Are Research Ethics a Question of Public Opinion?

Aerial View of Bentiu Protection of Civilians Site, South Sudan. Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo.

Guest post by Stephanie Schwartz.

With seemingly everyone in political science descending on conflict zones for fieldwork or to conduct human subjects experiments, questions about research ethics have rightly come to the fore. While scholars have discussed these issues among themselves, what do the people we study think? This is the question posed in a new study by Dr. Scott Desposato which asks research subjects and scholars their opinions on the “acceptability” of different hypothetical research designs.

Respecting our research participants and staff as equals—and taking their views into account as we design projects—is immensely important, and it is a responsibility to which our field has yet to fully live up. It is also a complicated task, and one to which I’m not sure public opinion surveys are best suited.

Why? For one, the question of what a researcher should do when her own evaluations of “acceptability” differ from those of her research participants is an ethical question in itself. Take this example: A human rights advocate wants their interview with a researcher to be on the record. But the researcher worries that disclosing the subject’s name might put them in harm’s way. Does the researcher follow the participant’s understanding of “acceptable risk” and publish their name? Or do they follow their own instincts and keep the source anonymous?

When I posted this question on Twitter, some scholars felt that publishing the informant’s name would be an unequivocal ethical violation given the researcher’s risk assessment; others argued that abiding by the interviewee’s wishes would be the more ethical choice on the grounds that respecting our subjects means trusting them to make these decisions for themselves (when well informed). Several scholars indicated that, because of the threat of violence, they would err on the side of caution and anonymize the interview, but that doing so would still be uncomfortably paternalistic. Clearly, there aren’t any easy answers here. But I would argue that these are the tough questions that our discussions of research ethics need to tackle.

The second issue with over-reliance on public opinion surveys is the idea that the general public’s evaluation of the relative ethical icky-ness of a research design is the same as scholars’ assessments. Both are important. But I do not expect research subjects to be experts in ethical research design—I do expect scholars to be.

Scholars conducting human subjects research should be more sensitive to potential risks. Researchers have the privilege of going out into the world and extracting information from other people. With that privilege comes the responsibility of respecting and protecting research subjects and staff. As such, we should spend more time than the general public learning about the devastating history which led to formulation of standards for informed consent; we should know to consider whether and how to protect the anonymity of sources before going to the field in case the government subpoenas our interviews for use in an international kidnapping and murder investigation (it has happened before); and our expertise should prompt us to question experimental designs that have the potential to alter real elections outcomes—even if subjects are willing to participate.

In fact, I would argue that teaching researchers how to think through the ethical ramifications of their research, and training them on how to ensure the safety of everyone involved, is an essential (though all too frequently absent) component of social science methodology training (Desposato’s edited volume also notes the importance of including ethics in research design training).

Given that expertise in research ethics requires training, over-reliance on public opinion—as compared to expert assessment—of risk sets a dangerous precedent. If the public is not bothered by the lack of informed consent, does that open the door for researchers to engage in potentially harmful practices?

While public opinion data may not be the best way to evaluate risk, it can still tell us a lot about research subjects’ preferences. Indeed, one of the most striking take-aways from this article is that, if given the choice, many potential research participants do not want to participate in our research. This finding provides further evidence that we should be assessing when and how frequently our projects need to intervene in people’s lives as ardently as we interrogate our causal inference strategies.

I wholeheartedly agree that as a discipline we need to do better, especially when it comes to constructing ethical relationships between researchers and subjects. To that end, we could benefit from more empirical studies on research ethics—but empirical does not mean exclusively quantitative. For example, several existing articles use qualitative empirical data to outline common ethical issues for research in violent and volatile contexts, develop best practices for research on sexual violence, and propose new relational interviewing methodologies.

Still, we can and should do more. We could also sit down with members of the communities we study and have a conversation—a two-way dialogue—about how research interventions impact their lives and how they want to engage with us. At the very least we should take into account what they’re already saying, even if it means conducting less research, not more.

Stephanie Schwartz is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Perry World House, University of Pennsylvania and an Assistant Professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. 

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