Sometimes, maybe at the beginning of a research project or perhaps when you’re thinking hypothetically, you could be fooled into thinking that ethics in research is simple: You want to do what is right for everyone involved, you make a plan at the beginning to do what is right and you promise to stick to it. This month’s Research Ethics with Integrity seminar hosted a panel of experienced researchers who beautifully illuminated just how messy and precarious research is and how the ethics of research is entangled within this messiness and precarity.
Dr Claire Fox chaired the panel of three experienced and highly regarded researchers, each of which spoke with honesty and care around their own experiences of ethical complications within research. Our guests included Professor Cathy Lewin (Professor of Education and lead for the Digital and Innovative Pedagogies research group), Professor Deborah James (Professor of Educational Psychology and lead for Educational Psychology) and Professor Kate Pahl (Head of ESRI and Faculty Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange).
The discussion was structured around five questions from Claire, with opportunities to share challenges from each researchers’ own experiences. Topics included collaborative working, peer review, co-authorship and media relations.
One thing that clearly stood out from the discussion was that research doesn’t happen in a vacuum and this all plays into the ethics of a research project. The panellists shared ethical dilemmas that were shaped by the political, institutional and social tensions around them. This was also evident in the responsibility of research and the real consequences that can occur based on the research findings and recommendations. The panel spoke of sleepless nights, redundancies and difficult conversations that came with the actuality of working through ethical tensions.
A particular element from the discussion that highlighted how enmeshed research ethics is with the world around it was the role of funders in a research project. The panel shared examples of funders asking for changes in final reports or even preventing the publication of findings. This was particularly of interest when funders were directly linked to government, and publications were halted as the political direction changed. One suggestion from the discussion to combat these requests from funders was through publication agreements included in contracts at the beginning of the research. This sounds straight forward, but is made less simple by tender processes, time constraints and the intricacies of working relationships.
There was also discussion around working with external partners and communities in research that centred on the question of whether research of this nature can be truly collaborative. Kate Pahl drew on some of her experiences from a project that involved, ‘re-imagining contested communities’. For anyone who would like to read more, please see the book that arose out of this project.
Though we may agree that you can expect something to go array in a research project, perhaps what is less obvious is that, from the beginning, we may have different ideas on what is the right thing to do. Often this variation is created by the different histories and epistemologies of disciplines and universities. An example from one panellist showed how a particular story in their previous university’s history had shaped the ethics systems that were currently in place. Our panel of three, though from different academic backgrounds, work within the same university in the same research centre and yet varied in their experiences of how they would approach certain ethical situations. One of these differences was around naming authors on publications. As someone fairly new to academia, and getting to grips with academic publications, I am often perplexed by the importance of first author positions and the politics of authorship. Nevertheless, the recognised points system that is in place makes authorship an essential aspect of academic outputs. Some of the panel preferred to name early career researchers as first authors to support their introduction to a somewhat brutal system, others on the panel articulated it was important to recognise the collaborative nature of doctoral research between students and supervisors and that this should be reflected in publications.
A final topic discussed was that of relationships with the media and the dissemination of research to the public. Alongside a few horror stories of misrepresentation and hidden intentions it was agreed that we, as a university, need to develop our ability to work with the media. It reminds us that we must always consider who we are working with and representing within research and how the work that we create sits within the different social, political and cultural narratives that surround it.
Thank you to our three panellists for their time, words and honesty, which created such a rich discussion. This was the last seminar in this year’s series and we hope to be back in the next academic year with a new programme of events around research ethics with integrity.