Why is it important that ethical issues are considered when a research study is being planned

Ethical issues in research began to be considered in the late 1940s when, following Nazi research, people became sensitive to research being more than about care. The Nuremberg Code of 1947 insisted that willing consent be sought by participants in order to carry out research. At the time children were not considered mature enough to consent and were not permitted to take part in any research they were not able to gain from. Many research projects must be approved by an ethics committee, but this is the not the case for all types of research.

Medical and health related research is first approved by an ethics committee as it is accepted that medical research can be hazardous; for example, the introduction of a new drug. Whilst it could be argued that educational or social science research does not have the risks associated with it as some medical research, if the research process is flawed the outcomes could provide inaccurate information resulting in changes being implemented that do not offer benefits, or even put recipients at a disadvantage.

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It is also important to note that, unlike aspects such as data protection, there is often no legal obligation on researchers, or redress for the researched, relating to ethical issues. That is, a piece of research could be viewed as unethical, but not illegal, as ethics is defined as moral duty not to cause harm. Therefore it is important that ethical issues are considered when planning research, particularly in relation to children as they often have little power, and ethical issues can occur at any stage of a research project.

Researchers have a duty to build up and refine ethical honesty. Alderson (2004) states that there are three main ethical frameworks. The first relates to respect and justice and that children must always be respected in their own right. The second is a rights based framework and includes the ‘3 P’s’ of ensuring that children are provided for, protected and have the right to participation. The third is a best outcomes framework, which means that research must determine how any possible harm to children is eliminated or reduced and that potential benefits outweigh any harm.

As previously stated, not all research is approved by an ethics committee, but even when it is, it is still important to continually consider ethical issues that may arise during the research, or any ethical issues that may not be covered by the particular research committee, so that they can be evaluated against possible damage or gain, and that they are dealt with truthfully, justly and respectfully. In any research project the ethical issues can be numerous and the research team will need to take appropriate ethical decisions.

In this essay I shall be exploring some of the ethical issues that researchers consider when planning their research. These are informed consent, power, confidentiality and gender, using examples from two pieces of ethnographic research by Punch (2001) and Thorne (1993). Informed consent relates to gaining the willing consent of participants in the research process and ensuring they have sufficient information in order to decide whether to participate or not.

Ethics committees state that the reason for the research should be clearly explained, the main questions to be addressed, who and how people will benefit from the research, along with any risks or issues, and what tasks will be undertaken. The participants need to understand that they do not have to participate in the research, or if they do, they can decide to stop at any point. In the case of children, it is not always clear-cut how to achieve informed consent. In order to involve children in research, the researcher needs to gain access to children and this is normally through other adults.

Parents may be unhappy for their children to be involved whilst the children may want to participate and vice versa. It can be difficult to gain informed consent of children in research which involves families and in school settings. Often, in the case of schools, consent is granted via the head teacher and not with the children themselves. This highlights an area, which can be difficult to resolve. If consent is to be sought from all children in a class of, say 30 children. If one objects there is then an issue of how that child should then be treated.

Either the research cannot go ahead or the child’s education is affected if they are excluded from the class. In the case of Punch’s research she lived with two families with children whom she was invited to stay with and she observed children in these settings and in the school setting. In order to carry out her research in school she gained the consent of the teacher. In both the family and school setting consent did not come from the children. Similarly, Thorne also gained access to the children she observed via the school.

In both cases the reason for the research was not explained to the children, nor were they given any opportunity to refuse to take part. In these cases informed consent was not sought from the children. Both researchers relied on building up a relationship of trust with the children in order to obtain their information, with did mean that the children had some control over how much they contributed. Advantages of informed consent are that the results are likely to be more accurate because the participants are aware of the purpose of the research and they have some control over the process, knowing they can opt out at any time.

If they are willing and active participants, they are also likely to enjoy taking part in the research. However, the children could disclose things, which they later regret. Additionally, adults wield the final power in how the children are portrayed in the research findings and report. Robinson and Kellett (2004) define power as “the ability of groups or individuals to make their concerns count even when others resist” Adults have the power to position children and researchers’ perspectives on children are critical to the power relationship between them.

When planning research, the researchers need to address how power balances will be addressed. Researchers can view children as objects in need of protection by adults and not capable of explaining their views, preferring to ask adults, such as parents or teachers for the child’s view. Children can be viewed as social actors whose views are important, but if the researcher is deciding who to include in the research based on an adults perspective of ability and competence then adults are still wielding the power.

If children are viewed as active participants who are kept fully informed and involved in the research process then the power balance can be reduced. By their nature, schools have a strong ethos of adult power over children as they are constrained by intuitional regulations. Although Punch tried to minimise the adult/child power imbalance in her research by living with families, she carried out a lot of her research in a school setting, where she took on the role of a teaching assistant. She states However the role of assistant teacher tended to reinforce power inequalities between myself and the children” (Punch, 2001, p. 99) Thorne carried out all her research in school settings and was also aware of the issue of power imbalance. She attempts to minimise this by sitting at the back of class and not taking on a role of a teacher or an adult helper in the class. She sits with the children in class, although she does point out she does not have a regular place, and lunches with them.

