The Importance of Ethical Clearance

Yesterday, my officemates and I found ourselves in a discussion about ethics. A few of our newer students have been applying for ethical clearance related to studies they are conducting with human participants: interviews and focus groups. I had to apply for this ethical clearance during my first year of my PhD, so I was fielding a lot of questions.

How do we have to store our data, and how long can we store it for?

What is a risk assessment, and what kinds of things do I need to include in mine?

What do you use to transcribe?

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Things got a little less easy when the questions shifted to participant identity.

Due to the nature of my research, I have to name my participants in my reports. Will that be okay?

Not so easy anymore.

I faced this same issue. The identities of some of my interviewees have been so critical to my arguments that I knew well in advance that I’d have to name them. Those participants signed consent forms allowing me to name them, too. So, what’s the problem? We’re supposed to let those named participants read the things we write about – or resulting from – our personal interactions with them well in advance of any kind of publication. This can include, but is not limited to, conference papers, academic articles, popular articles, books, and blogs. Named participants are entitled to know in advance how they are going to be represented, and named participants are entitled to the opportunity to nix things that they feel may represent them or paint them in negative light. With that – yes, you can name your participants, if they give you permission to do so. But doing so leaves you with some added responsibility.

One of my colleagues expressed frustration at this. They need to read everything I write about them? What if they’re difficult to get in touch with in a year’s time? What if I don’t have the time to consult them before a conference paper?

I get it. Administratively, ethics can get annoying. It’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of back-and-forth with your participants. Sometimes, people aren’t on top of their emails, and you just have to wait. Other times, they say that they don’t like what you’ve written about them, which means that you can be a bit limited with what you can say. It sucks. I want to ~speak my truths~, y’all.

And so I got asked another question: Can I just send my participants my transcripts of our discussions, and they can just approve those and be done with it? Imagine, though, that you are checking your emails one day and a friend sends you an article that quotes you. Cool, you think. I’m famous! As you read the article, though, you realize that what you had once said has been completely taken out of context. Sure, you said those words, but you didn’t mean them in the way they’ve been framed. In a worst-case scenario, this could mean that you’re portrayed as racist, homophobic, sexist… It could mean you’re defamed. It could mean that future employers or Tinder matches look you up and are led to believe that you’re a horrible person. It could damage your livelihood. In a less-bad scenario, it could mean you’re just left really irritated. It could mean that you’re left with a lack of trust for academic institutions that are usually touted as social do-gooders. And this could have been prevented had you just been given the chance to proofread the article’s mentions of you prior to publication.

As a researcher, you are in a position of power over your participants. You are backed by an institution that funds your research, and will often provide you with moral and legal support should you fall into murky territory. You are responsible for ensuring that you do not abuse this power, holding it above your participants.

You participants are giving you their stories, but those stories are not yours to freely share.

To shirk ethical consideration in your studies makes both you and your institution look bad. It is not only lazy, but immoral, because to forgo such consideration shows an altogether lack of acknowledgement for your privileged position and your participants’ wellbeing. Getting ethical clearance – making your case to a board of ethical advisors – is a way of making sure that your work remains mindful of power dynamics and social responsibility.

In my time as PhD student, I have seen other students try to get around having to go through the ethical clearance process. I have heard of students and staff doing interviews without any kind of ethical clearance – interviews that they are not technically allowed to use in their published work because they did not adhere to the proper administrative procedures. I have listened to presentations about projects that try to justify avoidance of ethical documentation by saying that ‘the project is for the good of researchers everywhere’.

Often, ethical clearance is not difficult to get. If you’re not naming your participants, it’s a lot easier. Really, though, it’s a bunch of forms that force you to think about where your research fits within greater social contexts. It’s a lot of work, but it’s necessary, and appropriate time for filling out these forms comprehensively should be factored into any research project.

Show your participants some respect and suck it up. Ethical clearance is for both them and you.

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