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Thinking about the ethics of your research

Keeping people featured in your research informed, and asking for their consent

Published onSep 24, 2020
Thinking about the ethics of your research


We initially produced these notes to help members of the research community—who were simultaneously undertaking a Ph.D. at Plymouth University—think about some of the most recurring ‘ethically sensitive’ passages they would meet, in the course of their practice-based research projects. While the original purpose of these notes was to help them position their application for ‘research ethics’ clearance from the university (i.e. university approval of ‘ethically motivated precautions’ during the conduct of inquiry), they constellate a helpful horizon of questions and cautions that are relevant for all members of the research-in-action community, in connection to their practice-based inquiries.

All universities and research institutions ask of researchers that they draft an ‘ethical protocol’ for their specific projects. Let’s demistify ‘protocol’. What this word stands for is really a ‘set of cautions’ to which researchers promise to commit, as they undertake their inquiries. This documents offers you some specific ideas of what those ‘cautions’ might look like. The purpose of these cautions is to ensure that research happens with the knowledge and consent of the people who engage with you in the course of your inquiry—so that it doesn’t come to pass that they first find out they have been involved in your inquiry, only at the point it has reached publication and is available in the public domain. In order to figure out when ‘ethically sensitive’ passages arise in practice-based inquiry, there are two main questions to consider, which we do below:

  1. when does ‘research activity’ begin—for the purpose of informing other participants?

  2. how can you distinguish different degrees of participation in ‘research activity’, in order to ensure you take steps that are sound and appropriate for the level of engagement you are asking of other people?

1. When does ‘research activity’ begin?

‘Doing research’ involves a number of activities you might engage in, with the goal of keeping track of your experience. At the same time, we are all familiar with ways of ‘keeping track of one’s experience’ that we would not ordinarily describe as being exclusive to the domain of research with a view to publication. For instance, we might take notes at meetings or lectures, or undertake some form of journaling or diary. Whenever you find yourself doing any of these in the course of your practice-based inquiry, they do not count as ‘research activities’ (for the purpose of demanding specific ‘cautions’ on grounds of research ethics) … precisely because they are tasks one might just as well perform outside of any orientation towards publishable research.

1.1 Research and non-research activities

It is useful to call upon the experience of some of the community members who applied for ‘ethical protocol approval’ at the University of Plymouth (UK). The university provided the following guidance concerning what might—and what need not be—considered as a ‘research activity’, when one is looking specifically at the ethics of inquiry:

Research would not normally include:

  1. routine audit and evaluation, such as the routine evaluation of teaching, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques;

  2. the development of teaching materials and activities that do not involve original research;

  3. purely documentary research on sources that are already in the public domain such as historical, literary, and theoretical research;

  4. routine testing and analysis of materials and processes.1

More detailed guidelines by the university, this time specifically for research in the ‘arts and humanities’, expanded a little upon those categories:

In general, you do not need to apply for ethical approval when:

  1. Your project constitutes either an audit or a service evaluation, including of teaching and learning practices (please see below for further guidelines)

  2. You wish to undertake ad hoc or informal interviews that are not inherently fundamental to your research methodology.

  3. You are engaging in creative or professional practice in which participants are not being represented in any manner or context other than would be normally expected for their role (e.g. audience member, actor in a play or sitter of a portrait). Please note that, in such cases, there may be other considerations to take into account such as health and safety, and professional indemnity.

Audit is defined as assessing the level of service being provided against a set of predetermined standards. This generally involves analysing existing data with results usually being used/distributed locally in order to affect change to improve/change the level of service currently being provided. It does not require ethical approval. An example may include the preparation of an end of year module box.

