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Becoming an ethical researcher
Becoming an ethical researcher

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1.1 Respect when collecting data

Respect is also relevant to the work of researchers even before field work or desk work begins. For example, when finding out what has been already researched to inform the design for new research questions. At this stage, researchers need to be in touch with gatekeepers and partners for necessary permissions or clearance. These are obligations, but they are more than that: they give respect by seeking clearance and by showing that there is transparency and a serious commitment about the purpose of the research, and that people’s time and expertise will be respected.

The first activity is about practicing respect during research. You will think about how a researcher should go beyond fulfilling obligations and build into the research design behaviours that will enable respectful responses to challenges that may occur during the study.

Activity 1 Just a quick chat

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Consider this scenario and reflect on the discussion prompts:

Imagine you are a charity volunteer supporting ‘reading for pleasure’ by reading with small groups of children in a library during the summer holidays. This is your passion as a retired classroom assistant and parent of reluctant readers.

As you are leaving one day, the charity manager asks for a quick chat about what you have learnt about children’s reading preferences and makes notes as you talk. You have been volunteering for three years and have many anecdotal reflections to share. The conversation continues for an hour.

To your surprise, at the end of the chat, the manager mentions a university dissertation research project, but does not elaborate. You feel uncomfortable as you have mentioned many children and their experiences and are unsure what this means, but don’t feel like complaining.

Think about:

  • Why might the chat/interview have been conducted in this way?
  • What might you have felt about this experience and whether you too would have felt uncomfortable?
  • Why might you not have felt like complaining?
  • Suggest alternative approaches to conducting this research.
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Although the scenario in Activity 1 seems like a polite exchange, the example shows a lack of transparency and planning from the manager and a basic lack of respect for ethical principles to both the volunteer, as the individual providing data, and those about whom the volunteer was speaking.

If you were in the shoes of this volunteer, you might feel confused and vulnerable about the mixed messages. On the one hand, having a chat sounds less formal and non-threatening compared to an interview, but the boundaries become blurred when it turns out that the chat was actually a data-gathering exercise. You were not asked for consent or given any information. You don’t know who or what the research is for or where or how your words will be used. Without this information, you can’t evaluate whether you think the study might be useful, or whether the identities of the children you have mentioned will be protected.

You might not like to complain because the manager is in a paid position and invites you into the office: in this context, they have some power in the relationship. You are always willing to share your views and passions about reading, but still don’t like being put on the spot and you were not expecting to give up an hour at no notice.