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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 service.

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.

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