Ethics and social research – protecting the identity of research participants

This is the second post that I’ve written about ethics as a part of my research. The first post looked at the extent to which my planned methodology didn’t match my experiences in the field. As a part of this blog post I concluded that it’s not enough just to receive ethics approval. Instead, researching ethically is an ongoing process that considers changes in the research environment, interactions between the researcher and those being researched and reflection on what is ethical and what is not.

One element of my approach to ethical research was to give those interview subjects who might be identifiable in my research an opportunity to provide feedback on the way I was presenting them in the research.  In particular, I told these research subjects that any time I used a long-form quote of theirs I would seek their approval, just in case something in the quote was identifiable or strictly confidential. Elsewhere, I would paraphrase comments as part of a wider group of stakeholders and pick key (generally adjective) words that were important in the research.

Based on this commitment, some two weeks before I submitted my PhD thesis, I sent quotes out for approval to all the affected interview respondents.  I waited patiently to hear back from interview respondents and find out whether they were OK with me proceeding with the use of their quotes.  One particular interview respondent came back advising that the quote was accurate but that they weren’t comfortable with it being included.  This was, of course, totally fine. That’s why I had implemented the system in the first place!  However, they then went on to tell me that, given the content of the paper, they weren’t happy with being represented in the results at all.  They also got their manager involved, and suddenly it was looking like all of the interview content from this stakeholder group might be withdrawn as well.  This would have dramatically changed my results, making them less robust.

Luckily, after several emails and phone calls I struck a compromise with the Manager where all mention of the stakeholder group would be removed from the results and discussion section, but where they would remain in the methods section. While this meant there were sections within the Results that are more vague than I would like, it also meant that I could keep the interview content in the research findings.

But for a moment there things were pretty scary. I was stressed and worried not only about my thesis deadline but about the extent to which my (favourite) portion of research might be negatively impacted by interview participants withdrawing their support.  I will admit, too, that I was very frustrated.  I take my ethical obligations very seriously and believed that I had been quite clear with how the information would be presented. And I also felt like I had been punished for trying to do the right thing – if I had gone ahead and submitted the paper as it was the interview respondents would probably never have known.  I spent a day being angry. And then a day being sad. Another day waiting to hear back on whether an earlier compromise would suffice. And another distracted from completing the final chapters.

What I couldn’t get over, however, was a feeling that somehow I had been hard-done by. I was the one who had done the research. I had prepared the paper. I had found something interesting (and just a tad controversial) and now other people were placing road blocks in my way.  Didn’t they owe it to me to be faithful to their own acceptance to be part of the research findings, as was clearly laid out in the participant information sheet?  This went around and around in my head for days.  It made me angry, and then sad, and then exhausted.

Finally, I decided to move past and start writing the methodology section of my research. It was there that I found a simple little statement that changed everything.  In this statement I was reminded that the confidentiality and security of research participants remains of primary importance, and that research should be conducted in such a way that harm to research participants is minimised. It was an important reminder that, even though I have put so much time and effort into my own research, the value of my research is not sufficient enough to negatively impact the lives of my research participants and increase levels of distrust of the academic community.  It provided a valuable lesson that, once again, just because you have undertaken your research ethically doesn’t necessarily mean your ethical duties are complete.


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