Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything

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This article aims to contribute to the ongoing debate on the nature of ERCs in the social sciences. Although it is commonly accepted that researchers in the social sciences should adhere to basic ethics principles and should consider good practices, the question of the institutional form that such ethics review should take is still up for debate. This article explores the idea that there may exist procedures and practices of ethical review that are more apt to address the ethical challenges of social science research see Schrag, The Institute is home to about two hundred researchers in the social sciences and, at the time of the research, no ethics review board or procedure existed within the Institute.

However, a discussion was taking place at the level of the top management of the Institute regarding the possible implementation of an ERC. This research capitalized on such a moment of institutional change within the Institute to collect the opinions and expectations of its researchers on ethical review procedures. Based on empirical data, the first aim of this article is to explore the ways in which researchers address ethical issues in the absence of a procedure for ethical review. Third, we focus on the notion of ambiguity in the research process, and on the ways in which researchers navigate such ambiguity while striving for ethical practices.

The research participants were chosen based on two criteria: a being a social scientist working within IACCHS and b having a research project that included fieldwork, either under preparation or already achieved. Senior researchers who had already worked on several fields were asked to rely on their most representative fieldwork. This meant that we excluded any research based on secondary sources. Over the two hundred social scientists within IACCHS, 49 researchers fulfilling the above-mentioned criteria answered the first part of the research, which consisted of an online questionnaire.

Researchers from the 12 centres are represented in the sample. The research included two parts: the first one was quantitative and consisted of an online questionnaire sent to all of the IACCHS community. This first part of the study took place during March and April On the contrary, the focus group format was possible for PhD students because of their greater availability.

All the authors have taken part in the two steps of the study. The data coming from the online questionnaire, in-depth interviews and the focus group were analysed by the four authors. The questionnaire aimed at understanding the extent to which researchers at IACCHS deal with the ethical challenges they are facing in the absence of a formal ethics review board.


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Because of the absence of such an ERC, researchers are not formally expected to take into account the ethical implications of their work when drafting their research projects. This is true both for senior and junior researchers. Regarding the ethical challenges during preparation to fieldwork and project-writing, out of a total of 49 respondents to the online questionnaire, 34 respondents claimed to have already faced ethical challenges with regard to the institutional domain, to obtain visas or other administrative authorizations to be able to access their field of research.

Regarding the ethical challenges during fieldwork, out of a sample of 49 respondents, 19 admitted to having encountered ethical challenges regarding the psychological and physical security of the researcher and that of his or her participants and collaborators, and to have considered them to be issues of ethics. Finally, regarding the ethical challenges during publication, 23 respondents reported having encountered ethical dilemmas when faced with the possibility of publishing sensible data.


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The second result emerging from the study concerns the management of ethical challenges. In fact, notwithstanding the lack of an ERC, most interviewees reported adopting a very diverse repertoire of case-specific strategies in dealing with issues of ethics and research.


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  5. For example, as a consequence of ethical challenges regarding the psychological and physical security of the researcher and of his or her participants and collaborators, some researchers reported having to amend their methodological approach and tools to guarantee their own safety, as well as that of their participants or collaborators. Regarding the ethical challenges of publication, out of 49 respondents, 13 had reported having decided not to publish, or to postpone publication of their data, because of the possible consequences it may have had upon participants in the research, or the researcher and his or her collaborators themselves.

    More generally, researchers at IACCHS seem aware of the negative impact that their research might have on research participants, as the 21 researchers who admitted to have considered such challenges suggest.

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    In general, interviewees seemed to strive to respect basic ethical principles i. Some of the respondents amended their methodology so to minimize the ethical impact of their research work. Such methodological amendments are often triggered when drafting the research project, but most of our respondents saw it as an ongoing process to be carried out throughout the whole research endeavour.

    This exercise in reflectivity is carried out differently by different researchers. Some chose to meticulously prepare their field guides and methodology, whereas others chose to carefully select their sample to avoid possible complications. Some respondents reported adopting a language and a posture that minimized harm to research participants. One of our respondents, working in a politically polarized environment, reportedly adopted the rhetoric and the public discourse of the dominant political elites which she did not support so to both obtain relevant information and protect her participants R3, May In the particular context of a field study in a judicial facility, another respondent admitted to engaging in a continuous process of self-censorship when in the field so as not to raise suspicions towards himself and his informants R5, May Others chose to write down a few lines on the ethical questioning they were going through in the field, and to share them with sympathetic and trusted colleagues R2, May The same researcher would go as far as to devise different possible strategies in case the situation in the field changed, and admittedly elaborated a plan B and a plan C, in order not to leave any choice-making to hazards of the field.

