d i g i t a l   a d v i s o r . . .

What makes a study ethical?

One of the hardest things for novice researchers to grasp is the notion that their good intentions may not be perceived as "good" by other people. When we* begin a research study, we normally believe our study is important, that the knowledge we gain will be useful to many audiences, and that our intentions are entirely pure. But people who are the objects of research often perceive things very differently.

*Note: When I say "we", I use the term rhetorically, as Digital Advisors are not allowed to conduct research.

Because we often aren't aware of the damages we could cause, the University maintains an ethical review process for ALL research involving human subjects.  This includes very small studies, such as cases of a single teacher and it includes very large studies. This committee is called the University Committee on Research Involving Human Subjects (UCRIHS)

You CANNOT conduct research without submitting your planned procedures to UCRIHS for their approval.  Here are the types of things that UCRIHS will care about.

a. They want to see of you are asking people about sensitive content. For instance, they would be concerned if you were asking about drug use or sexual practices.  Within the world of teaching, they might care if you are asking about school district practices for evaluating teachers or for introducing disciplinary actions against them. They might consider questions about negative experiences to be sensitive.

b. They care about privacy. They will want to see if you have procedures for protecting the data you collect and keeping it confidential. If you are videotaping, they may want consent from EVERYONE who appears on the tape, not just the person you are studying.

c. They care about informed consent, with the emphasis on "informed." They will want to see the letters you plan to send asking people to participate, and will want to ensure that these letters inform study participants of every aspect of the work, including who you are, what the purpose of the study is, how much time will be required of them, what will happen to the data you collect from them, under what circumstances they can withdraw from the study and so forth. If you are conducting a study that involves large organizations, informed consent may include several layers in the bureaucracy, each one needing to agree to the study, or it may include several stages. Here is the set of consent forms my human caregiver used for a recent study that involved videotaping teachers in their classrooms and then interviewing them about the taped lessons. (It's called the Class Acts Study, and you can learn more about it at her web site. She's a bit of a show off and tells about everything she's ever done there.)

d. They care about conflict of interest. This will be an issue for you if you want to do research on your own teaching, or on students in your class.  UCRIHS will not want you to collect research data on students while they are still your students and need to get graded by you. You will need to develop procedures that keep you-as-teacher unaware of which students agreed to participate and what they said in any interviews or questionnaires, etc., until you are no longer their teacher. Usually this means you need a research collaborator who can collect data for you but keep it from you until you no longer have any authority over these students.

While teaching and research present the most obvious conflict, UCRIHS may also have concerns if you are studying colleagues in your school, friends or anyone with whom you had a relationship prior to the research. You need to think hard about how the research you want to do might impact on this prior relationship, and how the prior relationship might impact on the research. My caregiver tells me she once met a teacher who did a study of her colleagues and learned things so personal that she felt uncomfortable working with them after that.

The UCRIHS web site provides the application form they use to review proposed studies. However, you may want to call their office to make sure that this is the most up-to-date form. Federal regulations regarding research on human subjects changes frequently, and UCRIHS tries to revise its procedures every six months or so to keep up.


© Mary Kennedy, 2006


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