Service Evaluation
Service Evaluation is undertaken to benefit those who use a particular service and is designed and conducted solely to define or judge current service, e.g. course evaluation. Your participants will normally be those who use the service or deliver it. It involves an intervention where there is no change to the standard service being delivered (e.g. no randomisation of service users into different groups). This does not require ethical approval.2

Although they sound a bit bureaucratic, the two quotes you’ve just read suggest a more general criterion to distinguish a ‘research’ from a ‘non-research’ activity. Words like ‘routine’ and expressions like ‘not being represented in any manner or context other than would normally be expected of their role’, ‘an intervention where there is no change to the standard service being delivered’ are revealing. They make it possible to think of more specific questions you might want to ask yourself as you are pursuing your inquiry.

Helpful questions for distinguishing a ‘research activity’

  • Is there any activity - which you undertake for your inquiry - that is distinguishable from what routinely occurs in the context in which your practice is based?

  • Does the pursuit of research become the reason for identifiable departures from the customary ways of engaging with one another, which people have come to expect as ordinary in the organisation or context in which you are developing your inquiry?

If the answer is ‘yes’ to either of those, then it is likely that the activities you are pursuing will constitute ‘research activities’. As such, you are encouraged to think about specific ‘cautionary steps’ you might want to commit to, for the purpose of ensuring that people are informed and that their consent is sought. Below are some examples of situations where the answer would be ‘yes’ to either of those questions:

Examples of ‘research activities’

  • You join an organisation as a new member, specifically with the goal of pursuing your inquiry with them. This is sometimes known as ‘participant observation’, where the primary reason for your participation in an organization is pursuing an inquiry (as opposed to, say, joining it for reasons related to your professional practice—and only secondarily for research purposes).

  • You ask people to join some form of experimental set-up, which would not normally be expected of members in that organisation.

For contrast, it is useful to imagine some cases in which your presence in an organisation in the course of your inquiry does not constitute a ‘research activity’:

Examples of ‘non-research activities’

  • You join an organisation as a new member, which you would have joined anyway in the ordinary conduct of your professional or creative practice, and not primarily for conducting an inquiry.

  • You takes notes tracking the life of an organisation of which you are already a member in a professional capacity. In this case, you would not be engaging with others differently - because of your inquiry - than they might otherwise expect of you.

  • You participate alongside others to the routine activities of an organisation, and you behave according to what would be expected of other members taking part in the same activities (for example: if you took charge of recording meetings, when it is a practice in the organization to record such meetings to allow members to playback those recordings. Your listening again to those recordings would also fall in the scope of normal activity you might be expected to do as a member).

These examples suggest that the main question is to figure out when your inquiry leads you to propose a ‘departure from ordinary organisational conduct’. In order to approximate an answer, it is once again useful to look at the guidance that members of our community could find, as they undertook their Ph.D. with the University of Plymouth. For example, the following activities would not require the approval of an ethical protocol by the university because, while motivated by research, they do not involve gathering information that is not already available in the public domain:

  1. Research involving the use of publicly available information or archival material;

  2. Research involving the secondary use of data already in the public domain;


  1. Observation (e.g. of television programmes) where it can be assumed that participants are actively seeking public visibility.3

1.2 Materials for internal circulation only

Moving closer to the predicament of a practice-based researcher, you might wonder about those sources of information that are available to you—not as a member of the general public, but—only as a member of a particular organisation. For instance, some of those resources may be intended only for internal circulation and use. If you found anything in this category of ‘internal materials/events’ that you wished to include in public reports of your inquiry, then you should be aware that your use is in all likelihood departing from from what might ordinarily be expected of a member of the organisation. At this point, you would be stepping into a ‘research activity’ that will call for some ‘ethically motivated cautions’. An example fleshes out this point with a bit more depth:

Example: You plan to undertake research while being a participant in an organisation, of which you are already a member. The organisation has a policy of recording certain meetings, in order to allow the people involved to listen to them again. This activity of recording is done routinely within the organisation for internal evaluation purposes, so the mere activity of recording does not count as a ‘research activity’, and will not call for specific ethically motivated precautions (even if you, as participant in the organisation, might from time to time be in charge of undertaking those recordings on behalf of the organisation). The ‘capture’ of that audio or video is not a ‘research activity’, if it done as a routine practice in the organisation.