    The diversity of these strategies shows that some researchers are fully aware of the ethical consequences of choices they make in the field.

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    Concerns of this type were also raised by senior professors, who highlighted the importance of carefully considering what available data are to be published, and at what time. Some researchers prefer not to make their results or part of them accessible to the research participants.

    Publication is often carefully thought through, and some researchers may choose to publish in one journal rather than another to avoid particular audiences. In the absence of an ERC, such examples unveil the ambiguity that is proper to research in the social sciences and widens our understanding of the ethics review process. The following paragraphs analyse two such examples. Although an unacceptable practice in medical science, social scientists have occasionally engaged in undercover research.

    In particular, in situations of participant observation it may not be possible to collect consent from all the participants in the observation or even to just inform the participants of the identity of the researcher. The research endeavour may also be hidden because of the particular social or political sensitivity of the topic of the research. Issues of disguised research divided the respondents during our focus groups.

    On the contrary, others see it as a necessary strategy to adopt in order to gain access to particular field settings or information. For example, during a focus group one of our participants had admittedly disguised his identity to his research participants, introducing himself as an aid worker to gain access to a refugee camp. He reported to have thoroughly pondered the consequences of this choice, and concluded that disguising his identity would not harm his participants and would allow him to carry on the research work.

    Pressure from relevant actors in the research setting may lead to data-bending in order to conform to particular interests. Although resented by all participants as a despicable practice, this was also recognized by some interviewees as a necessary evil in order to maintain access to the field setting, and thus strategic for the continuation of the research.

    During our focus group, one participant shared his experience regarding data publication. The question for our participant was whether to publish and vulgarize his data in the face of possible cuts to funds that were much needed by the local population. Eventually, the researcher chose not to publish his data. More ethically ambiguous decisions were reported by the respondents.

    For example, 9 out of the 34 respondents claimed to have already found themselves in need of dissimulating or hiding the true object of their research to gain or maintain access to the field. On the contrary, 21 out of the 49 respondents claimed to have had to dissimilate the true object of their studies to research participants. It is common for research institutions to try minimizing ethical wrongdoings by providing formal ethics review to validate research projects.

    However, academic research has shown that these mechanisms are often not apt for research in the social sciences. Schrag , for example, sums up the main six criticisms addressed at ERCs. These are: i ethics committees impose silly restrictions; ii ethics review is a solution in search of a problem; iii ethics committees lack expertise; iv ethics committees apply inappropriate principles; v ethics review harms the innocent; and vi better options exist.

    In light of our results, we do not question the a priori utility of ERCs in the social sciences. However, this article also suggests that the sixth criticism, the existence of better ethics review mechanisms, has ground in the lived experiences of the researchers. In this light, Schrag : rightly points out that alternative ethics review mechanisms should meet three criteria: include professional figures who are expert in the kind of methodology examined and in the specific field location involved, take into account the possibility of iterative change during the research process, and encourage training and reflexivity.

    According to our respondents, the main shortcomings of ERCs in the social sciences is a consequence of one of the main features of research with humans: unpredictability. The unpredictability of research in the social sciences engenders the need for a flexible and iterative research approach, susceptible of change during the research process. Indeed, both in interviews and in our focus group, researchers suggested that where flexibility responds to the changing nature of fieldwork, reflectivity allows for ethically sound and appropriate responses.

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    In this sense, methodology in the social sciences maintains an intrinsically iterative character, and stands open to the experiences and practical, emotional and ethical challenges that researchers may face. Consequently, the responsibility for the ethical soundness of choices taken during the various phases of the research project may rest entirely on the researcher.

    For the financial economist and professor, see Randolph Cohen. This article includes a list of references , but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. Please help to improve this article by introducing more precise citations. October Learn how and when to remove this template message. Charleston, South Carolina.

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    This section of a biography of a living person does not include any references or sources. Please help by adding reliable sources. Contentious material about living people that is unsourced or poorly sourced must be removed immediately. Retrieved October 13, International Speakers Bureau. Archived from the original on December 26, The Ethicist. The New York Times. Random House. All Things Considered.

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    May 15, June At some point, you may be asked to do work for an initiative or a client that goes against your personal beliefs or to frame some information in a way that you feel is dishonest and unethical. Find a mentor or someone within your organization who you can talk with about the issue. They can help you decide on the best course of action to do the right thing for both you and your employer. Read up. There are so many resources, including ethics case studies, on the PRSA website.

    You can read a case study, answer questions and then view discussions about it. For instance, there are ethical and legal considerations prior to recording an interview. Did you know that you should look into state and federal laws guiding when you can tape someone? If you interview people over the phone regularly, do you inform them if you are recording the call?