Ethics and Educational Research
*an updated version of this resource is available on the BERA website*
|Martyn Hammersley and Anna Traianou
Martyn is Professor of Educational and Social Research at the Open University.
|Anna is Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London
It is not uncommon, in planning research or in carrying it out, for the question to arise: Is this ethical? Similar questions may be prompted when reading accounts of other people’s research. Here are a few examples:
- In designing a project concerned with investigating racist practices within schools, the researcher believes that only by disguising the focus of enquiry will access be granted. Would she be justified in doing this?
- In the course of a piece of practitioner research concerned with improving the operation of a prison education unit, its manager decides to allocate prisoners randomly to two tutors, whom he trains to teach in contrasting pedagogical styles. Is this legitimate?
- Studying provision for students with disabilities in further education, a researcher is faced by a young adult with severe learning difficulties who demands to be included in the research project, along with fellow members of the class, even though her parents have already refused on her behalf. What should be the researcher’s response?
- In writing up a study of three nurseries, the researcher realises that his analysis is likely to be interpreted by parents and the local media as suggesting that one of these nurseries does not meet current inspection standards. Should he proceed to publish the findings?
- During the course of investigating induction processes in a military training establishment, a researcher witnesses what she feels was severe bullying of a new recruit by two of the staff. She documents what occurred, interviews the people involved, and discusses the incident at length in the research report. But should she have intervened at the time to try to stop it; or, if this was not possible, should she have abandoned the research and immediately publicised what had happened?
Several distinct ethical principles or issues can be involved in dilemmas of this kind, and it is important to identify them clearly.
Commonly recognised principles include:
- Harm. Is a research strategy likely to cause harm, and is there any way in which such harm could be justified or excused? Note that harm here could include not just consequences for the people being studied but for others too, and even for any researchers investigating the same setting or people in the future.
- Autonomy. Does the research process display respect for people in the sense of allowing them to make decisions for themselves, notably about whether or not to participate? This principle is often seen as ruling out any kind of deception, though deception is also sometimes rejected on the grounds that it causes harm.
- Privacy. A central feature of research is to make matters public, to provide descriptions and explanations that are publicly available. But what should and should not be made public?
- Reciprocity. Researchers depend upon being allowed access to data, and this may involve people cooperating in various ways; for example, giving up time in order to be interviewed or to fill in a questionnaire. The research process can also disrupt people’s lives in various ways. Given this, what, if anything, should participants reasonably expect in return from researchers; and what should researchers offer them? Should experimental subjects or people being interviewed be paid?
- Equity. It may be argued that the various individuals and groups that a researcher comes into contact with in the course of research should be treated equally, in the sense that no-one is unjustly favoured or discriminated against.
These principles do not exhaust all of the ethical concerns relevant to educational research, but they are probably the main ones.
There is now quite a large literature on ethics in educational research, and a much larger one relating to social scientific work generally. Some of these sources are intended to be fairly comprehensive, others are focused on particular aspects of the research process, the use of specific data collection methods (such as those relying on the internet and visual data), the investigation of particular kinds of research context, or the issues that can occur in working with some sorts of people (for example, those who are judged especially vulnerable, or those who have considerable economic or political power). These literatures also display a range of views about how ethical issues should be approached.
Selective bibliography on ethics in educational and social research
There is also, of course, a huge philosophical literature on ethics generally, not specifically in relation to research. Some of this analyses key ethical concepts; some is concerned with exploring different general ways of thinking about ethics; and some is concerned with so-called ‘applied ethics’, in other words with using philosophical ideas to explore troubling public issues of various kinds that have an ethical dimension.
The philosophical literature on ethics
We believe that in some discussions about research ethics there is a tendency to oversimplify the issues involved, and to underestimate the scope for reasonable disagreement about them.
In what follows, we will outline several potential sources of disagreement
Conflict among the principles
A first point is that the five principles we outlined above sometimes conflict, and this means that they may have to be weighed against one another. For example, in order to minimise potential harm to those we judge to be vulnerable, we may infringe their personal autonomy by insisting that others, those who know them well, must give permission on their behalf if they are to participate in a research project. Alternatively, if we insist that they have the sole right to make the decision about their participation, so as to respect their autonomy, we may be unwittingly subjecting them to risk of harm that could otherwise be avoided. The potential conflicts among this set of principles carries the implication that sometimes an action will be ethical in one respect and unethical in another. These conflicts also raise the question of whether some ethical principles are so important that they should never be compromised in this way. But, if so, which ones, and why? One source of disagreement here, though not the only one, is cultural variation. Cultures differ in the priority they give to particular ethical principles and issues; for example in the weight they assign to individual autonomy as against loyalty to the group. At the same time, there can also be considerable variation in weight given to particular ethical principles within any particular culture.
