Consenting Adults – Getting unstuck with ethical research

red tape - from www.flickr.com/photos/opensourcewayToday marks a breakthrough in my research – the funny thing is, it hasn’t even really begun, yet! Right now I am in the planning stages of a project that will get underway AFTER I finish my MA, I hope. Such is the life of a grad student in a course-based program. But I digress – let’s get back to the breakthrough.

For those of you who haven’t entered the nearly-medieval apprenticeship model of graduate studies, much of what we do is subject to intense scrutiny, and for good reason. Over the years, many researchers have created studies with unethical procedures and intents. There was the Berkeley prison experiment in the late 1960s, the notorious Dr. Mengele performing horrific experiments on concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany; and closer to home, it has just come to light that aboriginal children were malnourished in the name of science. I don’t want to join that group, even by accident. Fortunately, Canadian researchers have a strict set of guidelines that have been in place since ___ which prevent abuses like this from happening.

So what does this have to do with my research? Everything, because a great deal of the hard work of research happens in the planning. My plan is to work with teachers and parents in communicating directly with each other through Facebook Groups, instead of by the indirect method of sending notices home through students. As a mother of three teenage boys, I know how fallible that method can be, even when the kids aren’t trying to keep parents and teachers from meeting! But even research as simple as that is full of potential ethical potholes.

First, there’s the issue of involving children in research. Yikes! As masters’ students, we were warned not to even try that, lest our research get hung up in the bureaucracy of working with “vulnerable populations”. Fortunately, the students aren’t participating in this study. It’s between parents and teachers, and the communications they send to each other. Phew – one hurdle jumped.

Next: Facebook. This is where I started lying awake at night, saying “Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod, my research is crap!” How come? Well, it’s my duty as a researcher to keep my participants as free from risk as possible. Facebook, being a private US-based company, is a venue out of my control. They keep their servers outside of Canada (apparently, northern Norway has a bunch of them), and the electronic data stored there is subject to the USA Patriot Act. That means that the FBI can ask to see any data it wants to if it feels there’s a risk to US citizens’ security. Oh man. Talk about potential confidentiality breaches!

Next: Group discussions. How on earth was I going to honour confidentiality if the parents and teachers were all talking together on Facebook, most likely with their own names and faces on their profile pictures? How could I guarantee that a parent wouldn’t talk about their Facebook Group while waiting in the parking lot for young Jesse to finish with band practice? This was getting complicated. Not only that, but don’t they say that the Internet is forever? How was I going to be able to I felt like walking away from the whole thing, because it was just too difficult. But damn it, this proposal is mandatory. I can’t finish my degree without it, even if I don’t actually carry out the research.

It’s not as bad as I feared, though. In reading about planning ethical research, I learned that working transparently, and with full consent from adults, saves my bacon. So long as disclose all the risks, lay out every contingency and receive informed consent from individuals who are capable of giving it (i.e. my adult research group), I have their leave to go ahead. I also have the responsibility to tell my participants what will happen with the raw data I collect, and the added responsibility of keeping their identities anonymous to people outside the group – unless I have express permission from participants to use pictures or other identifying information.

Along the way, I am responsible for checking in with my participants and making sure they are happy to continue with the study. They are allowed to leave the project at any time, for any reason. If they choose to leave, I must get rid of as much of their data as I can (not possible in the case of group discussions, but again, full disclosure and sign-off on that in advance means that they agree to their part in conversations staying behind). When the study is all done, they need to know that I will keep their information as secure as possible, and get rid of the raw data after an agreed-to amount of time.

The key to conducting ethical research is keeping your participants fully informed, and allowing them to make the decision about whether or not to proceed. There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? And no, my research isn’t crap. I’m excited enough about it that I may go ahead and run the project, even if I don’t need to do it for my MA credentials. After all, wouldn’t you like to know when those parent/teacher conferences are, and that the dog didn’t eat your kid’s homework assignment?