Research ethics: what it is and why it matters

Afghanistan field visit

At Erasmus University Rotterdam, researchers can – and in some cases are required to – submit their research proposals to Research Ethics Review Committees. We spoke to two experienced researchers at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Kristen Cheney and Rodrigo Mena, to learn more about what comes into play when we talk about research ethics.

One thing to clearly emerge from our conversation is that research ethics is a complex process involving different norms and values depending on the situation and context. ‘It’s a balancing act,’ Mena says. ‘There will always be compromises and you’ll never manage to get a 100%, bulletproof ethical guarantee.’ But it’s important that researchers are aware of ethical issues. Otherwise, ‘how can we say that our research is ethical, if we’re putting ourselves or others at risk?’

Kristen Cheney is associate professor of children and youth studies at the International Institute of Social Studies and a member of the Research Ethics Committee. Much of her research focuses on children and young people. Cheney co-runs a workshop with Joanna Baskott from the Research Ethics Committee in the CERES PhD course and for some of the MA students before they start their research papers at ISS, during which they present students with a number of dilemmas to facilitate discussions on ethics. 

Rodrigo Mena is assistant professor of disasters and humanitarian studies at the International Institute of Social Studies. He has a strong interest in the ethics of research and together with his colleague, Prof Thea Hilhorst, advocates for ethics as an ongoing process throughout the whole research cycle. Together with Hilhorst and others he has developed a resource for carrying out fieldwork in remote settings and carries out regular training sessions."

What we talk about when we talk about research ethics 

‘What’s the basic principle of ethics? It’s not to do harm,’ says Mena. But harm wears many hats. So it’s important to understand that the norms and values that should shape academic research relate to many facets of the research process: researchers, the research community, the institutions the researchers represent and collaborate with, the people who participate in their research, as well as society at large. What’s more, research ethics is not always clear cut. One of the reasons why it’s a balancing act and requires compromise is that these norms and values can conflict with each other. For example, there are times when researchers may have to weigh the relative benefits of the research against the risks.  

Researchers at ISS often work with vulnerable populations. So it’s important that they respect the safety, security, privacy, integrity and dignity of these individuals and vulnerable groups. Researchers also require the consent of participants, and when this isn’t straightforward – as is the case with children, for example – then researchers should make sure they’ve done everything they can to minimise the risks. To do this, it’s important that researchers understand and show an interest in the culture and values of the people they’re interacting with.  

Blend in, keep your distance or something in between? 

How should researchers interact with the communities they’re researching? Is it a given that they should try to blend in, or is it important that they respectfully keep their distance? In Cheney’s research, which often focuses on children in Eastern and Southern Africa, it’s something in between the two. ‘I don’t know that I really blend in,’ she says. ‘Even though I’ve worked in Uganda for many years and it feels like one of my homes, I still stick out like a sore thumb. Given that I work with children, the goal is never really to try and get the children to see you as the same as them. Rather, it’s to establish a rapport with them.’ 

‘It’s never about sameness but always about appreciating each other’s differences.'

Kristen Cheney

In fact, much of what Cheney does is to undo some of the assumptions that are encouraged in children around adult authority. Her position as an outsider has helped her establish this rapport, because they don’t see her as a typical adult who has authority over them. ‘And at the same time, I’m trying to learn from them what it’s like to be a kid in Uganda. So I play games with them and get it wrong, or they teach me Luganda and I mispronounce words, all of which makes them laugh.’ These are all ways of building rapport. ‘It’s never about sameness but always about appreciating each other’s differences.  Sometimes it can be an asset to be different. But that's always very situational, of course.’ 

Ethics encompasses the entire research process 

Mena agrees that the idea of blending in isn’t really apt. ‘Every time I do research, I take time to observe and understand the place. So it’s not about blending in but about how to respect the place and its cultural, ecological, social and political environments.’ Indeed, ethics not only comes into play early on in the design phase of a research project, but it encompasses the entire research process. ‘How do we engage with the people and translate our methodologies in a way that doesn’t put others at risk, in a way that is ethical for others? This starts when you develop your ideas, but it extends to writing the proposal, the preliminary process of collecting data, through to the actual collecting of data and everything after it,’ Mena shares. 

That’s why it pays to involve young researchers in the research design and give them a more active role in the actual research. ‘We learn from young people when we involve them as co-producers of knowledge,’ Cheney says. ‘We found that sometimes our partners, such as NGOs, have a very different idea of what youth participatory research means. To me, it means that young researchers are involved every step of the way, from the design to data collection to the analysis.’ Too often, there are assumptions about young people’s capabilities. The trick is to provide balanced support. ‘You need to give young researchers the structure of support,’ Cheney says, ‘but it’s also important not to intervene and take over too much when they run into challenges.’  

‘You need to bring safety and security to your research.’

Rodrigo Mena

Safety and security 

The safety and security of the people researchers work with doesn’t necessarily involve high-risk situations. ‘You need to bring safety and security to your research,’ Mena says, ‘even if you’re doing it one block away from Erasmus University Rotterdam. You may be working with someone who experienced something traumatic, and by asking the wrong question, you can retraumatise them.’ Moreover, research ethics has to be taken into consideration when conducting remote and online research as well. This is especially true today, when many more people are conducting research using remote methods as a result of the pandemic.  

Research can have immediate but also long-term repercussions. ‘You need to think about who you’re interacting with. If you go to the same corner shop every day to buy something, are you putting the person working in that corner shop at risk? Will someone from the government or other authorities start asking who this person is? These are the kinds of things you need to think about when considering safety and security.’  

Building lasting relationships 

Cheney warns that researchers are sometimes prone to helicopter research: they swoop in, get the information they need and swoop out again. ‘But even a brief encounter can have lasting effects on a population, especially in a high-risk area. Even so, it can have an effect on researchers that come after you, for instance, if you don’t live up to the promise of sharing your research results. You need to ask yourself: how can I build a lasting relationship? For example, I’ve been going to the same places and community for a long time, so I have ongoing relationships and commitments to that community. If I didn’t, I think it would be problematic.’ Of course, this means people start to have expectations, and that introduces other ethical considerations.  

The ethical committee as a useful resource 

That’s why it’s important to always bear in mind that research ethics is an organic process, and researchers need to be aware and willing to adapt their plans when needed. ‘We all learn from our mistakes,’ Cheney says. ‘I’ve had some sessions with PhD students around ethical issues where we talked about some real ethical quagmires and how to solve them.’ But researchers working alone don’t always have this luxury.  

That’s why it’s important for researchers to realise that ethical review committees are a body of expertise that can help in these situations. ‘They’re not just a hoop you need to jump through,’ Cheney says. Mena adds, ‘Use the committee as a resource you can come back to when you face unanticipated issues.’ Indeed, the Research Ethics Review Committees at Erasmus University Rotterdam consist of researchers from social sciences and/or humanities who are familiar with the practices of EUR researchers. ‘It’s important for researchers to be open and honest, and to show their vulnerabilities,’ says Cheney. ‘Even as an experienced researcher, I don't have all the answers.’ 

More information

Related links

You can further check the Ethics Review webpages to find information on the Research Ethics Review Committees, informed consent procedures and templates. You might even want to submit your ethics case study

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