Each of the five principles can be subject to somewhat different interpretations that are open to dispute. There are questions, for example, about what counts as harm. In the context of medical research this might include damaging people’s health, and there would probably be a reasonably wide consensus that this should be avoided if at all possible. However, the matter is rarely so straightforward in the context of social research (in fact, it is rarely straightforward even in medical research). Let us imagine a situation in which someone loses her or his job partly as a result of the findings of a study. This is clearly a serious matter. But does this outcome constitute harm caused by research? It would probably be viewed like this by the person who was sacked, at least in the short term. But might others view it as of benefit, for example because the reason for dismissal was that this person had been shown to be abusing her position? Would that protect the research from the accusation of causing harm? We might also ask how direct a role the research played in bringing about dismissal. Was it the key factor, or did it only hasten what would probably have happened anyway? Does this, should this, make any difference to our judgment about whether the researcher acted ethically?
Let us consider a rather different example: people may be distressed because of the way they are portrayed in a research report. Does this constitute harm? And, if it does, is it a sort or level of harm that researchers should seek to avoid? The second of these questions indicates that harm is a matter of degree. And we can also talk of degrees to which someone’s autonomy or privacy have been infringed, as well as degrees of exploitation or inequity. Needless to say, there is scope for reasonable disagreement in judgments about what are greater or lesser infringements of the five ethical principles. For example, are material consequences for someone’s livelihood more serious than reputational harm or psychological distress?
The five principles we outlined do not usually relate just to our dealings with one person at a time, or even one homogeneous group of people at a time. Often several people, and types of people, are implicated in the decisions that researchers make, and one or more of the principles may be relevant to each of them. This is true not only in relation to a researcher’s interactions with various categories and groups of people in the field, but also includes others too: fellow members of a research team, colleagues and managers in the institution or organisation where the researcher works, funding bodies of various kinds, gatekeepers, and various further kinds of ‘stakeholder’. These multiple relations may generate ethical dilemmas, in terms of one or more ethical principle.
Furthermore, ethics is not just about how one deals with those specific people with whom one has direct contact. Research can affect people more generally. For example, a study could damage the public reputation of a large organisation, a particular occupation, community group, or national society, and thereby the interests of those involved in it. These broader relations may also have to be taken into account.
Finally, it is worth raising the question of whether a researcher has ethical responsibilities as regards her or his own moral character, emotional security, personal safety, etc. These relate, of course, not just to researchers as individuals but also to the various other roles which they play (including as kin, friends, etc) outside of research.
The research goal
We have outlined some of the complexities that may be involved in making judgments about the ethics of particular research strategies, as regards the implications for other people, and for the researcher as a person. However, it is very important to recognise that values do not enter the research process only in relation to our obligations and responsibilities to others, or even as regards the researcher as a person. In fact, some value or values must underpin the research enterprise itself, and also the selection of particular issues for investigation. This implies a rather wider interpretation of the scope of research ethics than is usual: judgments about what is and is not ethical practice must depend upon what is taken to be the goal of educational research, who is its audience, and how it is intended to relate to policy or practice.
In our view, the first responsibility of the researcher is to pursue worthwhile enquiry as effectively as possible. But what this means can vary sharply, given the considerable diversity in approach within educational research today, and especially given differences over what its goal should be. For example, it makes a difference whether the purpose of research is to contribute to knowledge about important educational topics, or whether it is to bring about some kind of educational improvement or to promote social justice. Furthermore, the values that underpin the research goal may themselves have ethical implications about how people should be treated. One example is that researchers who adopt a ‘critical’ perspective that is concerned with bringing about emancipation of some kind may feel that ethical considerations should be applied quite differently in their dealings with those they regard as oppressed as against those they see as responsible for, or at least implicated in, that oppression. Similarly, if research is to contribute directly to educational improvement, then the decisions that the researcher makes in the field will be shaped by pedagogical considerations not just those that relate to the pursuit of knowledge per se; and there may be conflict between these two sets of goals. This is particularly true where researchers are operating under the auspices of some other role as well as that of researcher, as for example in the case of practitioner research. This other role is likely to affect their judgments about what would and would not be ethical. Indeed, some priority may have to be given to one role over the other.
In our view, the prime ethical responsibility of the researcher is to pursue worthwhile knowledge; no other goal should be substituted for this, nor should it be compromised by other concerns unless this is ethically required in dealings with other people. Moreover, there may need to be resistance against attempts to impose excessive ethical or practical requirements that make it impossible to carry out the research effectively. This is, of course, a contentious point of view.
What weight researchers give to each of the five ethical principles outlined earlier and how they interpret them, in relation to the various people implicated, is also likely to vary according to the particular circumstances in which they are making judgments. Furthermore, how various problems arise, and one’s orientation towards them, may well change over the course of the research process. For example, in some kinds of research it is likely that researchers will come to know some of the people they are working with quite well. This will inevitably, and perhaps to an extent should, affect how they deal with them, at least to some degree and in some respects.
