It is imperative for researchers to abide by clear research ethics in order to conduct their work in a professional and ethical manner. Simply put, ethics are a set of rules that distinguish between “right” and “wrong” and “bad” and “good” in any situation. Ethics are about the norms for conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in society.
Ethics in research
In research with human subjects, maintaining sound ethics is crucial at every stage. Be it in the research design, fieldwork or writing up and sharing of findings. At the most basic level, research ethics are informed by the principle of “do no harm”. Most of the codes of ethics used in research today were developed for the medical field, where trials/research on human subjects are common.
Many of the principles developed in these codes apply to social/development research and evaluation, including “do no harm”, and the need to bear in mind the power differentials between the researcher and the research subjects. Ethical characteristics, therefore, include honesty, objectivity, integrity, carefulness, openness, respect, and confidentiality.
One of the most important aspects of any research ethics code is informed consent. A participant has a right to understand fully the purpose of the research and the risks and benefits of participation. They have the right to anonymity, and to withdraw from the research at any point, or refuse to answer any question.
When research is being conducted with vulnerable groups or individuals, such as children, refugees, people who are abused or ill, minorities etc. these principles take on even greater importance due to the power differential in the research relationship. The risk of harm to the participant, either during the research process or as a result of the publication of findings. Research design should thus include ways to reduce or minimise the risk of harm.
However, conducting social research is often challenging and throws up complex scenarios that are not ethically straightforward. Successful and ethical research outcomes require properly trained and well-prepared researchers. Research plans and proposed methodologies in certain cases (e.g. research with children or other vulnerable subjects) need to be submitted to a recognised research ethics committee for approval and guidance before any fieldwork can commence. It is also imperative that research abides by the various laws that apply in any country regarding research generally, and with vulnerable populations.
At Development Works Changemakers (DWC) we take research ethics very seriously in all our research and evaluation activities. All of our senior research staff hold postgraduate degrees, have taken courses in research ethics, and have conducted advanced research requiring ethics clearance. They are thus in a position to lead fieldwork teams in ethical research practice. DWC also raises ethical issues from the outset with every partner or client. We also factor research ethics clearance into our proposed budgets and project timeframes.
DWC works with an extensive network of trusted associates and freelancers on repeat assignments. This allows trust to be established over time and our ethical approach to be embedded. Our team is also rigorous with recruiting and managing new fieldworkers to ensure quality standards are always adhered to. Fieldworkers are provided with a detailed contextual understanding and briefing. Ideally, we work with researchers who are located from the community where the research is taking place. This ensures ownership and a deep sense of community connection, understanding and networks.
Fieldworkers go through a detailed training programme before a fieldwork intervention. We focus on the local context, research, ethics, requirements and expectations, study objectives, methodology and tools to be used.
The team also roleplays and discusses different possible risks and challenges that may arise through scenario planning and how best to mitigate any problems or challenges that may be experienced in the field. Technical training is also provided on data gathering using tablets and mobile phones. Research teams are always fully prepared and well-oriented to carry out their fieldwork assignments as optimally and successfully as possible.
Given challenging socioeconomic conditions, risks do materialise whilst in the field. This includes security risks such as crime and safety of fieldworkers and equipment. No research study is worth risking the safety of a team member. At all times ethical behaviour guides all decisions we make whilst running challenging research and evaluation assignments. Especially in under-resourced communities where risks are high.
People are unpredictable and sometimes community dynamics and political contexts are complicated. No matter how well-trained fieldworkers may be, working with communities can bring about unexpected challenges when they respond in different or unpredictable ways.
Understand the circumstances
It is important to be appreciative of participants’ time and input. However, a balance is needed in respect of any material payment or gift offered in return for participation. Airtime, a snack or small meal may be provided in return for a person’s participation in an interview. Our team shows gratitude and appreciation, in line with good research ethical practice and guidelines.
Fieldworkers always need to be trained in handling unexpected situations in a professional and ethical manner. If in doubt, there is always a senior member of staff to guide them in such situations. Treating people with respect, dignity and tact, and explaining the project objectives and terms carefully helps ensure mutual respect, good research practice and positive results.
Our DWC portfolio is a testament to how we practice ethics and understanding in the workplace. We’d love to work with you.