Three different activities: audit, service evaluation, research

In research ethics, we talk about three different types of studies: audit, research and service evaluation. Audits are designed to gather feedback on participants’ views of a project to improve these (and similar) projects. The audit outcomes are not intended for publication or use beyond the project team gathering the feedback (except perhaps in general terms during professional networking events). Research studies aim to develop new knowledge and are intended for wide publication to, at least, an audience of other researchers, but often more broadly. Service evaluation sits somewhere in between and is perhaps the most difficult to characterise easily. Often the same study could be described as either research or service evaluation.

Ethics and research ethics

Ethics, the study of human conduct, in some way shapes all our relationships with other humans (and sentient beings). Most of the time, we are not aware of this, except when we face ethical dilemmas, or recognise that we are engaging with people who have different views, values and ways of living to us. Another situation where we may become aware of ethics is when we have a professional code of conduct or a code of professional ethics that forms part of our work. Research ethics is like this second situation. At the heart of such ethics is a need for professionals to show that they deserve the trust of participants such as students and that as a professional group of researchers/evaluators, we self-regulate to ensure our conduct is trustworthy.

Research ethics is concerned with four outcomes:

  • Enabling researchers/evaluators to act ethically in conducting their study
  • Protection of the rights of individuals involved in research/evaluation
  • The management of the risks and benefits of research/evaluation studies
  • The maintenance of public trust in our research/evaluation community

Codes of research ethics seek to help us by providing guidelines as to what is acceptable and principles and examples of how we should think ethically about research and evaluation. It is worth noting that ethics is not the same as law. We must obey various laws, for example, concerning data protection, harm to others and consumer legislation. Ethics is concerned with: (i) what is, in principle, lawful but generally considered not permissible except in certain circumstances, and (ii) providing a corrective to those things that are unlawful but ought not to be.

Research ethics focusses on:

  • The right of individual participants to know what is happening and agree to this
  • The minimisation and limitation of risk of harm to participants
  • Only conducting research/evaluations that have benefits to society/participants
  • Ensuring a fair apportionment of risks and benefits
  • Ensuring that participants are offered the maximum level of confidentiality and anonymity through the process

While it is primarily the responsibility of the researcher/evaluator to think ethically about their activities, it is often useful or necessary to have ethical scrutiny of the plans of a particular study. Ethical scrutiny can be informal, for example, asking colleagues not involved in the study to look at the plans and judge whether they see any problems, or it can be more formal through an institution’s (e.g. the NHS or university) Research Ethical Committee.

Ethical scrutiny

Ethical scrutiny is the process of assessing the ethical questions raised by the study. The more complex or large the study, the more complex its research ethics can become. Some studies that fully inform participants what the study is about and any risks involved, record participants’ consent, and collect data anonymously – may be deemed of low risk in terms of ethics. Other studies require deceit, or have more substantial risks, or collect large amounts of data from a large number of people. These are considered more problematic and require careful consideration.

Ethical scrutiny ought to require you to:

  • Give a clear description of the study
  • Identify and consider any potential risks/harm to participants
  • Show how you are respecting participants human rights (to be informed and give consent if necessary)
  • Provide drafts of all materials participants will see
  • Show that the researchers/evaluators are thinking ethically about their study