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Becoming an ethical researcher
Becoming an ethical researcher

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1.1 Ethical decision-making

The first step in ethical decision-making is awareness and sensitivity to ethical issues and complexities. Each research context is unique, but you can still learn to anticipate key ethical issues.

If you are a new researcher, you may be wondering how to be sure what exactly an ethical choice might be. You may be wondering where to find a code of practice or set of ethical guidelines, and whether these apply in every context. What happens when there are difficult situations or when values clash?

Looking at the stories behind the research of others is one way to develop ethical awareness. In this course, you will hear from diverse researchers who have carried out studies with people across different research settings, discussing why their research matters and what issues and choices arose along the way. You will consider both real and hypothetical situations a researcher might face and have chances to apply ethical reasoning.

Looking at guidelines and ethical frameworks is another way to learn about issues that might arise. In this course, you will learn how professional associations such as the British Psychological Society, the British Educational Research Association and the Association of Internet Researchers produce ethical guidelines for researchers to uphold, and why they regularly review guidelines to adapt to changes in society.

Now read Case study 1.1, which you will discuss at a later stage.

Case study 1.1 Community youth group: proposal to research extremism

Imagine you are part of a youth group in a close-knit local community. You have grown up in the area, have wide networks and have become a respected peer leader and youth leader, encouraging others to speak up and be part of the community. You are doing an undergraduate degree part-time and are passionate about making a difference to others and giving marginalised young people a voice.

You pick up from casual conversations and online posts that some members of the youth group, who are your friends and neighbours, are becoming increasingly influenced by extremist views directed against new community members. A hate crime has occurred in a neighbourhood street and has been reported in the press. Community tensions are running high after many years of harmony. You are concerned that younger youth club members might be drawn into extremist views.

You want to gather information and understand why and how the ideas are spreading. You want to make use of your analytical skills to do some research in your own setting. You are aware this is sensitive and important.

In Activity 2, you will think about balancing the risks and benefits when planning research.

Activity 2 Should you or shouldn’t you… research extremism?

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes

Reflect on Case study 1.1 by responding to the following prompts:

Think about:

  • Is this research important?
  • What is unique about this context? What else would you like to know about this context?
  • What is unique about this researcher’s position?
  • What is the power relationship of the peer youth leader? How easy will it be for the young people to refuse consent to take part in any research?
  • What are the risks and benefits of conducting research in this context?
  • Would you advise the youth leader to plan research or not to research at all? Why or why not?
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You might have wanted to know more about how the group is viewed beyond its immediate community and reflect on its history and membership, which might involve consulting more widely to understand how it is perceived and additional issues you would need to bear in mind beyond those with which you were already familiar. You also might want to speak to other researchers who have examined this topic to take their advice, based on their experiences, of how to anticipate and minimise risks in order to achieve the benefits you hope for.

Becoming an ethical researcher means being prepared to weigh up risk, revise plans and apply ethical decision-making to all stages of the research process.

In this session, you will have a chance to focus on how the context and topic of research relates to ethical complexities, and to ask why it is justifiable to carry out social science research. You will start to map out the terrain of ethical thinking and consider the questions you need to ask in order to confront the challenges of ethical research.

Becoming an ethical researcher involves a long-term commitment and a heightened sense of awareness.

This course is based on the key principles of ethical education according to Rest (1982), where developing sensitivity, reasoning, motivation and implementation are separate stages in becoming an ethical researcher.

This goes beyond a set of rules or a checklist created by someone else. It is about taking both a personal and a professional responsibility to act ethically and to review ethics in relation to your own and others’ research. It starts with deciding what you want to research.