Assessing ethical issues
There are three items on the ethical agenda for a research project:
- Protecting research subjects
- Standards of research behaviour
- Risk of discrimination
1. Protecting research subjects
The central theme here is about the right of an individual to know
that he/she is participating in a research project, and has given informed
consent to being a research subject. This includes being fully informed
of what participation involves, and any possible effects it will have.
Two difficulties arise about this principle, both of which may be found
in social work research. One is when a person has access in a professional
capacity to the people whom he/she wishes to use as research subjects,
and is tempted either to conceal the research role, or to let it be
intentionally confused with the professional role. This is not always
clear cut and easy to handle. Take, for example, the situation in which
you wish to use, for research purposes, some detailed notes you gathered
in a professional capacity about some recent patients/service users.
Should you make an attempt to contact those individuals and ask if
things told to you in confidence as a social worker can be used for
research? How old should records be before the responsibility to contact
the subjects evaporates?
The other difficulty surrounds people who may not be in a position
to give informed consent, such as those who are mentally confused or
have a learning disability. Indeed, they may have some difficulty in
communication, but are still potential subjects for an observation-based
project. In what circumstances is it justifiable to go ahead? The researcher's
position in these circumstances is eased if the individual has a recognised
advocate who can be consulted. A carer can also be helpful. Occasionally
the researcher may not have the skill to communicate with the subject,
but someone else is able.
There is another challenge for research in the caring services, and
that arises because many of the research subjects may have problems
with which they need help. What is the researcher's responsibility if,
as part of the research, a respondent identifies or seeks help for a
problem which the researcher feels ought to receive attention? This
dilemma is particularly acute where the researcher is also a caring
professional, such as a social worker, nurse or doctor. Putting on the
professional hat and offering help is a very human response, but can
throw the research into disarray. It is usually better, unless there
is real urgency, to offer to refer the person on to the appropriate
2. Standards of research behaviour
When researchers are undertaking a project which involves making contact
with people by knocking on the doors of their homes or accosting them
in public places, they are usually equipped with a letter or identity
card asserting their authenticity. It is also common practice to notify
the local police that research is being undertaken. The reason for this
is that the research process often involves gaining access to people's
confidence and their homes, and hence is something which is open to
abuse for dishonest purposes. It is important for researchers to take
such actions as are needed to establish and maintain their integrity.
Within the context of the research itself there are also behavioural
standards to be upheld. If promises of confidentiality are given, they
should be kept, as should all other commitments made to research subjects.
The opportunity presented by the research should not be exploited for
other purposes, such as for selling something. Many of us will have
experienced being contacted ostensibly for research purposes, say for
home insulation, only to discover that in reality someone is trying
to sell double glazing. This brings research into disrepute. Lastly,
we have an important responsibility to the research community to be
as honest and objective as possible in the way the research is carried
out, and in the conclusions which are drawn and presented. There are
examples of researchers giving in to temptation to 'pep up' what they
see as rather dull findings (this, after all, is standard journalistic
practice), or distorting findings which they do not like.
3. Risk of discrimination
A challenge to research is to keep firmly in mind and take action to
overcome the risk of minorities being excluded from research processes.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the difficulty in many research
projects in accommodating to research subjects who do not possess mainstream
communication skills, possibly because they are dependent on non-verbal
communication like sign language, or because they speak a minority language.
In general researchers need to be aware that membership of an ethnic
minority or having a disability does place people at risk of being excluded
from a research project, and this in turn can distort and invalidate
the results of the project because of the bias which is introduced.
Research which seeks general validity needs to ensure that respondents
represent a balanced sample of the population as a whole.