research ethics approval

The sticky nature of real ethical challenges

If you’ve carried out any kind of empirical social research or fieldwork for which you had to obtain research ethics  committee approval, chances are you ended up encountering ethical challenges you hadn’t predicted in your ethics application. Certainly when I tell colleagues about my interest in research ethics, they frequently end up telling me about some unexpected dilemma that cropped up in their own project. Despite my interest, I don’t necessarily have any solutions. I began to feel, however, that there was value to publicly sharing these experiences of real ethical quandaries.  This was reinforced by my tenure on a university ethics committee, where all the annual reports I saw responded ‘none’ to the question about any unforeseen ethical issues since obtaining approval. Despite many of us experiencing such unforeseen issues, it seemed as if they could not be formally acknowledged.

A chance meeting with a similarly minded academic at a conference (demonstrating the unpredictably serendipitous value of attending conferences) transformed these impressions into action with a plan for an edited book. Since Rachel Brooks (University of Surrey) and I met through the Sociology of Youth group (RC34) at the 2010 world congress of the International Sociology Association, we decided to focus on youth research. We sent out a call for abstracts , emphasizing we were looking for examples of authentic ethical dilemmas people had experienced in their research, and discussions of how they dealt with these.

Clearly we’d hit a nerve: we received over 70 abstracts from around the world. We’ve been able to turn 22 of those into published papers through our edited book and two special issues:

Negotiating ethical challenges in youth research (Routledge, 2013)

Youth Studies Australia, volume 31, issue 3, 2012

Young (Nordic Journal of Youth Research), volume 21, issue 3, 2013 (forthcoming)

For your interest, the ToCs are listed here. What the papers in these three sources collectively demonstrate, are both a commitment to conduct research ethically (sometimes with the support of formal ethics guidelines, sometimes despite those) and a willingness to put one’s own reputation on the line by frankly discussing difficulties. Rachel and I take our hat off to our contributors – and hope that others, like us, find their honesty refreshing and helpful.

Through the work on these publications I’ve come across both relevant education research literature and useful internet resources. For the first, one of the most useful sources is a special issue on “Ethics and academic freedom in educational research” in the International Journal of Research & Method in Education (Volume 33, Issue 3, 2010). A recent book that also looks promising is “The role of participants in education research : ethics, epistemologies, and methods” (Routledge 2013), edited by colleagues from the University of Southern Queensland.

For the second, some sites worth exploring include:

Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE): Although initiated from the medical sciences, it has become more broadly based, including social sciences. The website has guidelines for journal editors and reviewers, but one of the most fascinating parts is the database of cases submitted to COPE for advice (click on the ‘cases’ tab). These are all to do with publication; for example keywords include ‘authorship’, ‘participant confidentiality’ and ‘undeclared conflict of interest’.

Social Research Association (SRA)Ethics consultancy forum: SRA members can submit a research-related ethical dilemma and receive informal, confidential advice. It is unlikely that many Australians are SRA members, but perhaps this is a suggestion AARE could take up?

The Research Ethics Guidebook: Several dilemmas are discussed here, in the UK context. Again, if there was an interest, perhaps AARE could collect Australian examples on its website.

AARE:  Although most of tend to use the NHMRC, ARC and UA (2007) guidelines, AARE also has its own guidelines. In addition, some time ago AARE commissioned Karen Halasa to produce an annotated bibliography.  Although now a little dated, it is still useful since many ethical dilemmas and considerations are enduring despite social and technological changes since the late 1990s.

Finally, it seems to me that ethical challenges often can’t be exactly ‘resolved’ – we just negotiate them as best we can. This highlights the tension between the procedural ethics of guidelines and committees (although I think they can be very useful!) and the way we all have to think on our feet at times to work out what we ought to do. This is why I am attracted to a ‘virtue ethics’ approach – it is not just about what we ‘do’ but also about who we ‘are’ as researchers, that helps to make our research more ethical. So here’s one more resource you may find interesting: ‘Researching with Integrity. The ethics of Academic Enquiry’ (Routledge, 2009) by Bruce Macfarlane.



Associate Professor Kitty te Riele is Principal Research Fellow at The Victoria Institute for Education, Diversity & Lifelong Learning at Victoria University, Melbourne. Kitty’s research is focused on ways in which schooling can better engage the most disadvantaged young people in our community, with a particular interest in alternative programs. In addition, her work examines research ethics, especially ethical challenges in youth and education research. She serves as HREC committee member at Victoria University (and previously at UTS) and has taught classes in both research and professional ethics.