However, if you found in those recordings something that strikes you and would like to draw quotes from those recordings in any publications connected to your inquiry (exhibitions, articles, documentaries, photo essays) … then what is happening at this point is that you are seeking to use information that’s available for internal circulation in the organisation, and are wishing to include it in materials that will enter the public domain. At this moment, you should be aware that you are stepping into a use (i.e. dissemination in the public domain) that is not normally expected of members ordinarily accessing those ‘internal recordings’. So, while you do not need to commit to ‘ethically motivated cautions’ simply to listen to those recordings (as any member would be entitled to), you will need to think about specific steps you might want to undertake, to ensure you obtain consent from the specific persons affected by your intended inclusion of parts of those recordings in publications related to your inquiry.

In sum, as general guidance, you should always ask yourself whether you’re stepping beyond what you would ordinarily do as a member of an organisation, or asking others to cross such a boundary. Some examples:

  • undertaking recordings that would not normally occur in the organisation (e.g. engaging members in a special interview with you), or

  • wanting to include materials, intended only for internal circulation (e.g. quoting from internal recordings), in publications that will eventually end up in the public domain, or

  • asking members to take part in experimental set-ups that overstep the boundaries of what they would perceive as organisational ‘routine’.

2. Distinguishing levels of engagement

2.1 Committing to ethically motivated precautions

The point of committing to ‘ethically motivated precautions’ in your research is to create some pauses in the flow of research activities, in which a space is created:

  • to inform people of your inquiry and the ‘research activity’ you are invited them to, as well as its intended purpose (openness and honesty, debriefing);

  • to seek consent that makes it clear that people are free to refuse to take part in the ‘research activity’ you are inviting them to. They may refuse both upfront or at a later point in time (informed consent and right of withdrawal):

  • to put in place any precautions necessary to avoid that participants (and you, the researcher) are exposed to hazards during the course of the research activities (protection from harm);

  • to inform participants about what you plans to do with data gathered from them, and how you will ensure their privacy (confidentiality and data protection).

Thinking about the ethical profile of your research will allow you to distinguish:

  • what activities you plan to undertake that would constitute ‘research activities’ involving other participants;

  • what steps you will take to make space for the ethical concerns listed above.

2.2 Being a reflexive participant in a collective

Islands of research activity, emerging in a sea of everyday non-research exchanges that form part of everyday practice

Most research projects in the research-in-action community pivot around a method involving the iterative production of narratives to reflect on the researcher’s experience of participation, with the aim of ‘giving an account, telling the story, of what I think and feel that I and others are doing in our interaction with each other in particular contexts over particular periods of time’.4 This process needs to be understood in detail, in order to notice when moments might arise, in which you need to pause and make space for the various considerations listed under Section 2.1.

As a reflexive researcher, you begin from where you already are, in groups not especially chosen or singled out for observation, but in which you already find yourself being a participant. The commitment to reflect on your practice requires that you keep a record of your participation in the flow of organisational life. This commitment to note-taking is the keyhole through which to glimpse what might later become research insights. However, you do not in earnest begin researching, until you are struck by some particular aspect of your practice with others, which draws your attention and that you would like to ‘intensify’ (i.e. amplify/layer with richer details, so that it might become more visible). The moment you begin the process of ‘intensification’ (of a specific passage or feature of your practice with others) is when work truly sets off, moving on a continuum that approaches more and more the notion of ‘research activity’. Before that, you are just an attentive member of a collective, whose observations and notes have no specific ‘research’ status, until you engage with them in the sustained manner known as ‘intensification’.

‘Intensification’ involves writing retrospective narratives that try to retrieve more and more relevant details of the scene in which that striking passage or feature of your practice first came up. The aim of this process of intensification is to try and represent the ‘movement’ by which a certain shared experience came into being. This process begins privately, with you, the researcher, drawing up your own notes several times in narrative form, and it gradually becomes more public, as you might invite other participants (who were present with you in the jointly experienced episode) to help you draw out a more fine-grained account. This account will attempt to capture the particular moments of the relational process, through which a specific feature of your practice (that you are hoping to intensify) first became visible to you.

