Honesty and ethics in research
Honesty in research is a many-layered thing, and while on one level it is simple – the truth is the truth is the truth – on another it is complex and requires much thought and deliberation. Honesty with others about what you want to do and why, honesty with the research participants, honesty with yourself as you describe, analyse and write up what happened…
Yesterday at the University of Melbourne visiting academic Martin Woodhead of the Open University, UK gave a presentation about the Young Lives research project. This is a huge longitudinal study into the lives of children in 4 different countries, at 20 different sites in each country. It uses both quantitative and qualitative methods of inquiry, started in 2002 and will track the lives of the children involved over a 15-year period.
You can read more about Young Lives – An International Study of Childhood Poverty here.
Some time in yesterday’s presentation was spent discussing the data gathering methods that are being used by the qualitative research team in the field. Life course draw-and-tell. Visualising and drawing ‘well-being’. Body mapping. Community mapping. The methods were engaging and hands-on, and encouraged forth what sounded like candid and significant responses from the young people involved.
So much so, that the children asked the researchers if they were “coming back again next weekend?”
They weren’t; great care had been taken to explain to the communities the nature of the research, its time-frame and how it would be conducted, and how the researchers would only be there for one weekend. But the children had had a wonderful time and wanted that these people from outside, who were so interested in their lives, and encouraged them to draw and talk and express themselves freely and creatively, would come again, and again.
There is a potential problem here, in bringing in something so engaging, only to take it away again and risk leaving a greater sense of what is missing than there was before it was introduced in the first place.
Another person attending the presentation talked about a project she has underway in a remote part of Australia, working with an Indigenous community in early childhood education. She described a meeting that had been set up to introduce the women of the community to the research project, at which it was quickly revealed that this research all sounded excellent, but what about the bus that the community needed?
The guidelines for Human Ethics in research state very clearly that research should support and not harm human flourishing, and always be directed towards the enhancement of some human good or goods. But how should research respond when it reveals needs that cannot be funded through the research funding, but that are definite needs within the community that the research focuses on? Further issues can arise if an intervention is made which then (in the eyes of some) upsets the balance of what was being studied in the first place! (Eg. the quantitative researchers involved in Young Lives don’t want any interventions in the communities being studied, as they don’t want it to upset the data they are gathering over the 15 years of the project).
Young Lives is interesting as it is a partnership between Universities and research centres who are conducting the research, and Save the Children UK, who have a “reciprocity agreement” within the countries involved and the specific research sites. Hopefully this means that where needs are highlighted through the research, responses can be set in place through Save the Children’s in-country support programs.
I was interested, too, in the focus of this research on ‘childhood poverty’. Martin talked about the role of the local research centres in each of the four participating countries (Ethiopia, India, Peru, Viet Nam) in explaining the research, and how the issues of participant consent and withdrawal were addressed. I wondered then, how much participants were told about the focus of the research on ‘childhood poverty’. Did they know they were being asked to take part because they were identified as ‘poor’?
This research seems to me, in its design and scope, to be much more about childhood in diverse parts of the world, than it is about poverty per se, and perhaps the emphasis on ‘poverty’ is one that is trumpeted more loudly by the research funders (UK Government for the first part of the project). But it raises the question about disclosure and honesty, if a different emphasis is given to the participants, than to the others in the world who learn about the project through the internet or publications.
I read somewhere recently (can’t remember where – I’m in the middle of so much reading at the moment – I’ll add the reference when I recall where it is!) about an arts project in a school that had had very little prior exposure to art-making and arts projects. The project had a public outcome of some kind, and invitations were printed, and advertisements were run, that described the work of the “children from a deprived school”. The students saw these and asked the teacher, “What does ‘deprived’ mean?” They hadn’t thought about themselves as deprived, and the spirit of the project had no focus on deprivation, but now here was this label attached to them.
“Do No Harm” is a watchword for researchers. It takes a lot of honesty and peeling back of layers, to really ensure no harm is done.