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‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field’: Ethics and educational leadership research

Alison Fox Carol Azumah Dennis

This blog reports on the BERA event, ‘Ethics and Educational Leadership Research’, held at the Open University, Milton Keynes, on 28 March 2018. Carol Azumah Dennis’s keynote focussed on the ethical challenges of researching educational leadership. Working with the ideas of Hannah Arendt, she proposed that ethical challenges may be thought of in terms of Arendt’s concepts of labour, work and action. Her evocative metaphors invited us to consider how we move towards Rumi’s field between right and wrong.

The keynote was followed by presentations by Mishel Moriah, Val Poultney and Deb Outhwaite, authors published in the recent special issue of Management in Education, ‘Exploring Research Methods for Educational Leadership’, which drew out the ethical issues associated with these methodological papers. Jodie Pennacchia and Alison Fox then summarised the progress made with the revision of the BERA ethical guidelines. The key areas of development in the revised BERA ethical guidance structured the afternoon discussion, which focussed on draft case studies in areas made prominent in the revised guidelines: visual data, data reuse and ownership, international studies and researcher wellbeing. Here we offer thoughts about our ethical concerns about using visual data and reusing data, especially in light the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that has recently come into force.

Visual data: powerful evidence but is it shackled ethically?

Visual and verbal data are both considered identifiable in terms of the GDPR – rightly so, given modern voice recognition capacity. Those captured in such data need protection, which is made harder by the difficulties in determining who ultimately owns the data. When we capture ‘data’ in this way, are we viewing those captured as objects, subjects or participants? What are the particular implications for gaining consent and deciding whether, how and where it is reasonable to share their data? We felt that educational leaders have a professional duty of care, and that researchers working within their settings should respect colleague’s opinions about their plans for data collection, storage and dissemination. In seeking research participants’ consent, researchers need to outline their intentions fully, including mechanisms for disseminating research findings. We debated whether ‘for academic purposes’ was an acceptable catch-all, which might cover conferences, training, published papers, reanalysis and onward use of data.

While visual data does present risks to research participants, there are also risks in not using it for the research process. Might we become overly timid in our data-collection methods and avoid generating the data we need? Whose voice does an overly-defensive approach privilege? Western cultural concerns with privacy may stifle other, culturally appropriate ways of giving voice to research participants. If we have rights in relation to visual and verbal data akin to intellectual property rights, is the right to share our data greater, equal to or lesser than the right to have it protected?

Reusing data: In what circumstances?

When thinking about the conditions needed for reasonable reuse of data, we decided that the key issue was intent: it is important to compare the intent of the initial data collection to that of its reuse. Any ongoing use should enhance rather than detract from the trust built with participants, which might lead to the decision to go back to them (if possible) and ask their permission for reuse. Research participants may experience this risk differently depending on whether the researcher is requesting re-use themselves or planning to make the dataset open – in a databank, for example. The GDPR requires transparency about any data transfer, and that data is collected for specified purposes. One advantage of gaining sufficient consent to cover future use is that there is then no need to destroy data after project completion. Online data, even though it may be considered already in the public domain, might also require researchers – if it is to be used for purposes different to that which the data-owner imagined – to make their intentions clear and attempt to gain consent.

In conclusion, we felt that risk assessments were actually conversations with those in research settings. Entering the research field moves us beyond simple rights and wrongs, into a space of ambiguity. This space needs nuance, consideration and openness. Who are we protecting, and from what? What are the limits of our control? Are we willing to adapt our research to be sensitive to cultural norms in our research setting? Whose ethics provide the ultimate justification for what is considered right- or wrongdoing? If researchers can develop situated views of ethics based on agreed principles, they are best-placed to make their case for ethical practice.

Slide presentations from the ‘Ethics and Educational Leadership Research’ event discussed above can be found here.


Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition, second edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press