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Skills for Learning

Research Skills

Overview

All research projects, especially those dealing with people, can raise ethical issues. These issues could include consent, confidentiality, anonymity and legality. Research conducted without human subjects or participants can also raise ethical problems. Researching may bring you into contact with a variety of people and institutions. These could include sponsors, colleagues, professional bodies, employers, consumers and respondents. The needs of different groups may not be easy to balance. They may also conflict with the practical requirements of your method.

Research ethics principles

There are no easy answers to the ethical questions individual researchers might face. However, you must address these issues and explain how you will manage them.

Leeds Beckett University’s Research Ethics Policy (Leeds Beckett University, 2017) document gives detailed information about our institution’s research procedures. These apply to all staff, undergraduate and postgraduate students conducting research. Read this document carefully.

The Research Ethics Policy outlines fourteen principles that researchers should observe. The research should:

  • Benefit society by adding to human knowledge
  • Avoid or minimise harm
  • Give consideration to issues around participation and consent
  • Respect confidentiality and anonymity procedures
  • Ensure that the research outcomes are disseminated appropriately

Booth et al. (1995) offer the following list of ‘don'ts’:

  1. Don’t 'steal' by plagiarising or claiming as your own the work of others
  2. Don’t submit data if you have questions about its accuracy
  3. Don’t misrepresent opposing views

For research conducted for an academic award, there are likely to be specific ethics requirements. Be sure to check what types of approval are needed for your study programme.

Key ethical issues for researchers

The key issues that may raise ethical concerns include:

  1. Relationships with research participants
  2. Covert research
  3. Anonymity, privacy and confidentiality

You should think carefully about how the following issues might affect your research:

  • Your own values (i.e. beliefs or judgements arising from your life experiences).
  • Your biographical details and how these relate to those of your participants.
  • The power dynamics of the research process (i.e. the power you, the researcher, have to define the research agenda).
  • The age and health of the participant(s) – care should be taken not to intrude on participants’ personal lives.
  • Problems associated with covert research (i.e. the fairness of not telling participants you are undertaking research). This is particularly relevant when considering if you need to gain consent from participants.
  • Personal and political interests. This relates to your own and those of any organisation supporting your research.
  • The need to maintain the confidentiality and anonymity of participants.
  • How your research will be used. Who will benefit from it?

You are expected to justify your approach to ethical issues in your written research report. For example, if you undertake covert research, you must give valid reasons for this.

Protecting research participants and others

Where people are involved in your research, you should:

  • Provide them with information about what you are doing
  • Obtain their consent to use the information they provide
  • Record what they say accurately, without distorting the information they provide
  • Ensure that no physical, psychological, social, political or economic harm results from the research
  • Inform them who your supervisor is
  • Offer them feedback
  • Respect their privacy and anonymity
  • Remember to thank them for their co-operation

Outside organisations

Your research may require the co-operation of organisations or individuals outside the University. How you handle these relationships is important for the success of your research. However, it’s also crucial for your reputation and that of the University.

If your research requires involvement from an outside individual/organisation, give them clear details about:

  • Who you are and what you are doing
  • What help you require
  • What guarantees you can make concerning confidentiality and other relevant issues

Sometimes, an outside organisation or sponsor will hope to gain or benefit from the research.

Discuss any written or verbal promises with your supervisor.

Vulnerable participants and informed consent

Some research participants are regarded as vulnerable. In this case, you must give special consideration to protecting their rights. You must also think carefully about whether they are capable of giving ‘informed consent’. Examples of groups usually considered vulnerable include children, the elderly, people with learning difficulties, the terminally ill and people with mental illness.

Sometimes, another person will have authority to give consent on behalf of the vulnerable individual. In the case of children under the age of sixteen, consent from a parent or legal guardian is required. The child should also be informed about the research, however, in an age-appropriate way. Their willingness to participate should be confirmed. In some cases, participants may be approached to take part via an institution (e.g. a school or hospital). Here, the agreement and co-operation of the institution will also be required.

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