BERA members, through informal conversation, recognised that there was a danger that qualitative studies may become under threat from not being approved by ethical committees in an increasingly risk-averse society. If it is agreed that educational research needs to generate the widest range of evidence in order to inform practice (Biesta, 2007; Wrigley, 2018), then research approaches including – indeed especially – those generating qualitative data are needed. There are, however, societal pressures on educational settings that affect how willing they are to host research, and on higher educational institutions that affect what research they are prepared to approve in their names. It is easy to be sensitised to the potential for damage to organisational and individual reputations from identifiable research, as well as to become conservative in response to new data protection responsibilities following the introduction of General Data Protection Regulations and revision of the Data Protection Act in 2018.
At the 2019 annual BERA conference in Manchester, a ‘hot topic’ session was held to discuss ‘Qualitative Research and Ethics Committees: Differences, Disconnects and Diverging Priorities’, by members of BERA’s Creativities in Education, Inclusive Education and Research Methodology in Education special interest groups (SIGs) and the Early Career Researcher Network. The blog posts that form this special issue led in to, and arose from, this event. This series of articles draws on the perspectives of early-career and established researchers researching in settings as diverse as early childhood, school-based research, international perspectives and ethical committees.
The Research Methodology in Education SIG co-convenors Carmel Capewell and Alison Fox initiated this blog series by offering an overview of issues surrounding gaining informed consent, which extends beyond the normative practice of gathering signed consent forms. The responsibilities, and indeed cultural sensitivities, attendant on planning to collect signatures, and the ambiguities concerning the offer of confidentiality and anonymity, particularly in this increasingly digital age, are addressed.
In the second post, Sarah Quinton speaks on behalf of human research ethics committees in raising awareness of the accountabilities to which they are beholden and the challenges they face in reviewing applications. A dialogic, rather than combative, approach is advocated as the way forward – one in which applicants and reviewers come to a rich understanding of the aims and challenges of a particular study (Busher & Fox, in press). This requires ethical learning on both sides.
Richard Davies picks up on these tensions in the third post to reveal the differences in worldviews at play both within ethical committees and between applicants and committees. He explains how, given that these often remain implicit rather than being articulated, we might account for some of the awkward interchanges between researchers and ethics committees. Richard also raises the importance of recognising human fallibility and the need to share the responsibility of ethical decision-making in order to defend the valuable role of researchers coming together, in ethical committees for example, to support individual researchers.
Our discussions then turned to how, having gained approval, to enact informed consent in different settings. In the fourth post, Jo Trowsdale reflects on how educational practitioners are well placed to apply their pedagogical expertise to maximising the understanding that potential participants in research have of that research’s intentions. She raises the importance of recognising power differentials between researcher and participant in, for example, the spaces in which the research takes place. She also discusses the responsibilities of researchers to help those who have not experienced research before to anticipate what it might feel like and, therefore, issues they might want to consider. While this is illustrated by examples from school settings, going beyond a transmission model of informing potential participants to helping them come to an informed decision about their participation is relevant to all those we aim to recruit. Jo argues that this should not be limited to activity only at the outset of a project: opportunities should be offered for ongoing renegotiation based on the realities of participants’ experiences of the research.
The relevance to researchers of paying attention to the non-verbal signalling of participants is developed in the fifth contribution by Liz Rouse. In this post Liz focusses on issues around consent in settings with very young children and their families, and invokes the ways in which assent, as well as consent, needs to be garnered so that researchers have confidence that those participating are sufficiently and appropriately informed. Liz explains the multi-modal approach she took to gaining informed consent, which included participants being involved in the development of the project in relation to their data.
This blog series concludes with a post from Philip Poulton about the value of ethical reflexivity. He illustrates this through reflections on what he has learned about ethical principles and behaviours in relation to his experiences of researching as an insider researcher. His article charts how he moved from, in his own words, the naïvity of being a researcher to becoming more virtuous in his conduct. He picks up on issues raised in the earlier posts in the series, such as the importance of recognising the hidden manifestations of power differentials and continuing to worry about whether participants are fully cognisant of the implications of signing up to a study throughout its course, including in its dissemination. Philip helps us conclude this series by advocating that we all use ethical reflexivity as part of a commitment to enacting the ethical principles that, we claim, underpin our studies, and to better adapt ourselves to settings and our positionalities as we move from study to study.
We’d like to take this chance to thank all those who, before, during and after it took place at BERA’s annual conference, engaged with this ‘hot topic’ discussion, which has allowed the airing of issues often left unspoken and unaddressed. This has offered some ways forward for more confidently gaining approval, consent and assent for educational research, and we encourage the submission of further BERA Blog posts on this topic so that we can continue this valuable conversation.
Biesta, G. (2007). Why ‘what works’ won’t work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deﬁcit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57(1), 1–22.
Busher, H. & Fox, A. (in press). The amoral academy? A critical discussion of research ethics in the neo-liberal university. Educational Philosophy and Theory.
Wrigley, T. (2018, June 28). Evidence and the EEF Toolkit: Reliable science or a blunt set of tools? (blog post). Retrieved from http://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/evidence-and-the-eef-toolkit-reliable-science-or-a-blunt-set-of-tools