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E is for…Ethics #AtoZChallenge

E is for… Ethics

Before I can start collecting data for my research I need to submit a research proposal to an ethical review board at my university.

The seven principles of ethical research as outlined by the College of Occupational Therapists (2003) are:

Minimising Potential Harm
Maximising Benefit
Honesty, Integrity and Openness
Impartiality and Fairness
Confidentiality and Anonymity

So, as you can see, Ethics isn’t just about not hurting people, though of course that is very important. It is also about ensuring quality of work (e.g. that the methodology matches the aim/research question) and reviewing that even at the start of research the researcher has considered methods of disseminating that research (not just abandoning it in the thesis section of their university library).

I’m just going to highlight a couple of ethical challenges my research presents below. There is much more to consider than just these though.

Ethical challenges in Qualitative research

With qualitative research it can be very difficult at the start of the research to say exactly what the methods will look like because qualitative research often tends to be an interactive process which constantly involves depending on responses from participants. I am lucky in the fact that my university is used to dealing with qualitative research and therefore appreciates that the design will be emergent (Bailliard et al 2013). This is not, however, an excuse for me not to think about the detail. Bailliard et al (2013 p 160) suggest using a road map that highlights a general direction and goal but leaves some flexibility in the route. In terms of using a writing analogy I like to think of this as a rough but flexible plot outline.

When exploring people’s lives there is always the potential to bring up issues that they may find emotive or distressing and so it will be relevant to give advice on counselling services, etc. In fact I think it is important as a qualitative researcher to consider the same for yourself.

Ethical challenges in Autoethnography

When writing autoethnography (as I intend to) you will inevitably identify other people in your life in your writing. How to manage this will be something I need to consider (including issues such as asking them for consent). Even if names are changed, because I am naming myself, people who know me may be able to work out who those people are.
Because I am planning to work with others I need to address their anonymity – do they wish to be named and if so are they aware of potential consequences.
One way round some of these issues may be to create storied amalgams but then this may ‘interrupt’ the flow of the stories told by mixing up or leaving out crucial details that may be vital to developing a fuller understanding of issues.

Some General Practical Considerations
If you are asked to participate in research (I have been a few times now) – do check these things.
You should be given what is generally known as a ‘Participant Information Sheet’ which tells you about the research and what you will be expected to do. You should also be given the opportunity to ask any questions you don’t think have been covered.
Types of information that this commonly includes:
where ethical consent to undertake the research was gained,
details about the researcher and their qualifications,
details about the research aim/questions (though in some cases it may be appropriate to not go into too much depth here in case it influences the outcomes of the study),
details about what will happen to the information you share, e.g. how it will be stored, who will see it, how your confidentiality and anonymity will be protected,
the statement that you are free to withdraw from the study at any time without prejudice (this is especially important if you are participating in a clinical study).

Following reading this you should also be asked to sign a consent form.

Here’s a personal example: I participated in an asthma study where I had allergy testing and sat in a cubicle to try and induce my asthma symptoms. During routine medical checks they discovered a heart murmur and gave me relevant advice to get this all checked. They would have to have considered aspects like this when getting the study agreed. My murmur was all benign in case you were wondering.


Bailliard, A.L., Aldrich, R.M. and Dickie, V.A. (2013) Ethnography and the Transactional Study of Occupation. In Cutchin, M.P., and Dickie, V.A. (eds) (2013) Transactional Perspectives on Occupation. London: Springer, pp. 157 − 168.

College of Occupational Therapists (2003) Research Ethics Guidelines. London: College of Occupational Therapists.

So there we have it a whistle stop tour of research ethics.

Have you ever participated in research – did you receive a participant information sheet? How did you find participating in the research?

Have you ever gone to an ethical review board to conduct research? Can you share any hints or tips?

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