Research ethics in the real world

Scenario-based exercises

These scenarios are intended more for classroom or group discussion than individual work.

You may also find it useful to refer to the case studies of real-life ethical dilemmas considered by the UK and Ireland Social Research Association’s ethics consultancy forum.

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You are conducting research with a small community of refugees who have recently settled in your area.

You know they are facing discrimination from local residents. As you build trust with your participants, the women begin to tell you that they are experiencing domestic violence from the men in their own community. They ask you to write about this in your research, because they think that will shame the men into stopping the violence. The women ask you not to go to the police because they fear being deported. You think that if you write about their experiences of domestic violence, local residents will take an even more negative view of the refugee community.

What do you do?

You are running a focus group with young men of colour, to look at their attitudes to fatherhood.

Some of the group members talk about how they feel that their evangelistic Christian faith gives them a good model for fatherhood in a loving God the Father. Another group member says he and his boyfriend are planning to adopt a child because they feel that their relationship has the stability and love to provide a secure and happy home. One of the Christians starts saying, politely but assertively with a pointing finger, that it is sinful to be gay and that he should find Jesus and be saved. The other Christians are nodding and saying quietly, 'Amen' and 'Amen, brother'.

What do you do?

A national Government has recently legalised euthanasia for people who are terminally ill, of sound mind, and have the support of two medical doctors. The Government has asked you to evaluate the impact of this new law on families, communities, and the medical profession.

How would you design your research?

You are conducting longitudinal research with children aged 8-13 who have multiple disabilities.

Parents have signed consent forms, on behalf of the children, which contain promises of anonymity. However, as you form relationships with the children, you discover that many of them want to be named in your research, because they see it as an important contribution they are making to the world and they have few opportunities to make such contributions. A subset of this group tell you that this is particularly important for them because they are unlikely to live long into adulthood. With the childrens' agreement, you discuss this with their parents, who are vehemently against the idea for a variety of reasons, and remind you that they have signed consent forms which effectively prohibit you from naming the children.

What do you do? How do you deal with this dilemma at the writing stage of your research?

You are gathering an evidence base for social work interventions into families with HIV and AIDS in deep rural areas of South Africa.

You find a child, caring for his sick mother, who has all the symptoms of AIDS, is very thin and extremely weak. The local clinic tells you that he has tested negative for AIDS, but you don't believe them; you suspect they have lost or mixed up their blood samples. The nearest hospital is four hours' drive away. You have a research project with a deadline, which requires you to gather evidence for interventions rather than make such interventions, and you need to maintain good relationships with local organisations such as the clinic.

What do you do?

(This scenario is based on a real-life situation faced by researchers and reported by Cluver, L. et al (2014) ‘The cost of action: large-scale, longitudinal quantitative research with AIDS-affected children in South Africa in Posel, D. and Ross, F. (eds) Ethical Quandaries in Social Research, 41-56. Cape Town, SA: HSRC Press. Check the source to find out what those researchers did.)

You are helping with some research in your workplace.

The research leader offers to train you in data analysis, which you gladly accept because you’re keen to learn a new skill. While he is training you, he says one thing you need to learn is when it’s OK to make small changes to your data to produce more useful findings.

How do you respond?

You have funding to do research with refugee parents about their journeys and experiences.

You have received ethical approval and have made careful and thorough preparations to carry out some interviews. However, the first three interviews are very distressing for the refugee parents – and for you – with many tears shed by everyone involved.

How do you proceed?