do justice to these topics – shifting the focus of research and innovation. This is particularly relevant when working with vulnerable communities or data on topics which directly affect and are of special value to those communities – which is often the case in ISS-lead research
2. Research credibility
Research, intended as a collective and democratic endeavour, needs to be credible in the eye of the research communities and society at large. For example, Irina, activist and practitioner, who often contributed to research projects with her very own life experience and knowledge, clearly unfolded this idea of credibility by questioning the way she may be represented as marginalized and a vulnerable community member.
The principles captured by ‘do no harm’ have evolved into a better articulation of what consent means by establishing voluntariness and the autonomy of research participants as necessary elements to it (Beauchamp 2010).
In the spirit of credibility, we must speak of autonomy against ‘a presumption of autonomy’ (Rhodes 2005) which means being respectful of someone else’s capacity for autonomy against researchers’ presumptions. Research should account for the participants’ own motivations and notions. Ethical research, as we stated at the beginning, is about critically examining research values.
Credibility also plays out at the level of making research accountable. In the same vein as doing ‘care labour’ and taking responsibility for the relationship with research-participants, research should also nurture its relationship to society. Research ethics advocates for research to become an increasingly transparent endeavour that actively responds to and sometimes embeds citizens views.
3. Research sustainability
Building on the aspects of credibility and care is the idea that ethical research has a longer life span than research that does not engage in any reflexive exercise. While the focus of research ethics and its significance is, understandably, mostly on the researcher-participants relationship, by treating it ethically, we impact beyond the sphere of this one relationship.
Ethical research first creates trust on a relational level amongst researchers themselves, collaborating partners and research-outcome users. In the broader framework of responsible research and innovation, research that can be defended as sound, ethical and accountable can sustainably endure and further develop, for example by aligning with funding requirements and societal expectations.
How to do it?
How to develop ethical research is not an easy question to answer. In general, the process encompasses multiple phases. The first is to develop an analysis of the possible risks associated with our research endeavour. This will allow us to see which elements of our research may do harm or the risk of it. Based on this analysis, multiple actions can be developed to reduce the identified risks, mitigate their impacts consequences if they manifest and identify what modifications or considerations should be introduced into our research projects.
This should continue through the entire research process, from its conception, data collection, analysis and dissemination.
A few things to note or reflect upon in this initial analysis are:
- Collecting and or processing of (primary or secondary) personal data, especially when this can be sensitive due to the specific context or participants.
- People participate on a voluntary basis, can withdraw at any time and are informed of the details of the research – in other words, to obtain voluntary consent to participate. Researchers need to be attentive to participants for whom voluntary and informed consent require special attention, like minors, children, people with learning disabilities, undocumented migrants, patients, prisoners.
- To offer anonymity (researchers are not able to identify individual subjects and their specific responses) or confidentiality (researchers are able to identify individual subjects and their specific responses, e.g., pseudonymization) to create a safe space and increase open and reliable answers.
- Are there any incentives be offered to participants (other than reasonable expenses and compensation for time)?
- Whether the research requires the cooperation of a gatekeeper for access to the groups, communities or individuals to be recruited (students at school, residents of children’s home or prison).
- To reflect whether the research could induce psychological stress or anxiety or cause harm or have negative consequences for research participants or researchers.
With this information the research project can be submitted for ethics review or screening. This is the most familiar phase of the process, in which a Research Ethics Committee of an organization reviews the research proposal and sees whether all possible risks have not only been identified, but whether measures are in place to address them. Depending on the dialogue with the ethics committee, more changes may be introduced to our projects.
Having obtained a positive recommendation from the ethics committee to continue with the research, the next phase requires two things. First, implementing everything that was presented to the ethics committee to ensure that the risks identified are reduced or mitigated. Second, developing a reflective attitude to the research process.
All research is dynamic and changes throughout its development and in relation to others and the contexts in which it unfolds. It is, therefore, necessary to develop an attitude that allows to constantly reflect on the risks of the research for researchers and others, risks that may have arisen or that may have increased. In many cases a new periodic risk analysis is recommended.
There are important considerations to bear in mind when talking about research ethics. The first is that it does not only apply to what is commonly called qualitative research. Quantitative or more technical research also carries multiple risks. For example, the decision as to which statistical parameter to use is often left to the researcher's discretion and in the process unrecognized biases can reinforce the negative labels of some groups. Analytical transparency and the principle of objectivity are other important elements to consider.
Another important consideration is that risk assessment does not create risks, it only allows researchers to observe them and do something with them. Failing to list all possible risks does not make them disappear, it only renders them invisible to researchers and increases the danger of affecting others and research practices.
Likewise, ethical considerations are not only for those who do 'field work'. Risks are everywhere in research practices (Bos, 2020; Curran, 2006) and research ethics also applies to remote research.
Thinking about research ethics is also an invitation to rethink our research agendas, our methods and our allocation of resources (Smith, 2012). We can also observe what possible top-down and ‘western’ agendas our methods/methodologies can carry or multiple risks that they may mobilize. In this sense, extractivist research practices and approaches are not strange to research endeavours.
Finally, researchers need to be conscious of not falling into ethics-washing practices, making research practices appear risk-free, whilst in reality the risks have simply been hidden or placed elsewhere. For example, the process of risk dumping in which researchers use local researchers or research assistants without considering the risk that doing research brings to them, or remote research as indicated above. Similarly, research collaborations can also serve to place risks and ethical considerations on others and avoid taking action on them.
All in all, as indicated in the introduction, research ethics can be seen as a reflective act, in which we evaluate our attitudes and behaviour in research and their impact. Taking care of these considerations not only makes research more legitimate or accountable, more importantly, it makes it more caring and, as indicated by Fujii (2012, p. 722), ‘[w]restling with ethical dilemmas is the price we pay for the privileges we enjoy. It is a responsibility, not a choice, and, when taken seriously, it may be one of the most important benefits we have to offer those who make our work possible.’
* In the print version of this article, the images are erroneously attributed to Chiara Stenico. All the images used in this article were created by Iris Broersma.
- Beauchamp, T. L. (2010). Autonomy and consent. The ethics of consent: Theory and practice, 55-78.
- Bos, J. (2020). Research Ethics for Students in the Social Sciences. Springer Nature. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-48415-6
- Curran, S. R. (2006). Research Ethics are Essential: Ethical Considerations for Research in Cross- Cultural Settings. A Handbook for Social Science Field Research: Essays & Bibliographic Sources on Research Design and Methods, 197.
- Fujii, L. A. (2012). Research Ethics 101: Dilemmas and Responsibilities. PS: Political Science & Politics, 45(4), 717–723. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096512000819
- González-López, G. (2011). Mindful ethics: Comments on informant-centered practices in sociological research. Qualitative Sociology, 34, 447-461.
- KNAW, NFU, NWO, TO2-Federatie, Vereniging Hogescholen, & VSNU. (2018). Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity [Application/pdf]. Data Archiving and Networked Services (DANS). https://doi.org/10.17026/DANS-2CJ-NVWU
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- Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples (Second edition). Zed Books.