Ethical Insight: When to Observe and When to Act

Often when it comes to ethics in daily situations our moral compass kicks in, determining how we act upon a situation. In a specific context, such as a job role, title etc. the many different contexts and cultures that we find ourselves in can influence our actions.

In a research context, sometimes ethical boundaries are not clearly defined. It can be difficult to gain informed consent and raising awareness to consumers on exactly what they might be consenting to. Some of the most controversial research experiments to date cross the boundaries of ethics and have shocked the world of insight.

For instance, if we look into the world of psychological research experiments, a turn of events within research can occur very quickly and make research unethical if the correct procedures/ethics are not in place to start off with. The Stanford Prison experiment, Milgram’s experiment, they all have one thing in common — a failing to recognise when to observe and when to act.

Management of Legal and Human Ethics in Research

Ethical issues can arise very quickly, so it’s important for researchers to know how to take action to avoid research becoming unethical.

As well as the right to confidentiality, participants also have the right to be forgotten and the right to withdraw from a research study at any given time. It is a researcher’s job to make sure that these rights are upheld, and so to act upon unsubscribe or withdraw applications efficiently. Again, not acting on this would be in breach of GDPR and also completely unethical.

In order to ensure that research remains ethical from start to finish, researchers must ensure that participants are informed as much as possible, with all possible areas of ethical issue covered. The more participants are informed during the study, the better they can make their decisions about what they want to contribute and when. However, it is also important to ensure consent is obtained before participants are enrolled onto the study and that ensure legal policies (terms of use, privacy policy, etc.) are accepted before participation.

During the research itself, it is important to recognise the vulnerabilities that may occur within participants. If the research covers sensitive topics, vulnerabilities can be uncovered within the participant’s replies. Participants may open up to you as the researcher/moderator, and you are left with a vulnerable individual who may require additional support.

Always remember to have contact details of organisations/people that can help in this situation and take care to remind participants that they don’t have to divulge any information that they don’t want to. If they want to retract any information they have offered, it is a researcher’s duty to make sure that there is no trace of the information recorded anywhere in the research study. Failing to recognise these vulnerabilities during research is unethical and requires some moral input from the researchers to maintain ethical conducts.

Ethics in Organisational Culture

Whether we realise it or not, we find ourselves using language, following rituals and rules of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ within an organisation — kind of like norms that we all follow and work by. It’s easy to include these organisational norms into the role of the researcher/moderator without realising. Ethical research needs to be impartial and involve unbiased communication. It’s best practice to follow set moderation guides and pre-planned prompts within a topic guide, so that organisational culture doesn’t get in the way and negatively influence your research outcome.

Ethics in Moderation

From an insight perspective, these ethical responsibilities apply with the addition of observing; monitoring research progress, making notes, identifying common themes. When it comes to diving in, moderators have direct communication with participants (questioning, prompting) in order to gain the required level of insight. Qual research would be somewhat empty without moderation — including online discussions, online diaries etc., and also online research forums/communities. The question often arises during moderation of when is the right time to act and prompt for more detail — and the answer varies depending on the type of research involved but also the person moderating.

Different people will have different personal ethical values. Prompting for more detail within research is still ethical, but if you go overboard this can make the research become unethical and you run the risk of breaching that level of contact that you set expectations of in the first place. Consider many things for moderation in research, but just to name a few — the nature of the research, the research tasks involved, the sample taking part, the length of the research, the reward.

With moderation comes great responsibility, and it is a moderator’s responsibility to make sure you collect as much insight data as possible, within the boundaries of positive ethics.

When to act and when to observe

So with this in mind, what prompts are good prompts? Good prompts can include the classic — what/why/when/how questions, but be careful not to ask leading or loaded questions! They are extremely biased and can influence/determine the outcome of the research in question. Wording, tone, and even design and colours can put an unwanted skew on things.


The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.

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