In schematic terms, ‘reflexive research’ can be laid out in the following steps:

  1. being attentively involved with others, in the ordinary unfolding of activity in a specific setting (a group, a project, a course), by committing to keeping detailed notes of one’s experience of being a participant;

  2. at some point in the course of ordinary participation, a reflexive researcher might be able to trace in his/her notes details of relational process (exchanges, shifts in the mood, pauses, alignments, dispersions) that appear to disclose the beginnings of important passages or features of his/her participation in the group;

  3. these notes are reworked by the researcher (by ‘going over’ them several times, i.e. in the course of several ‘iterations’) into a narrative: the narrative ‘re-traces’ the scene, to help the researcher convey to others the ‘movement’ of relational activity through which he/she sensed a certain passage or feature becoming manifest in the group;

  4. this narrative is opened up to other participants, and enriched with their own recollections, ‘populating’ a more and more fine-grained account, in the hope of achieving a description of the elusive ‘beginnings’ of a jointly experienced event, in the life of the group.

2.3 Ethical questions to keep in mind

Step 1: being attentively involved with others, in the ordinary unfolding of activity in a specific setting (a group, a project, a course), by committing to keeping detailed notes of one’s experience of being a participant;

This step is the background for any research, and it occurs before you begin in earnest to ‘intensify’ some specific moment in your practice that you found striking. Since this does not involve an appreciable change to the way things would normally function in an organisation, you should consider it as ‘non-research’ activity. This is particularly so when you are not joining a group for the first time with the sole purpose of researching ‘them’. You are already one of them, and you remain a simple participant until you put the ‘researcher’s hat’ on.

Step 2: at some point in the course of ordinary participation, a reflexive researcher might be able to trace in his/her notes details (exchanges, shifts in the mood, pauses, alignments, dispersions) of the relational process that appear to disclose the beginnings of important passages or features of his/her participation in the group;

Step 3: these notes are reworked by the researcher (by ‘going over’ them several times, i.e. in the course of several ‘iterations’) into a narrative: the narrative ‘re-traces’ the scene, to help the researcher convey to others the ‘movement’ of relational activity through which he/she sensed a certain passage or feature becoming manifest in the group;

After having noticed a scene from your practice that you wish to probe further, you should be asking yourself the following:

  1. How will the people in the group be able to learn that I (the researcher) have become interested in some passage or feature of our work together, which I now intend to make the focus of a sustained research project? (openness and honesty)

The concern this question tries to address is to ensure that you do not deliberately hide your research pursuit from other members of the organisation (this would amount to undertaking covert research). For this reason, it is important that you be open about your membership in the research-in-action community, and about the fact that you might—as your research progresses—draw on scenes from participation in that group to elucidate particular features of your work together.

What it means not to be undertaking research covertly will vary depending on context.

Openness in conversation. In close-knit organisations, people might spontaneously know through conversation that you have embarked on a sustained research journey that might also focus on specific aspects of their joint work with you. In other situations, to be gauged on a case-by-case basis, a range of other choices might be available, such as the following:

  • Holding a space to make visible ‘the research continuum’. In some cases, you might prefer to hold a space in which to engage in an informal discussion with organisation members about your commitment to paying attention to organisational practice, and what more specific invitations might follow from that (e.g. to review some of your narratives together in Step 4).

  • Making available an information sheet. You might decide to allow people to revisit what you’ve shared with them about your research, and provide a written information sheet for that purpose. An information sheet should explain in language understandable by a layperson what you are researching on (the description of your project/practice on this website can be a good starting point). To ‘make available’ the information sheet would mean, for example, leaving it on a publicly accessible noticeboard.

These steps might or might not be appropriate. In most cases, the simple act of not withholding in ordinary conversations that one is engaged in a research programme will be sufficient. It is important to bear in mind that the primary ethical concern you are asked to address at this stage is not to act ‘covertly’, and therefore simply to be open to others.