However, when a fight breaks out in class she assumes the position of an adult in authority by working with the teacher to stop it. In both Punch and Thorne’s research, they considered the issues of power and how best to address them, which involved being with the children and joining in with their activities, which other adults did not participate. Where children view researchers in a position of power they may be reluctant to give them information, particularly information they do not wish to be given to other adults.

If the researchers are perceived as having power over the researched, they may not trust them with confidential information. Punch was concerned about the ethical issues relating to power and she balanced this by respecting the confidentiality of the children. Whatever they told her, she respected and did not tell other adults. One example of this was when children went fishing when they were supposed to be looking after their mother’s cows. The children asked her not to tell their mother.

Not only did she honour this, she also lied when asked directly by the mother if she had seen the children. The importance of respecting confidentiality to gain trust is important, but it is also a delicate balance for the researcher. The issue of protecting the child if, say, during an interview, the child says something that the researcher feels is putting the child at risk, then the researcher must decide whether respecting confidentiality is really in the child’s best interest, and is very much part of the ethical frameworks which Alderson discusses.

Researchers could address this by informing children that they would respect their confidentiality as long as they were not in any danger. Thorne took notes as she wandered around the children’s school environments and she assured the children that anything she wrote would not get them into trouble, nor would she use their real names. In the classroom she often observed the children taking things out of their desks, which they were not permitted to do and as with Punch, she did not inform the teacher.

On occasions she even joined in with sharing, such as the time she took and ate chips offered to her by one child. Whilst both Punch and Thorne gained the children’s trust what would have happened if they had uncovered something, which, by not breaking the confidentiality, risked harm to a child? Neither researcher appeared to have addressed this issue when planning their research. Treating information gained from children as confidential is an important aspect of gaining children’s trust and so too is how the researcher relates to the children they are researching.

The gender of the researcher and the children is another ethical issue that needs to be considered when planning research. The gender of the researcher may impact on the research in a number of ways. Gender can be viewed as biologically and genetically determined or as socially constructed. In the latter, particular cultures and societies may differ in how each gender type is viewed. When researching children from different cultures, the researcher needs to be aware that their perspective may differ from the society they are researching.

The gender of the researcher can also impact on obtaining information. Kehily (Kehily et al, 2002) wrote about how she was accepted into a female group and Frosh’s (Frosh, et al, 2002) study of boys found that they took on the role of social actors when interviewed by a male researcher. In both cases, the children liked to discuss gender specific issues with an adult of the same sex, who was not a teacher or someone perceived as in a position of authority.

However, this is not always the case; Hey (1997) found difficulties entering girls’ worlds despite being the same sex. She also found resentment from boys when she was observing girls. When planning research with children, researchers need to consider how their gender may influence their findings and the research process. However, it is not only how the children relate to the researcher, but how gender impacts on the researcher.

Thorne identifies how she related more with the girls in her study; particularly when she observed incidents that reminded her of her own childhood. She found that she was spending a disproportionate amount of time documenting certain girls in her research because they reminded her of situations in her past. Her gender also influenced what she could document. For example, she wrote about the preparation of girls for a Halloween party because her own gender enabled her to be present in the washroom whilst the girls were changing and putting on make up.

Her own gender, and social constraints, would prevent her observing boys in this way. Whilst Thorne is aware that her gender impacts on her research in how she views girls and boys, Punch does not appear to have considered this issue. She highlights that her white, middleclass, western female status means that her background could influence her views when carrying out research, but she does not appear to consider her or the children’s gender as significant to her research.

The ethical issues of informed consent, power, confidentiality and gender discussed in this essay are just a few of the ethical issues that researchers need to address when planning their research. The importance of considering ethical issues relates not only to the ethical frameworks which are concerned with children being treated fairly, honestly, respecting their rights and ensuring best outcomes, but also to ensure that the research is not influenced by the researcher’s perspectives on children. This could impact on the research findings and not give a true picture of the children being researched.

The issue of ethics and deciding what is in the best interests of the child and the research is not always an easy choice. There is often a fine balance between respecting the information gained from a child which has been freely given on a confidential basis and ensuring adequate protection for the child. Similarly ensuring that informed consent is given may result in some children not taking part in the research, but it also protects children from covert research which may not show them in a true light.

As we have seen ethical issues are not always easy to resolve, but it is important to identify potential ethical problems so that ways of addressing them can be determined. Whether or not a piece of research is required to be approved by an ethics committee or not, by raising ethical questions during the planning stage it helps to ensure protection for both children and researchers and ultimately leads to better, well thought out research.