Ethics in Social Science Research: Common Challenges

by Kalina Zhekova (Politics Pathway, University of Leeds). Kalina is a student representative on a cross-Faculty Research Ethics Committee at the University of Leeds.

The Ethical review process can seem daunting especially in the first year of PhD, but it can also be particularly useful in learning how to communicate our research to a broader audience, summarising its key aspects (and deciding what they are!) and clarifying some of the details in methodology and recruitment strategy. In fact, some PhDs have found the process of going through ethical review beneficial to the later stages of their research:

‘I was encouraged to think through the ethics of my research (interviewee attribution, consent) and how to explain my research, its purpose and my methods to a non expert committee (as in they are not in my discipline). All of this was useful for me. In particular having gone through it in advance of contacting my participants, meant that when I did go to contact them I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted from them, how to communicate my research to them (I had after all had to draft letters, info and consent sheets) and what assurances I could offer them about the risks.’       (Leeds PhD Candidate)

esrc4However, ethics in research does not end with obtaining ethical approval from the respective committee and involves thinking about the way disseminating research results can affect participants, the necessity of keeping participants informed of any relevant risks and understanding the subtle differences between confidentiality and anonymity (among others).

a) Recruiting elite participants

One of the challenges often faced by researchers in the social sciences is the difficulty in recruiting elite participants.

This can be experienced particularly when aiming to recruit participants from a country other than the researcher’s country of origin, involving language and cultural barriers. Some researchers have found it useful to learn a few phrases in the local language or dialect (if previously unknown to them) so that they can include a few sentences to introduce themselves with or a common phrase for greeting/goodbye in the target language as part of their recruitment materials. It also works well at the start of an interview, as an ‘ice-breaker’. In terms of dealing with cultural barriers, it is always helpful to establish good contacts with relevant local institutions and persons in advance so that they can provide local support and advice before and during fieldwork.

Another common way to address the challenge of recruiting elite participants with limited availability is by relying on a ‘snowball’ strategy, i.e. identifying future participants by referral from existing interviewees.  Although many researchers have found this sampling method useful, an important aspect to be aware of when relying on snowballing, especially for projects involving sensitive issues, is the possibility of deductive disclosure. This means that in some cases, the identity of participants can still be disclosed, although if anonymised, mainly due to the content of the information found in the public realm. It can happen when recruiting from a limited pool of participants or including participants known to each other, as the snowballing strategy suggests, and when combined with content that only few individuals within an organisation can comment upon.

Experienced researchers recommend seeking participants for a follow-up on a draft of a planned publication that could potentially lead to deductive disclosure (e.g. including in/direct quotes, names of organisation(s) or participants’ occupations), making sure that participants are aware of the possible risks and the way they have been anonymised within the research context.

b) Anonymity, Confidentiality and Dissemination

In relation to the above, it is also essential for researchers to provide realistic reassurances to their participants. This often involves clearly understanding the difference between confidentiality and anonymity.

While anonymity usually involves separating participants’ personal details from the data so that their identity cannot be linked with any of the data content or the particular study, confidentiality refers to whether the collected data is made publicly available or not. Keeping data confidential involves limiting its dissemination (even in anonymised form) so researchers are generally advised to provide assurances of anonymity but not confidentiality if they intend to publish some of their data and use direct quotes.

(For more information about differences and limits to confidentiality and anonymity, please refer to this page on the Leeds Research and Innovation website)

c) Vulnerable Groups

Working with participants who are not able to give adequate informed consent is a sensitive issue that needs to be carefully approached by the researcher when recruiting participants with mental disabilities, for example, or children who can only give consent through a parent or carer.

However, some studies involve participants who have a close relationship to the researcher and this can influence their motivation to participate and the right to withdraw (e.g. researcher’s own students or family members). In such cases, all appropriate steps need to be taken to ensure participants’ rights and dignity are maintained throughout the course of research.

Overall, thinking about research in ethics is not about limiting the scope and ambition of your project, but rather, it means being well-informed about how to deal with the ethical issues that arise out of your project, the benefits and risks to both the yourself, as lead researcher and your participants but most of all, it is about how to deliver high quality research in competitive academic environment.