This brief introduction to research ethics is aimed at teachers* carrying out research for the first time. Teachers may not immediately see the need to consider research ethics, since being critically engaged with one’s own practice is simply a feature of good teaching. While this may be true, whenever we carry out research it is important to think about the ethical implications of our actions, and to take appropriate steps to minimise any negative consequences of our actions (or inactions). This applies to school-based practitioners as well as external researchers.
ETHICAL ISSUES YOU MAY NEED TO CONSIDER:
Before embarking on a research inquiry, it may be necessary to obtain the informed consent of various stakeholders (e.g. head teacher, governors, parents/carers, pupils and/or staff). This will depend on the nature and scope of the inquiry. For example, if your research involves you interviewing pupils at lunchtime or after school, you may wish to gain consent from their parents beforehand. There are different ways of acquiring consent. For example:
- Written or verbal? Do you need to get permission in writing, or would a quick phone call to a parent/carer be sufficient? Could a lack of written consent cause problems down the line?
- Active or passive? If the intervention is out of the ordinary, or carries clear ethical consequences – e.g. pupils being randomly assigned to a treatment or a control group – it might be necessary to gain written permission from the parents/carers of each pupil involved. Alternatively, it might be more appropriate simply to inform parents, and give them the opportunity to opt-out if they wish (also known as “negative consent”).
Openness and transparency
This is linked to consent. As a researcher, you should take steps to communicate as clearly as possible your intentions and motivations in carrying out a research inquiry, with all affected stakeholders. It may be the case that your study design requires that pupils are not fully aware of the reasons for your actions, for example if you think this might influence their behaviour and thus bias the outcome of your inquiry. In this case, pupils and possibly parents/carers should be debriefed after the inquiry.
Permission to withdraw
All participants should be informed of their right to withdraw from a study at any point of their choosing. Equally, even where participants have already participated in data collection, they should have the right to withdraw any data relating to them from any subsequent analysis and/or publication. Obviously, this depends on context. If a timetabled lesson is the focus of an inquiry, this does not mean a pupil has the right to withdraw from the lesson! However they should have the right to withdraw any data which relates directly to them in any subsequent analysis and/or publication.
Data protection and confidentiality
Even if you do not intend to publish your data (but especially if you do), you should take steps to ensure that individuals cannot be identified through your research. If this is unavoidable (e.g. if pupils feature in video or photographs), it is advisable to gain the written consent of the pupil and a parent/carer beforehand.
Vulnerable individuals within schools
Researchers are often privy to sensitive information. While research participants should be assured of their right to anonymity and confidentiality, they should also understand that should any information come to light where a law has been broken, or somebody’s safety may be at risk, the researcher has an obligation to record any relevant information, and pass it on to the child protection officer as standard.
FOUR PRINCIPLES OF RESEARCH ETHICS:
In addition to the practical steps outlined above, there are four guiding principles which it may be useful to think about when planning a research inquiry.
- JusticeAs far as possible, the benefits and drawbacks of research inquiry should be distributed fairly among pupils and/or staff.
- BeneficenceThe action or intervention being proposed should be done with the intent of benefiting pupils and/or colleagues.
- Non-maleficenceThe action or intervention being proposed should bring no harm to pupils and/or staff. It is worth noting that ‘harm’ can include things like increased workload and embarrassment, as well as physical harm or mental anguish. Teachers should consider carefully whether their research inquiry may lead to negative consequences for pupils and/or colleagues, either directly or indirectly.
- AutonomyGiven the nature of school-based research, it may not be necessary to secure written consent from pupils in all circumstances. However, where research inquires carry consequences for colleagues, seeking consent is both principled and practical.
Should you wish to explore these issues further, here are some excellent guides to research ethics for beginners:
- British Educational Research Association (BERA) – Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research. This is the current version of BERA’s influential and important guidelines on educational research – you can also read them online.
- York St John University – Guidelines on Research Ethics for Projects with Children and Young People. A short essay covering the issues of consent and protection from harm.
- University of Strathclyde – Ethics in the Educational Research Context.
This provides an excellent overview of research ethics, including a number of case examples and tasks with model answers, and links to even further reading!
* On this site, teacher is used as a shorthand for ‘people working in education’ – this includes learning support assistants, SENCOs, pastoral staff, support staff etc.
With thanks to Gary Jones, on whose blog some of this is based.