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Becoming an ethical researcher
Becoming an ethical researcher

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4.4 An extreme case of research affecting safety

To close this section, you will read and reflect on a true case study about a researcher who faced an extreme situation in the United Arab Emirates.

Case study 5.5 Matthew Hedges

You might have been aware of news items in 2018 about Matthew Hedges. The news media reported how he was a doctoral student at the University of Durham, UK, researching in international affairs and military policy in the Middle East. Following the Arab Spring, he was interested in civil military relations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Alongside his studies he was also a consultant and a cyber intelligence analyst. He had lived in the United Arab Emirates at different times over the previous decades and had senior level contacts.

Matthew was a few months away from finishing his research when he was arrested, his laptop seized, and he was imprisoned for spying. He maintained his innocence but, while being retained in the UEA, signed a confession. After six months of campaigning by his wife and the British government, he was released after diplomatic intervention on a pardon.

Although extreme, this case study is a true example of researcher vulnerability due to external circumstances. It raises issues of duty of care by the university, prior risk assessment, awareness of political sensitivity and academic freedom of expression.

Activity 9 Reflecting on a researcher’s situation

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Think about:

  • What questions would you like to ask Matthew Hedges about his resilience and safety?
  • What questions would you like to ask the university about the support they were able to give to Matthew Hedges before, during and after his experiences?
  • What does this case study show about risk assessment and academic freedom in different parts of the world?
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If you would like to read more about the Matthew Hedges case, see any of the following sources:

Matthew Hedges: Who is the man at the centre of the spy row? [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Matthew Hedges: Academic jailed in UAE for spying ‘failed’ by UK government

Matthew Hedges: Academic ‘psychologically tortured’ in UAE jail

Matthew Hedges affair should be a wake-up call for universities