Research ethics revisited

We discussed ethics in our method’s course again a bit yesterday and reached the conclusion that the ethics guidelines are just that – guidelines, meaning they are adaptive for one’s research situation. Aspects that are not adaptive and crucial for all researchers are: 1) Give people the chance to NOT consent – people have a right to say ‘No’; 2) Informed consent – make sure your subjects understand the nature of your study (with some exceptions in Psychology). While the ethical clearance form helps one work out practical details beforehand, we need to think of ethical ramifications every step of the way. When in doubt, speak to your supervisor or a member of the ethics committee. For students first encountering ethics, it sounds like extra paperwork and a real pain, but it is very important to make sure everything is in place so that you do not get into trouble later on. Also, if you are an aspiring academic, there are situations that could potentially ruin your reputation. As students, we don’t always have the competence or research maturity to understand particular consequences, so supervisor support, understanding and guidance is vital. I’m very happy that mine has taught me so much:)

Research involving children – ethics for Humanities

I found this document via the UCL Research Ethics Committee in the UK, it is a guidance note on research involving children (Read here).  UCT’s guide to research ethics is very general, and drawing on my own experiences, I don’t think it provides postgraduate students with enough information regarding research involving children. I have not found something on our UCT site which compares to that found on the UCL website. I did find a free e-book General Principles including research on children, vulnerable groups, international collaboration and epidemiology relating to ethics in health research from another SA university, as well as a UCT health sciences document on research involving children, but this is not 100% suited for those of us working in the Humanities, such as the field of Media Studies and New Literacy Studies. I find ResearchEthics.ca quite helpful, but once again it is more suited to the health profession and naturally subjects that are more closely aligned such as Psychology.

As a researcher, I am familiar with research in school settings and the necessary procedures to obtain permissions and consent. However, I have been doing fieldwork in a holiday club setting. Although hosted at a school, it is not a school – it is a club and the organisers and the children have their own practices. Enter PhD student researcher with PlayStation 3 and laptop and loads of cool age-appropriate games. Consent from club organisers check, consent forms completed by parents check, but uh oh…who’s that new kid? Clearly not a stable setting such as a classroom. Parents may allow their kids to join the club for the entire holiday, a week or even one day. So how do you treat the ‘new kids’ (i.e. those that you don’t have permission for)? Tell them they cannot play games – that’s just cruel. But I only have a limited fieldwork period and need video data… dilemma? I wanted my research to be a fun experience for kids and the feedback received assured me that it was, but there were a few ethical issues that were not handled efficiently due in a large part to the setting. One parent inquired about her child needing to sign an assent form in addition to her signing a consent form for her child. The Humanities research ethics committee assured me there is no such thing, but it turns out (according to documents reviewed and linked to in the previous paragraph) that this is common practice within the Health Sciences. My question is 1) is our institution preparing us enough regarding ethical processes and 2) is the ethics guide for Humanities students outdated because it mostly envisions MA and PhD students doing research with children in a school setting? 3) What about new methodologies such as virtual ethnography, where online spaces are researched rather than or in addition to physical places?

For me it boils down to discussing the setting or ‘field’ of one’s research with a supervisor, and it should be an ongoing conversation which should not end once you have done all the paperwork has been submitted and you have received ethical clearance for your study. I received ethical clearance for my study, but this did not mean that I wasn’t  faced with new challenges while conducting research. Keep your ethics cap on and your eyes open throughout:)