Ethical Research for Social Good

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Focus Research Social GoodResearch for Social Good is a MethodSpace focus for October. Learn about ethical dimensions from guest blogger, Dr. Helen Kara. Helen is an independent researcher, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and a Visiting Fellow at the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods.

Research Ethics in the Real Worldresearch-ethics-in-the-real-world
Dr. Helen Kara

I decided to do some research into the principles and practices of research ethics in preparation for writing my forthcoming book Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives. Research for sole-authored books is different from other forms of research. In some ways it’s easier, because it’s only me doing it, but I also knew my book proposal and manuscript would undergo peer review so my research had to be reasonably rigorous. I decided to interview people around the world who work with research ethics in a range of ways: university-based and independent scholars and researchers; doctoral students, lecturers, and professors; people who apply for formal ethical approval and people who work on committees assessing those applications. I conducted 18 in-depth interviews with people from six continents. I wanted to find out how people navigate ethical difficulties in practice at all stages of the research process. I also did a lot of desk research, reviewing as much of the literature on research ethics as I could.

I decided to do this research because I was unsatisfied with existing books on research ethics. Some of them are very good books, but it bugged me that they all tend to treat research ethics as an isolated phenomenon. Part of my argument is that research ethics is inextricably linked with individual, social, professional, institutional and political ethics. In my view, we need to be aware of those links, make them explicit, and seek to understand them if we are to become truly ethical researchers. Initially, the other part of my argument was that research governance systems place too much emphasis on the data gathering stage of research, and not enough – often, in fact, none – on the other stages of research. This leads to teachers focusing on ways in which students can gain formal ethical approval, rather than teaching novice researchers how to think and act ethically. Further, it leads to researchers who think that, when they receive formal ethical approval, that they have ‘done ethics’. I knew from my own research work that ethical difficulties can arise at any stage of the research process, and I wanted to help researchers and the research community to address those problems more effectively.

In July 2016 I was well underway with the interviewing, had submitted a proposal to my publisher, and had begun work on the book. Then I attended a seminar on Indigenous research at the Research Methods Festival in Bath. The seminar was led by three Indigenous researchers: Professor Bagele Chilisa from Botswana, Dr Deborah McGregor from Canada, and Professor Helen Moewaka Barnes from New Zealand. They taught me that Indigenous research uses a different paradigm from Euro-Western research, and in fact pre-dates Euro-Western research by tens of thousands of years. They explained the key Indigenous ethical principles of accountability, reciprocity, communality of knowledge, and benefit sharing. I was fascinated and resolved to read as much about Indigenous research methods and ethics as I could.

This caused a fundamental shift in my plans. I decided to set the Indigenous and Euro-Western paradigms side by side in my book, not to compare or try to assess which is ‘better’, but to enable learning, particularly for Euro-Western researchers. In the UK, where I am from and where I live and work, few people know of Indigenous research. I believe this needs to change, because Indigenous research and researchers have been, and still are, oppressed and marginalised, and continuing to ignore their work colludes with that oppression and marginalisation.

However, as so often, this raises new ethical difficulties. The main risk is that I could be extractive. This means I could take knowledge from Indigenous researchers and use it to benefit my own career with no benefit to Indigenous peoples. I do not think I have done this for two main reasons. First, there are calls in the Indigenous literature for Euro-Western scholars to use and cite Indigenous work as well as Euro-Western work, and my book responds to these calls, so I hope it will benefit Indigenous researchers and communities by making their work more widely known. Second, there is absolutely no guarantee that this book will benefit my career. I am an independent researcher with no academic or other salary, and I spent three-and-a-quarter years writing the book in my own time. Judging by some of the comments from peer reviewers and readers of my blog, the book is going to make some people quite angry, so it may even prove detrimental to my career.

Nevertheless, I think it needed writing. It covers topics such as aftercare which are rarely addressed in any of the literature. I didn’t abandon my initial argument: part 1 of the book deals with the links between research ethics and other types of ethics, and part 2 has chapters on ethical difficulties that may arise at each stage of the research process. Indigenous work is cited throughout alongside Euro-Western work.

In writing this book, I have tried to conduct ethical research about research ethics. The book will disseminate my research. It is for the book’s readers to judge the extent to which I may have failed or succeeded in my aims.

Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives is available from Policy Press in the UK, University of Chicago Press in the US, .and on

Related posts on Helen’s blog:  The Ethics of Independent Research Work and Ethical Principles for Independent Researchers.

Helen Kara

More about Helen Kara

Dr. Helen Kara has been an independent researcher since 1999 and writes and teaches on research methods. She is the author of Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, and Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives. In 2015 Helen was the first fully independent researcher to be conferred as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods.

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