‘Openness’, not yet ‘informed consent’. While you are still in the note-taking stage of the reflexive process, your process of paying attention does not translate in visible departures from the ordinary unfolding of organisational life. Note-taking is not yet a ‘research activity’, so no concern arises at this stage around informed consent and guaranteeing the right of withdrawal from a ‘research activity’. Therefore, you are not bound to have to hold a dedicated group discussion on your research, or to make available an information sheet, when simply being open and honest in ordinary conversation will do.

Step 4: this narrative might be offered to other participants, and enriched with their own recollections, ‘populating’ a more and more fine-grained account, in the hope of achieving a description of the elusive ‘beginnings’ of a jointly experienced event, in the life of the group.

As you progress in the ‘intensification’ process, you might want to ask for individual contributions from other people that were present in the scenes that have struck you, and which you will report on in your published research—whatever the form it may take. This raises new sets of questions, for which you ought to make space:

  1. How can people you approach to ask for their personal input to your research be informed that their participation is voluntary? (informed consent)

  2. What will it mean for you to keep open for them the possibility to withdraw their personal input at a later stage? (right of withdrawal)

  3. How can they learn what the purpose of your research is? (debriefing)

  4. How will their privacy be ensured? (confidentiality)

The first two questions are mutually related, since other people—whom you might call upon to help you intensify a striking moment or scene from your practice alongside them—need to be informed that they are under no obligation to engage with you in this work of ‘intensification’ of particular episodes. The ‘no obligation’ condition also entails their right to withdraw. The right to withdraw needs to have no supporting motivation, and it will lead to the following consequence: you will no longer be able to include their specific inputs, in any published narrations you might make of the striking scene. Let us be clear: the consequence of withdrawal for you will be that you will have to base your account of a striking episode solely on what would have been available to you from your individual note-taking and recollection. Your final account will therefore have to be ‘purged’ of any subsequent additions that were prompted by the recollection offered by a person who later withdraws consent. Still, you remain entitled to your own account of an episode you also experienced in the first person!

Below are suggestions for possible steps that can be taken here:

  • Providing an information sheet. In light of the fact that you are inviting an individual contribution from a specific person, it is strongly advisable that you share with them a written record (information sheet) of the above information. In particular, the information sheet ought to mention that they are free to offer their contribution to your work of ‘intensification’ of a particular episode from practice, to which they were also present;

  • Information sheet in non-specialist language. Please make sure you provide this written record, using language understandable by a layperson. This addresses the concern for effectively sharing with others the purposes of your research (debriefing);

  • Group members whose language is not English. If you will be interacting with group members in their language, when that language is not English (say: Portuguese), then the information sheet should be drafted in that language.

  • Mentioning the right of withdrawal. The person’s right of withdrawal also needs to be mentioned on the information sheet. Below is a possible formulation that explains what the consequences of the ‘right of withdrawal’ will be, in terms of what the researcher might or might not be entitled to publish in his/her research outputs:

    I hope that you feel able to help with my research. If, at a later point in time, you wished to withdraw the viewpoints and factual information you have added to my narratives, you will be free to do so at any time, and for any reason, up until [insert a cutoff date], by contacting me, or one of the co-convenors of the research-in-action community. In case you chose to withdraw, any details you contributed to my narrative as we went back over them togetherwill not be included in publications that will enter the public domain. However, I retain the right to publish my own account of the episode we experienced together, based solely on the details I could glean from my own notes and personal memory. Even in this case, however,I will make sure not to infringe on your right to privacy, by taking reasonable steps to anonymise any passages in my narrative in which you feature.

  • Cutoff date for the right of withdrawal. For the right of withdrawal to be effective, you must be in a position to be able to purge the person’s contributions from your accounts. This means you should provide them with a deadline or at least a temporal indication (e.g. until my work has been accepted for publication), after which it will no longer be possible for you to expunge your account of a scene of information they have supplied.

