Ethical Responsibilities

After rather a lot of filling in of forms, my research got ethical approval a couple of weeks ago. This sort of approval is necessary to stop the kind of terrible research which used to take place with complete and utter disregard for the participants (usually known as subjects to minimise the fact that they were human), so the forms need to be waded through for good reason. What I was struck by was how much of the approval is about how the information, data, material will be collected and how little consideration is given to what might be done with it.

Most university ethics departments insist on some sort of anonimisation of interview transcripts, which is intended to protect the respondents. This usually involves taking out names and any other key information which could mean that the person could be identified by a reader, so if I use a synonym instead of a participant’s real name and then mention that they prefer the view from their bedroom at Buckingham Palace to that at Sandringham, I haven’t really done my bit. But making something anonymous is more complicated than just replacing key words. The amount and type of information which needs to be changed depends on the particular research and the participants. This means that making information anonymous can only ever go so far. In the case of my research if someone tells me their highly unique life story, it might be difficult to present that in its entirety without others who knew then being able to work out that its their story.

Their are other problems with this sort of ethical practice. Some participants don’t want their stories to be anonymous; they want their name on their work, so to speak. If they give what is often called informed consent to have their words attributed to their name, perhaps researchers should not be too worried. After all, research which is political in nature or deals with stories of resistance, for instance, might attract people who want their stories to be told so they can contribute to wider debates. And that must surely be their right. But what happens if their situation changes and revealing their identity is no longer the most apt thing to do? Should researchers insist on anonymity to protect participants from their future selves, perhaps? This is not an easy question to answer as one way seems to deny people the right to decide for themselves, and puts the researcher in the position of ‘the one who knows better’, and the other way does leave open the possibility for participants to regret their actions and cause potential embarrassment or worse.

So, much effort is made to try to help people understand what is involved in taking part in research. But it seems to me we might take this a little further. There is little to say how researchers might analyse the information, and few if any restrictions. Once ‘gathered’, this ‘data’ seems to be, in the eyes of the ethics department, the sole possession of the researcher. For many, this is unproblematic, but for those researchers who take the view that interviews are co-constructed, that is, the participants have a key role in creating the ‘data’, should they not be allowed to have a say about how it is later discussed, or analysed?

Perhaps, then, the involvement of participants should not stop when the interview does. Academic research might adopt some of the forms of interactive discussion which journalism has undergone, where articles are open for comments. Many researchers have done this by writing about their research in public spaces, such as blogs. Others have taken the step of asking participants to comment on drafts of chapters. While there may be no space for this on an ethical approval form, knowing that ‘they’ will read what ‘we’ write is perhaps the right ethical direction.