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Becoming an ethical researcher
Becoming an ethical researcher

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3 Working with sponsors

Described image
Figure 6 Sponsors have influences on research: What are the limits to their power?

Different research designs raise different ethical issues in practice, including: who participates and benefits? Who shall we include and who shall we leave out? Who pays for the research?

When you imagine yourself doing research, do you think of yourself collecting data in person with people, reading documents, observing in a setting or conducting research remotely? The answer to your choice of design and methods, rather than being a preference, should be decided after you have worked on the focus of your research and set a research question or decided to test a particular hypothesis. This will drive which kinds of data are needed to address the question or provide the evidence to test the hypothesis.

In this section you will have chance to consider the ethics of one particular quantitative design: the use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs).

Imagine how reassured you’d be as a patient to know a new treatment such as a vaccine or drug had been properly trialled in a way designed to minimise risk to you. Advocates for RCTs being used in educational settings (Torgerson and Torgerson, 2001) view them as a way to avoid policies, curriculum and practice-focused interventions that might be ineffective, and as a way of offering evidence-based decision-making. Advocates see knowledge as underpinned by rigorous research.

Although there are many overlaps between health and education, the two settings are very different environments for research. It is much more complex to set up true controls in education settings, to administer ‘dosage’ or eliminate bias. This challenges the claims which can be made for findings. Additionally, RCTs raise ethical questions of equity, since a group might not benefit or have their education impeded.

Read this case study asking you to imagine yourself participating in an RCT in England. It's been selected to help you focus on who receives benefits from research as an ethical issue.

Case study 5.2 Participating in randomised control trials

Imagine you are a learning assistant in a secondary/primary school interested in innovation and education research. Your school has been selected to take part in a randomised control trial of an innovative intervention on assessment. Thanks to generous funding of the trial, members of staff will be trained in what are believed to be the most effective ways to provide formative assessment and pupils’ results.

It seems to be good news that this trial is linked to well-known international research on formative assessment with extensive literature seeming to show promising results. You will remember your own schooling and being totally confused by teachers’ comments in red pen marks, such as ‘4 out of 10’. It was never clear what exactly you had to do to improve. As a learning assistant, you have observed differences in the ways in which teachers’ feed back, and it sounds as if your school is fortunate to have been selected.

You attend the training, start using some of the new practices with your learners and you help report the exam data needed. Over a one-year period, you begin to see changes in teachers’ practices from those who had attended training, and the ongoing feedback is positive about the effect on the classroom. However, some members of staff begin to raise ethical objections.

As this is an RCT, the funders insist on comparative quantitative data and a control group. Staff say it is unethical to teach one group of learners with a method that seems to be successful and at the same time deliberately deprive others of this. They also say it is impossible for those who attended training not to share the good ideas with colleagues. Finally, they also do not want to have to meet additional assessment burdens just to generate data needed for the evaluation. During a staff meeting, the senior leaders of the school make suggestions for a way to proceed and ask staff to offer their views.

Activity 5 Issues with RCTs

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes


It benefits some pupils but not others


It is too expensive to put into practice


It is too time-consuming to use the new method of assessment


They want to share good practice, not withhold it


Learning assistants don’t have the same power as teachers

The correct answers are a and d.


The school withdraws from this funded study partway through


The school agrees to continue to provide data to the funder without raising staff reservations


The school offers the trial assessment data from assessments already planned rather than especially designed


The school provides alternative comparative data from a group of equivalent age and attainment children from a previous year taught by the same teacher instead of from a current control group


The funder demands that the school continue on the basis originally agreed without entering into consultation

The correct answers are c and d.


The first option (‘The school withdraws from this funded study partway through’) could also be justifiable if the school have signed a consent form which allows withdrawal during the study.

This activity might have helped you imagine how sponsors can place pressure on researchers through imbalances of power, and the implications of this for implicit as well as explicit expectations on researchers.