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Protecting researchers

When assessing the research plan on ethical grounds attention is rightly paid to protecting the subjects of research, such as the people answering questions or participating in experiments. It is equally important to protect you as the researcher from any risks that might exist.

There are two research settings where you need to consider your own safety:

  • Gathering data from or about people, such as interviewing, and
  • Working on experiments in a laboratory, and/or where substances should be treated with care, as with drug trials. This is something much more likely to effect health care workers than social workers.

Gary Craig, Anne Corden and Patricia Thornton at the University of Surrey have produced a useful Safety in Social Research 'Update' report (2000).

Contacts with people

There is some risk to you whenever you are outside a protective environment. Sometimes the risks are known and widely understood, for example if you wish to interview people with a history of mental instability. Others are more a matter of 'on-the-spot' judgement, though if you are a woman you may be more aware of the kinds of situations in which you are potentially vulnerable.

Interviewing people in their own homes, in particular, introduces an element of risk to the personal safety of researchers. Frequently researchers go to interview respondents alone and sometimes out of office hours. The nature of research is such that often they have minimal information about respondents before calling on them, perhaps only their name, address and telephone number and that they fall within the scope of the research.

Some professional researchers, for example those in market research, are required to just knock on people's doors 'cold'. Such an approach is not recommended unless arrangements have been made and are in operation to safeguard the personal safety of researchers. Even then it is worth asking yourself whether you could obtain your data by other means and at less possible risk to yourself.

Your social work training will give you a good background in coping with threatening situations and it is important that you apply this to your data collection activities. Always remember that your safety is paramount. Personal safety experts recommend that you rely on your instincts and if you feel that you are in danger then you should get out quickly.

Many research organisations have safety policies for staff who visit people in their own homes, which are partly about how you should behave, and partly about having some backup which will come into operation if things go wrong. Here is an example of a policy developed and implemented by a university research unit in consultation with a police crime prevention officer.

Illustration of safety suggestions
This is a unit where there are a number of researchers, so group support is possible - as you read through consider whether you could or should set up comparable arrangements with your colleague group.

1. Safety Files

  • Within the unit, one person should have responsibility for compiling and keeping up to date a 'safety file' for each researcher.
  • Files are to be kept in a place accessible to all staff at all times. All staff to be informed of where the files will be kept.
  • Each file will contain:
    • the name, home address and telephone number of the researcher;
    • a brief description of the researcher - gender, height, date of birth, skin colour; - a recent photograph;
    • details of the researcher's car - registration number, make model and colour;
    • details of next of kin (if researcher agrees). It will be the responsibility of each researcher to notify any changes to the member of staff responsible for maintaining the files.

2. Arrangements for interviewing

  • Agree with a colleague that he or she will be 'on call' for you during the time of your interview(s). This will apply both during and outside office hours.
  • Make sure that the colleague has full details of the name and address of the person(s) you will be visiting, their address, telephone number and any other information that does not conflict with undertakings of confidentiality.
  • Ensure that the colleague also has details of where you will be after the interview (during office hours) or your home address and telephone number or other location (outside office hours). In both cases, make sure the colleague has details of the registration number, make, model and colour of the car you will be using for the interview. Ensure that you have the telephone number on which the colleague can be contacted.
  • Arrange with the colleague that you will telephone him or her when you arrive back at your office (office hours) or when you arrive home or at the home of a relative or friend (outside office hours).
  • Agree a time after which, if you have not contacted the colleague, he or she will telephone the police.
  • If you are delayed for a reason that you do not consider threatening, telephone the colleague to let him or her know of your revised anticipated time of arrival.
  • If you have any reason to believe that a respondent (or anyone else present at the interview location) might present a risk of aggression/violence, then arrange to be accompanied.

(All staff at this unit are offered personal safety alarms, have access to a mobile telephone, are advised to carry phonecards and change for a public telephone, and have access to a resource file containing, for example, advice relating to safe car parking).

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