On ethical vetting of social science research projects, and some good news

FORSKARBLOGG: DAVID REDMALM, ANNIKA SKOGLUND och KARIN BERGLUND

Our project “Videography of ’Alternative Entrepreneurships’—Prezi's cultivation of openness and anti-racism” was recently approved by an ethical research committee so we devote this blog-post to a discussion about ethical vetting of research projects within the social sciences. In 2008 an addition to the Statute concerning the Ethical Review of Research Involving Humans (2003:615) law came into force in Sweden. The law requires all research projects that involve sensitive personal information, such as political beliefs, religious convictions, individuals’ health and sexual orientation, to be reviewed by a research committee. In addition, the law stresses that an ethical approval is needed if a new method is to be used. The research committees in Sweden have traditionally first and foremost dealt with medical research that pose a physical risk for the research participants. But being involved in social science research is also associated with certain risks related to mental health and integrity. For example, an in-depth interview about a difficult subject could trigger a psychological crisis, especially if the interviewee has a history of difficult experiences related to the themes of the interview. Furthermore, gathering sensitive information about a person, especially if one is also collecting that person’s name and contact details, puts that person’s integrity at stake. Dealing with such empirical material in the wrong way is not only unethical, but potentially criminal: the Swedish Privacy Act also applies to researchers who handle personal data.

The advantages and disadvantages of the increasing role of ethics committees in ethical decisions in research practice are debated (Atkinson, 2009; Dingwall, 1980). Some claim that research boards remove the responsibility from the actual researchers and make research ethics into something external to research practice—something to be dealt with by professionals on an ethics board. Others point out that in spite of ethical peer reviewing, modern research contains a history of unethical research. Furthermore, the ethical committees include both researchers and laypersons, which is a way to ensure that the ethical decisions in research projects are rooted in widely held moral beliefs. In addition, the procedure with ethical boards and approvals of research creates an exalted ethical position of the researcher, in comparison to others, for instance journalists who are ethically framed in less bureaucratic ways. Surely, this will be a continuing debate in academia—which in itself keeps research ethics on the agenda and spurs ethical discussions among researchers.

Our project collects audiovisual material as a means to create stories about the details of everyday work at the Hungarian IT company Prezi. Even though Prezi’s main product is a digital presentation tool, they describe both the tool and their social interventions as a fundamental part of their general social engagement in Hungary. Complementary to a spread of ideas worldwide via the Prezi tool, the company participates in the Pride parade and the CEO regularly addresses the situation for LGBTQ people in Hungarian mass media. They repair buildings in a Roma community each year, act as mentors and award scholarships, to Roma youths. In other words, a videography of the company’s activities will include filming in contexts where people may feel particularly exposed, such as the Pride parade, or in communities suffering from poverty.

When working on the ethical application, we had to think exceptionally carefully about the places and persons we would include in the video, and how. We describe a number of precautions during the collection of empirical material to avoid abuse of people’s integrity. For example, all individuals participating in in-depth interviews will be given verbal and printed information regarding the project, and will be asked to sign a form of consent to make sure that the interviewees understand the scope of the project and the reason for collecting data. While the form of consent belongs to a widespread research practice, a more ethically complex aspect of our research is the fact that we cannot in advance be sure of the character of the empirical material that will be acquired during the interviews. An interview with an employee working at a company that also aims to change the society where they are based can take unexpected turns. Questions about people’s typical work day or their responsibilities in the organization can suddenly come to include sensitive information such as an interviewee’s political views, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. In a company that challenges the border between professional and private life, it can be difficult to exactly decide when one is interviewing people about on the one hand their job, and on the other hand, their innermost private convictions. For the interviewee it may also be difficult to decide what information to share while being interviewed, which may result in the interviewee sharing more than he or she had planned to do originally. This means that the researchers must be especially cautious when choosing what examples to include from the data collection in the final academic text or video. Therefore, the creation of videographies about Prezi’s social operations will include a stage of meticulous editing, where we will have to think about the possible ethical implications of each film clip. Can we include this particular comment and still respect the integrity of the interviewee? Do we need to anonymize this scene by blurring faces and modulating voices? Or do we need to exclude the video sequence altogether to secure the integrity of the research participants?  

After submitting the application (a document of 55 pages), printing of 18 copies that were posted for the thorough review and about two months of waiting, we got our approval.  The regional ethics board considers that the precautions that we will take are adequate in relation to the planned project, the character of the empirical material and the choice of interviewees. But this does not mean that our ethical reflection regarding the project has come to an end; instead, it has just begun. In our opinion, a rigorous ethical position embraces the research participant’s views on ethics and includes these to rather let the research ethics unfurl (Clarke, 2012), as true research undoubtedly develops along unscripted paths. The ethical approval means that we can continue with our plans for the study, but living up to the precautions described in the original ethics application will demand constant reflection and continuous work throughout the research project. 

Until next time,
David Redmalm, Annika Skoglund and Karin Berglund

 

References
Atkinson, Paul. (2009). Ethics and ethnography. Twenty-First Century Society, 4(1), 17-30.
Clarke, Andrew. (2012). Visual ethics in a contemporary landscape. In S. Pink (Ed.), Advances in visual methodology (pp. 17-35). London and New York: Sage.
Dingwall, Robert. (1980). Ethics and ethnography. The sociological review, 28(4), 871-891.