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Negotiating access

This section moves on to the more practical stages of planning for research, starting with the need to negotiate access for research.

With a very few exceptions (anyone can go to a shopping mall with a clipboard and ask questions) a research project needs permission, or the approval of stakeholders, or must meet criteria for acceptability. Negotiating access is therefore an important early stage in the process.

Legal and organisational aspects

Starting with legislation, the Data Protection Acts 1984 and 1998 seek to ensure that personal information will not be abused. Hence any organisation holding personal information must register the uses to which it is put, which must in turn fit within an acceptable framework. A great many organisations in health and social services, as well as higher education, do register, and state that one use of personal information (which will include, for example, all service user records) is for approved research.

Within the National Health Service all research proposals are scrutinised and must be approved by a locally based Ethical Committee. The primary purpose is to protect patients, so that, for example, they cannot unwillingly or unknowingly have treatments withdrawn or be subjected to new drugs in the name of research. There is no social services equivalent of the Ethical Committee, although the Association of Directors of Social Services does seek to overview and influence research in its sector. For the most part, however, individual social services departments make their own decisions on what research to enable.

Organisations are, in effect, gatekeepers, and it is important to understand the reasons why they will or will not open the gate. Here are some of the usual concerns -

  • information held is confidential
  • promises have been implied or given
  • enabling research takes up staff time and often requires space, like a desk for the researcher.

Organisations recognise the power which comes from being gatekeeper to a desired set of research data or contact addresses. In particular the organisation may have its own research agenda or policy towards research, and any proposal from a researcher may have to fit into this context to be accepted. The organisation may wish to influence -

  • the aims and structure of the project
  • the method
  • the precise location, and possibly;
  • the report arising from the research.

All except the last of these can be seen within the broad process of compromising between the ideal and the possible. Allowing the organisation to influence the content of the report is harder to handle. It is usually good practice to enter into a commitment not to use identifiable names (like people's names) in the report, and to correct factual errors: but the researcher has to resist any attempt to influence the content of research findings and conclusions.

Access to research subjects

Once the institutional framework is in place, there may (if direct personal contact is part of the research plan) still be a need to convince individuals that they should become informants for the research. Why should they participate? Especially in these days of widespread market surveys, many people refuse to join in, so persuasive arguments have to be offered. Anyone being asked to answer questions be interviewed or observed, or join in an experiment can reasonably expect to receive:

  • an explanation of what the research is about and is trying to achieve. Rather than incorporating this as a block of text in a letter, it is usually easier for potential respondents if you set out questions and answers about your research on one side of A4 paper
  • reassurance that the individual will be a much-valued participant
  • credible promises of appropriate confidentiality
  • an indication of the potential value and importance of the project.

The researcher may also want to offer an incentive, such as a follow-up letter giving the results of the study, or a 'thank you' gift. Just occasionally payment is made, especially if the subject is asked to give considerable time or participate in an experiment which could be inconvenient or uncomfortable.

'Response rate', or more accurately the non-response rate, is always a concern to researchers who are gathering data direct from people. Any measure to increase response rate warrants careful consideration, and it is worth bearing in mind that the more personal the approach, the greater is the chance that someone will agree to participate.

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