In order for you to be able to narrate an episode that features other people in material destined to enter the public domain, it is necessary you protect the privacy of other persons who might feature in your account. This is where the fourth concern, around confidentiality, becomes relevant. To address this concern, it is necessary that you undertake reasonable steps to anonymise the details of any persons featured in the published account of the event:

  • Anonymisation. To ‘anonymise’ means to take reasonable steps to remove or alter such personal details (e.g. name, gender) that would make a person easily recognisable by others, who were not present with him/her at the scene reported by the researcher.5

2.4 Audio recordings

Interviews recorded specifically for research purposes: Sometimes, you might desire to invite another person to share his/her experience of a jointly experienced by undertaking a recorded interview.

An audio recording undertaken specifically to support your ‘intensification’ process as a researcher poses an additional ethical question. Due to the ‘live’, unedited interaction it records, it is susceptible to capture comments or statements from the person being interviewed that might not be exclusively relevant to the purposes of the research, but which will nonetheless remain on record. In other words, there is a higher likelihood that the material might contain personal information not relevant to your research (this is an ‘additional step’, compared to when a person is asked to contribute to a written narrative).

This ‘additional step’ justifies a more formalised procedure to obtain informed consent:

  • Information sheet. An information sheet needs to be provided, from which it will be clear what the purpose of your research in (the topic of the research needs to be explained in non-specialist language—project/practice descriptions are a good starting point for that);

  • Consent form. The person you’ll interview ought to sign a form, in which they say that they agree to the recording, and declare that they are aware that any data captured by the recording will be used solely for research purposes (so that non-research relevant snippets will not be used, even if they are on tape. This means they can trust you won’t go to a tabloid with stuff that isn’t relevant to the scene you are remembering together!);

  • Storage of the audio. The consent form ought to inform the interviewee that the audio from the interview will be kept ‘securely’. What ‘secure data storage’ might mean is a tricky question. This is an excerpt from the research ethics policy of the University of Plymouth, which is what some of the members of the research-in-action community have had to keep into account:

data should be securely held for a minimum of ten years after the completion of the research project. Electronic data will be stored on password protected computers or laptops and individual files and/or discs must be encrypted. Hard copies of data must be stored in locked filing cabinets and disposed of securely when no longer required.
Additionally, files may not be kept on any cloud storage service, as these have given evidence of security breaches by third parties (e.g. US security agencies).6

  • Right of withdrawal. The consent form also ought to inform the people you interview that they have a right to withdraw their contribution to your research (i.e. to ‘take back’ their audiotaped interview). This will entail that you might then be unable to use the interview, and will have to erase the pertinent audio file.

Interviews recorded for a non-research purpose: In some organisations, there is a routine practice of recording certain meetings, in order to allow participants in those meetings to listen to them again. You might have access – as a member of the collective in which you are simultaneously undertaking research – to such audio recordings and might, on occasion, find in them quotes or passages you might want to include in your narrative of a relevant episode.

Section 1 above goes over the questions raised by recordings undertaken for non-research purposes in some depth. Since those audio or video recordings are not being captured specifically for the purpose of research, they will not per se constitute a ‘research’ activity. These recordings will however be covered by the rules of use commonly adopted in the organisation (for example, for allowing playback by members only, thereby enjoying just internal circulation).

Please be aware that when you find yourself wanting to use certain quotes drawn from those recordings, in order to include them in your narrative accounts, then you are stepping again over the ‘research threshold’. In this case, in particular, the inclusion of a specific person’s quote is equivalent to an invitation for that person to provide an individual contribution to your narrative. Hence, the questions this raises (informed consent, right of withdrawal, confidentiality) are exactly the ones that arise when you ask someone to contribute additional details to the written narratives you have drawn up. You are therefore advised to consider extending the same cautions in place for ‘individual contributions to reflexive narratives’ also for ‘use of verbatim quotes drawn from organisational audio/video recordings’.

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