Thesis know-how – reporting on ‘ethics’

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I’ve read a number of theses which take a pretty cursory approach to ethical matters. The most worrying are those that simply make a short statement which reports that the research was approved by the relevant university ethics committee and/or meets the ethical guidelines issued by such and such a learned society.

Now I find this kind of token nodding pretty problematic and I know other thesis examiners do too. As an examiner, I assume that if I have a thesis in front of me then it has already been through the relevant approval processes. I don’t actually need to be told that it has been given the green light. And simply telling me it’s approved really doesn’t do anything – am I expected to know what is in each institutional and learned society ethics approval requirements? Or is this a statement which basically says “It’s none of your business, trust me, it’s all OK because my university has given me the go ahead”… Just saying the thesis has met an unknown set of criteria doesn’t tell an examiner what the researcher has thought about, done and why. I actually know much more about underpinning institutional ethical requirements if the thesis appendix contains the information given to participants and any relevant consent form(s).

Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that I want a general discussion about ethics in every thesis. No. No. Not that at all. Never. As an examiner, I’m absolutely NOT looking for a thesis which does the same work as the institutional Ethics application. I don’t want a tedious plod through the basics of consent, information, considerations of benefits and harm, confidentiality and anonymity and data access/storage requirements. The thesis is not the place for an essay about ethics. Save that for the forms. I’m looking for something else.

I do want to know however what the researcher actually DID and why – and I want it told to me economically and clearly. And then I’m looking for any specific ethical issues that the researcher had to think about at the start of, during and at the end of their research. I’m looking for discussion about any challenging issues that might have arisen. These are likely to be the things that are not as well-captured in those tick-box institutional forms.

Here’s a few entirely random and arbitrary issues I’ve come across recently in theses I’ve examined or looked at. In all cases I would have liked more acknowledgement of, and discussion about them:

(1) What is consent? Is consent simply a form-signing event? There is of course always the right to withdraw, but should people be seen as always in a state of giving consent – in other words, does the researcher have to continue to think about informing participants about what is going on in the research so they continue to agree to participate.

And how does consent apply to the use of data-mining large anonymous tranches of personal digital data? Should people know that twitter data is being used for research purposes and if so, do they have the right to say no to particular people and projects? How would they know? How would they consent?

(2) What is harm? Who should be the arbiter of what constitutes harm? And is it always straightforward? Questions of harm are often very difficult to determine – for example, does NOT asking a question of an interviewee on the grounds that the researcher considers it might be upsetting constitute a denial of the opportunity for the interviewee to make their own mind up whether to answer or not? This is an autonomy versus protection dilemma which often appears in research with children.

(3) Payment. Should people be paid for their participation in research? How much payment would constitute coercion – and how would we know? How can the ‘gift’ of research participants’ time be recognized? Should it?

(4) How to deal with a potentially negative analysis? How does the researcher approach the question of dealing with negative interpretations of the site or participants? How to balance the obligation to truth with that of potential harm? What about the right to be informed? Must the participants always be informed about critical elements of an analysis, and should they have the right to veto elements of the resulting thesis text?

Now, I wasn’t looking in the theses I saw for a standardised conversation about a predetermined set of answers in response to any of these issues. I was looking first of all for a recognition that these WERE ethical issues arising in the particular research. As an examiner, I wanted to know how the researcher understood and then resolved them for their project. I was looking for a bespoke explanation about the very particular ethical issues that had to be taken into account in the specific research project.

it’s about going beyond the forms you see. And the people on institutional Research Ethics committees generally want there to be more than the forms too.

Because questions of power, rights and moral principles underpin research, ‘ethics’ is never a matter of simply meeting institutional requirements. Yes, the form filling has to be done and it’s important, but there is more than this to questions of ethics. Ethics seems to me to be to be about a sensibility, a way of being in the world as a researcher. Ethics is also a way of doing research, it’s about the never-ending development of a research practice, underpinned by commitments to working with and through normative principles held in tension.

So I want to know, in a thesis, whether the researcher has/is this. Ultimately, as a thesis examiner – a gatekeeper of disciplinary and research practices – I want to see that researchers emerge from doctoral education understanding that the conduct of ethical research is often a matter of finding ways to reconcile apparently conflicting principles. I want to see somewhere that they understand that this means they must always watch themselves, their interactions and decisions with an ethical eye. I want to see that the researcher thinks about ethics AFTER their form was approved.

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