It is also important to remember that it is not just the researcher who will engage in judgments about the priority and interpretation of various ethical principles, but also those he or she deals with in the field, and others too. Moreover, these people will usually be situated differently, and it is not uncommon for this to lead them to reach rather different conclusions from the researcher. This leads to various questions: What weight should be given to the ethical judgments of others, and whose responsibility is it to judge what is and is not ethical research practice? Our view is that the prime responsibility should always lie with the researchers, but they would be foolish to ignore others’ judgments about these matters.
An important element of the situated nature of judgment is that the concerns that inform researchers’ actions will by no means be solely ethical ones. Also involved are what we might call prudential matters: about what it would be most sensible to do given our goals and given what we want to avoid or minimise. And the constraints here will include the actual or likely reactions of other people, including those informed by their ethical judgments.
Above all, the situated nature of practical decision-making within research makes clear that sound judgments about what it is best to do cannot be made simply by following instructions or applying rules. In this respect, and others, research is a form of praxis; in other words, it is an activity in which there must be continual attention to methodological, ethical, and prudential principles and their implications in the particular circumstances faced.
As we have said, in our view the researcher, or research team, must take responsibility for these decisions; and this implies that they must be free make to them. This inevitably implies that occasionally researchers may make what others judge to be seriously wrong decisions, and perhaps even decisions that they themselves come greatly to regret. The likelihood of ethical misconduct can be reduced by wider and more careful discussion of the practicalities of research, including the ethical issues that arise in the course of doing it. However, there is no way of eliminating all error, for example by applying some code, set of rules, or all-purpose tool. Indeed, attempting this can have quite the reverse effect.
There have nevertheless been attempts to find some tool for dealing with ethical issues, of which the most influential has been the consent form. And this is at the core of recent developments in ethical regulation of social and educational research.
Contracts providing for informed consent
A common strategy used by researchers is to gain informed consent via a consent form which lays out what will be involved in the research, and the rights and responsibilities each side has. While informed consent is an important principle that addresses, in particular, the issue of respecting people’s autonomy, it is not a simple concept, nor does it offer any blanket solution to ethical problems. Much the same is true of other, less common, strategies; such as assigning rights over interview data to informants or including them as full participants in the research process.
Fully informed, free consent?
In recent times, there has been increasing regulation of social and educational research. Initially, this took the form of ethical codes established by professional associations, with universities and other research organisations sometimes requiring their members to adhere to these codes. In most cases, however, there was no policing. More recently, the remit of ethics committees in universities, and in other organisations, most notably in the health field, has been extended to include psychological, social, and educational research. Moreover, there has been a tendency for the operation of these committees to be modelled on the regulation of medical research, though there have also been recent attempts to make the approach more appropriate. This increased regulation is controversial, not least because of the complexities surrounding the ethical judgments involved in research that we have outlined here. There are also questions to be raised about the legitimacy of ethics committees, and about the effects of their operation: do they encourage more and better dialogue about ethical matters; or do they, in effect, falsely reduce ethical consideration to a matter of compliance with a code or to the use of a tool like a consent form?
Literature on ethical regulation
How serious are ethical issues in educational research?
Our discussion may well have given the impression that the activity of doing research is riven with agonising ethical dilemmas. It is certainly true that any research project involves many potential ethical issues. However, these are by no means always very serious matters about which researchers need to deliberate. Our view is that there is often a tendency to over-dramatise the seriousness of the ethical problems involved in social and educational research. Much of the time this research has relatively little significance for the people being studied, compared with all the other things going on in their lives. Indeed, it seems to us that, in ethical terms, social and educational research is not much different from many ordinary activities that we all engage in every day. There is always scope for identifying ethical issues that might need consideration. Much of the time these will have to be put on one side in order to get anything done, but some of them will be of such importance that they need to be addressed.
It certainly seems to us that the sorts of ethical issues that arise in doing social and ethical research do not usually have the same level of seriousness as those involved in, say, carrying out randomised trials on the effectiveness of medical treatments. Here, the consequences for those being researched are likely to be potentially much more severe, though the benefits may also be greater. Indeed, we do not believe that even randomised controlled trials of educational interventions involve the same level of serious problems; though, as in the case of educational action research, there will always be issues to do with the nature and consequences of the intervention concerned. In our view, generally speaking, research which does not involve any major intervention in the lives of the people being studied is even less likely to generate serious ethical issues. Of course, there will be some occasions when major problems do arise, but in our view these are not very common. Needless to say, our views on this matter are far from universally shared by educational researchers or other stakeholders. However, this fact simply underscores what has been our main point here: that there is considerable room for reasonable disagreement about research ethics.
|How to reference this page:
||Hammersley, M. and Traianou, A. (2007) Ethics and Educational Research. London: TLRP. Online at http://www.tlrp.org/capacity/rm/wt/traianou (accessed