Research ethics can seem like a dry, rule-bound subject. However, reading any article on ethics from the International Journal of Social Research Methodology (IJSRM) will demonstrate that ethics is a live issue that researchers actively grapple with in their work.
IJSRM has published 29 articles on ethics. Over one-third of these focused on primary data collection, and just under one-third on ethical regulation. The rest addressed the ethical dimensions of a variety of topics: three on secondary data, and one each on data analysis (Mauthner 2000), life-writing (Oakley 2010), anonymity versus naming (Moore 2012), and theory (Parr 2015). The articles by Mauthner and Parr are featured in IJSRM's virtual issue on feminist research methods.
Reviewing the articles on regulation surprised me by showing that the regulatory systems of research, which can feel quite static, actually make up a fairly fast-moving field. As a result, even some comparatively recent articles now seem dated. Therefore I have not included any articles on regulation in this virtual issue.
Conversely, I was not surprised that more articles focused on primary data collection than anything else: 11 of the 29, with two more looking at the allied topic of gatekeepers. Ethical regulation focuses on primary data collection, which has led to an over-emphasis on this in the literature. IJSRM is currently working to redress this through a special issue focusing on the ethical aspects of other stages of the research process.
This virtual issue encompasses the ethical dimensions of using secondary data, recruiting participants, working with gatekeepers, and researching as an insider with a dual role.
The articles on secondary data focus on archived material. Richardson and Godfrey (2003) consider researchers' responsibilities to participants when re-using archived interviews. Bishop (2012) considers the ethical aspects of using archival data for teaching. The first article looks at the similarities and differences between researchers and historians, the second compares researchers and teachers.
The problem of participant recruitment is considered in two complementary articles. Tyldum (2012) explores the fine line between 'legitimate pressure' and coercion when seeking participants. Head (2009) discusses the ethical aspects of paying participants.
Scourfield and Coffey (2006) interrogate a single 'access encounter' with a gatekeeper, and find that it raises a wide range of ethical issues. This makes an interesting contrast with the broad view taken by Agbebiyi (2012) who defines three tiers of gatekeepers in her research with students in schools and sixth-form colleges.
Watts (2011) discusses the ethical issues posed by an outsider becoming an insider in the course of ethnographic research using participant observation. Coy (2006) writes of the ethical dilemmas in conducting participatory feminist action research. Both articles highlight the difficulty caused by holding multiple roles in the field: Watts was a researcher and a volunteer, while Coy was a researcher and a practitioner.
Although these articles focus predominantly on qualitative research, most of the dilemmas and principles outlined also apply to quantitative research. Also, while they span the decade from 2003-12, each of the articles in this special issue covers ethical problems that are as current and relevant today as when they were first published. This virtual issue will be of use to teachers and students, researchers and writers for many years to come.
The below articles are free to access until 31 December 2016. To begin reading, simply select the below link(s) of your choice.
- Volume 6 Issue 4 (2003)
- Jane C Richardson & Barry S Godfrey
- Volume 15 Issue 4 (2012)
- Libby Bishop
Ethics or access? Balancing informed consent against the application of institutional, economic or emotional pressures in recruiting respondents for research
- Volume 15 Issue 3 (2012)
- Guri Tyldum
- Volume 12 Issue 4 (2009)
- Emma Head
- Volume 9 Issue 1 (2006)
- Jonathan Scourfield & Amanda Coffey
Tiers of gatekeepers and ethical practice: researching adolescent students and sexually explicit online material
- Volume 16 Issue 3 (2013)
- Adeola Agbebiyi
- Volume 14 Issue 4 (2011)
- Jacqueline H. Watts
This Morning I’m A Researcher, This Afternoon I’m An Outreach Worker: Ethical Dilemmas in Practitioner Research
- Volume 9 Issue 5 (2006)
- Maddy Coy