Themes in Research: A Preview on Ethics
Ethics in human research is a deep ocean of ideas, practices, and norms. Multiple books, papers, dissertations and research have added to this vast area of knowledge. My purpose is not to add any insight to this sea of discourse; but rather to briefly outline what ethics is in research and probe some of the main touchstones for qualitative, quantitative and mixed research methods that have already been highlighted in multiple pieces of literature. As a topic that speaks to me; I find it important to keep ethical standpoints in the forefront of my knowledge base as I move forward in my academic career.
What is Ethics?
Defining ethics for the purpose of this discussion will be shortsighted, however, a brief overview is necessary to initiate this dialogue. In its simplest terms, ethics in human research is “The application of moral rules and professional codes of conduct to the collection, analysis, reporting, and publication of information about research subjects, in particular active acceptance of subjects’ right to privacy, confidentiality, and informed consent.” (Dictionary of Sociology, n.d.; Encyclopedia.com, n.d.; 2020). While I do not plan on unpacking all parts of this definition, it is important to note that it covers a very broad scope and is intended to blanket all aspects of research.
In Qualitative Research
Johnson and Christenson’s (2014) definition of qualitative research outlines that it “…relies on the collection of qualitative data (i.e., nonnumerical data such as words and pictures) …” (p. 33). This type of research can be ethically challenging because of the innately personal and interpretive nature of qualitative data. An example of this can be seen in any type of evaluation research, where “…determining the worth, merit or quality…” (Johnson & Christenson, 2014, p. 10) in the researcher’s focus and results. Since the research is engaged in looking at human behaviours or personal perceptions this creates highly sensitive and personal information that would be confidential in nature. However, multiple steps, such as ensuring anonymity and confidentiality that are built into ethical guidelines by government agencies like the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research in Canada (2016), work to negate these confounding factors for researchers and subjects alike.
In Quantitative Research
“Quantitative research involves studies in which the data that are analyzed are in the form of numbers” (Drew et.al., 2008, p. 69). Numerical analysis, while seemingly objective can have ethical concerns. The quantitative study can have all the key elements of experimental design, or it can be non-experimental in design (Johnson & Christenson, 2014). Any type of research must be carried out with great care and attention paid to equity, quantitative methods are no exception. The ethical issues may arise in the case of an experimental design study which entails the manipulation of an independent variable (something that is theorized to cause change) and the effect that manipulation has on a dependant variable (something that is theorized to be susceptible to the independent variable). An experimental group would receive an intervention/manipulation, but the control group would not. The comparison of the outcomes of these two groups are then analyzed (Johnson & Christenson, 2014).
The ethical questions come into play when we consider experimental research with human beings and the assignment of individuals to one group that will receive treatment (intervention) and other individuals to another group who will not get the treatment (control group). Is it fair to let a group of individuals not have the privilege of an intervention we hypothesize would help them or in the opposite case; apply treatment top a group we theorize would harm them? In many cases, it would be unethical to manipulate said variable and study the effects. Johnson and Christensen (2014) give the example of finding a causal relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, pointing out that it would be unethical to conduct a purely experimental study to find this relationship (Johnson & Christenson, 2014). One would have to force an experimental group of non-smokers to smoke cigarettes and compare medical outcomes to that of the non-smoking control group. This would be unethical because you are knowingly causing harm to individuals. Instead, researchers use many creative methods to ensure ethics are in place. Including, using both qualitative and quantitative data to come to conclusions.
In Mixed Methods Research
As its name implies, mixed methods research is a combination of both qualitative and quantitative designs; and because of this, mixed methods research falls prey to the same ethical dilemmas that its component parents do. Are the recruitment processes fair and equitable; do power relationships need to be addressed; what are the cultural impacts; are there considerations for vulnerable populations; are there negative impacts of your research? These are all examples of questions that a researcher must answer to obtain approval from research institutions like Royal Roads University (Royal Roads University. n.d.). These measures help researchers and institutions protect their subjects from harm; that in the not so distant past; happened far too often.
Milgram’s obedience study (Milgram, 1963) and the Stanford prisoner experiment (Haney et al., 1973) are two high profile examples of mixed methods research that failed to protect their subjects. In both these psychological studies; participants were asked to perform tasks that; after the fact; harmed them psychologically (Baumrind, 1964). If today’s ethics policies had been more solidly in place, then those studies would have been designed very differently.
Conducting research; especially involving fellow human beings is a privilege and a responsibility. It is my hope that any individual embarking down this road takes more than just a cursory read of the ethics in research literature and develops a thoughtful and extensive evaluation of the best practices and problems concerning ethics in research. Thankfully, institutes of research such as universities, adopt rigorous policies and procedures for ensuring the ethical treatment of subject being studied (Royal Roads University, n.d.). Beyond that, the Canadian government has standards in ethical research as well (Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research, 2016). There is a responsibility for researchers to tackle the inequalities and injustices of our world; not add to them.
Baumrind, D. (1964). Some thoughts on ethics of research: after reading milgram’s “behavioral study of obedience.”. American Psychologist, 19(6), 421–423. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0040128
Dictionary of Sociology. Retrieved July 10, 2020 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/research-ethics
Drew, C. J., Hardman, M. L. & Hosp, J. L. (2008). Ethical issues in conducting research. In Drew, C. J., Hardman, M. L., & Hosp, J. L. Designing and conducting research in education (pp. 55-80). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781483385648
Johnson, R.B. & Christensen, L. (2014). In Educational research: quantitative, qualitative, and mixed approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371–378. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0040525Royal
Roads University. (n.d.). Ethics – For Students.
Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research (Canada), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, & Canadian Institutes of Health Research. (2016). Tri-agency framework, responsible conduct of research. Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2017/crr-rcr/RR4-1-2016-eng.pdf.