Answers to Exercise

5.1 A behind the scenes view

Individual – Take some notes while watching Hesse-Biber’s account of ‘unintended consequences’ (found in the Video section of the companion website). Then discuss in class.

  • What does she mean by front stage/back stage?
  • What unintended consequences is she referring to?
  • What kind of unintended consequences could arise from your research?

Sharlene Hesse-Biber refers to the notion front stage when she talks about the tendency of most people wanting to present themselves in the best possible light. Drawing on the work of Erving Goffman, she argues that we are all actors on a world stage, and that we also know that there is a backstage, which is often hidden from view – the moments, feelings and expressions we do not want to share. The same applies to research projects. When reading methodology sections in journal articles, research always appears very organized and neat when in fact, it is often a rather messy process, where things go wrong and unexpected obstacles and discoveries require us to adapt and make changes to our project. Sharlene Hesse-Biber provides examples of when she experienced strong emotional responses in interviews – here the interview had unintended consequences for her and her well-being as well as for the research participants involved. She shows us how we can uncover ‘critical elements’ when we go behind the scenes – but with such insight also comes responsibility. She reminds of the importance of paying attention and listening deeply, reflecting on our standpoint, our values and attitudes, throughout the entire course of a research project.

Many research projects have unintended consequences, whether we like it or not. However, it is the researcher’s responsibility to deal with these consequences – and in particular negative consequences – rather than throwing their hands in the air saying ‘we did not intend for this to happen!’ Sharlene Hesse-Biber argues that unintended consequences can be caused by being blinded by your own values, not knowing something or self-interest. She focusses not so much on how a careless comment made by a researcher may threaten someone’s job but rather on how the dissemination of research outcomes (and interventions, programmes or policies derived from them) can have unforeseen implications. She provides an example of a study of cellphone use in Zambia, where women were given cellphones with the best of intentions. In a follow-up study, it became apparent that ownership of these devices, intended to contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment, for many had a different and quite problematic effects. In the context of an existing regime of gender inequalities, men used the phones as a means to control their wives. A call from a wrong number had led to accusations of infidelity and a significant threat to a woman owning one of the phones. The example testifies to the importance of understanding context and of follow-up research to identify unintended consequences and why they occur.

5.5 Considering ethical review procedures

1 Go to the companion website and download the standard application from template used by the Trinity Business School. Browse through the document. In pairs, make a list of what information is required to complete the form. What are the reviewer’s criteria? What sections would you consider as most challenging?

The process usually requires the submission of an application form, a consent form, and a project/participation information sheet.

The main questions that need to be addressed are

  • Who is doing the research?
  • What the project is about?
  • How will this research be carried out?
  • On whom will it be carried out?
  • When is this research proposed to be carried out?

This is a very short application form. Some universities have forms that require applicants to consider a broad range of different ethical issues. In our view the challenge of such short form is that researchers may complete it too quickly and without considering important issues. While reviewers will consider the application in the light of principles for ethical research and the codes of conduct of the university and relevant professional societies, they may not pick up on important issues when they have very little information on the project to begin with. So it is always a balancing act – if the process is too burdensome than that is a problem yet if it is mainly a tick box exercise problems and risks may not be identified that need to be addressed/remedied. After all, there is a reason as to why these reviews are conducted!

2 Find out about whether your institution has established a review process or review mechanism. What are the requirements for postgraduate students? What are the requirements for research staff? Think about how you would approach the preparation of a review proposal. In your view, what issues should be addressed?

Relevant issues include (but are not limited to)

  • Informed consent: Research participants should be fully informed regarding the purpose, methods and use of the proposed research, their involvement, and any risks that are associated with the research. Participants should know that they have the right to withdraw at any time.
  • The physical and emotional well-being, dignity and rights of research participants.
  • Research must be independent and any conflicts of interest or partiality must be made explicit.
  • Issues around data protection, confidentiality and anonymization.
  • The physical and emotional well-being, dignity and rights of the researcher and collaborators/assistants.

3 In the past, researchers could conduct research without the need for approval by some review panel. Discuss whether or not you find the introduction of ethical review procedures useful. What are the strengths and weaknesses of such procedures? Why is it so important to ensure the ethical conduct of research?

Ethical review procedures help researchers to identify potential ethical issues at an early stage of the research process. They remind them of the fundamental principles of good research. A good ethical review form assists researchers to think through their project in a more structured way. This reduces the risk of avoiding or ‘overlooking’ thorny questions and thereby reduces the likelihood of unexpected ethical issues having unintended consequences. Ethical review procedures can ensure that the rights of research participants are protected – but they also protect researchers (and universities) from finding themselves in a situation in which their research has harmed assistants, participants or the society at large.

The structured approach adopted by many ethical review committees also has its downside. There is always a risk that researchers see the review process as a box-ticking exercise rather than an opportunity to reflect critically on the ethics of their research. This can prevent rather than encourage constructive engagement and reflexivity. Finally, it is important to bear in mind that once ethical approval has been obtained there is a risk that researchers stop assessing the ethical implications of their work. They may feel that the research ethics are done and dealt with and that they require no further attention. Such view can have devastating consequences as some of the biggest challenges may only arise during the research process and could not have been foreseen at the proposal stage, when most ethics assessments are conducted. This is one of the reasons why many ethics committees require researchers to inform them about any changes they made to the design and methodology of the study.

4 Make a list of key ethical concerns relating to social media research.

  • Public or private data: Data may not be seen as public to social media users even when they can easily be accessed. There are also grey areas – such as large Facebook groups which may be experienced as public but are ultimately private. Any content that one can only access after registering/logging in is usually problematic.
  • Consent and how to obtain informed consent.
  • Anonymization and confidentiality: Social media data and metadata can be stored for long periods of time – and much of this data is searchable. This means, for example, that quotes can easily be looked up years later down the line. They may lead to a link, such as a blog or LinkedIn profile, and thus identify the participant. Moreover, pictures and videos are more challenging to anonymize than textual data.
  • Increased vulnerability of research participants, for example to embarrassment, reputational damage, being trolled/bullied or prosecution.

For a more detailed discussion of the challenges and ways of addressing them we the following report: Social Media Research – A Guide to Ethics by Dr. Leanne Townsend and Prof Claire Wallace:

5.6 Political dilemmas in conducting student project

Q1 Persist, ask for the manager; start observation of departments; phone your tutor; find the administrative head; say that you will return next morning.

Q2 Sign it; try to renegotiate; refuse to sign.

Q3 The dilemma is whether your commitment to confidentiality overrides everything, or whether you have a duty to expose wrong-doing? How confident would you be in the quality of data?

Q4 Choices include full, partial or zero disclosure; buy time by arguing that you will need to reflect on this rather than giving an off-the-cuff opinion.

Q5 Confront him as soon as it first happens, or later on? Work with others to apply group pressure? Shop him to the tutor?