When do Research Ethics Matter?

Our research ethics matter as soon as we do any academic work.

When we do research using texts we need to ensure we act with academic integrity – referencing our sources accurately and appropriately. But what we are focussed on here is the ethics involved in research with people – observations, interviews, surveys, focus groups and all the other possible methods we might use.

Our research ethics matter when we are planning our research, conducting our research, writing up our research, and sharing our research:

Planning

Most universities will require students to undertake an ethical review and approval process of some sort. This ensures that you have thought about all the ethical implications of your research and someone with experience has agreed your plans. Some things to consider:

  • Design your methods carefully. Badly designed research can be an ethical risk in itself – it is more likely to waste participant time and lead to accidental data breaches. Considering the ethical implications of your research will help you to design robust and effective method and analysis.
  • Include all the information. It is useful, and often required, to share documents such as information sheets and template consent forms. Look for examples in your institution – there’s no need to reinvent the wheel but it might need some redesign!
  • Demonstrate the academic credentials of the proposal. Reference the scholars who write about the ethical issues or deal with the ethical issues in the methods you plan to use. Give examples of successful, ethically robust, studies which use similar methods. Sometimes research on religion is more likely to be considered controversial – so using examples from the study of religion can be helpful.
  • Get advice. As a novice researcher undergraduate students are not expected to be experts. Ask for advice and suggestions from academic staff.

Conducting

There are a lot of things to remember when conducting your first interview or focus group. Or even when sharing your first survey. Here are some top tips:

  • Take your time. You’ve got careful plans. Give yourself time to make sure you have everything set up. Better to take your time and have some good data than to rush and find you can’t use the information you have gathered!
  • Respect. This will be a theme throughout all of your work but there will be practical implications when conducting your research. If you are interviewing someone in a place of worship, or advertising your survey through social media, think about whether your approach is appropriate. Don’t take your cigarettes into a Gurdwara for instance, or don’t advertise your survey using images or terms which might be offensive.
  • Check, check and check again. Ensure your have consent, you have clarity about what is happening, that your recording device is working, that you collect all your papers and devices together at the end.
  • Be honest. If things are not going well, stop and regroup. For instance, if the survey is clearly getting some odd answers you might have to withdraw it and start again.
  • Get advice. Your supervisor will be able to advise if something doesn’t quite go to plan. A problem shared is a problem halved!

Writing up

What actually makes it into your final report or dissertation is the tip of the iceberg – but it is important that your decision are ethical. Your evidence must be robust and reliable but it must also be appropriately presented. Make sure:

  • You reference carefully all of your sources – academic or fieldwork
  • Your methods of analysis are appropriate and your results are reliable and can be justified.
  • You explain the ethical challenges your project faced, and how you addressed them.

Sharing your research

You will have planned in your sharing strategy from the start – it is important that the participants have given consent for way in which you share the data you’ve gathered from them. You might not be permitted to share your final report or dissertation but, if you can, religious groups are often delighted to receive them. Sharing our research is an important ethical commitment as it provides some reciprocity for the participants who have given you their time and assistance. On this website we share some examples of student research about religion in Leeds but we always check with the place of worship, or organisation, that the student worked with first. Sometimes minor errors can have big implications – so it is always worth checking!