How do we deal with the ethical aspects of research?
Whom do you ask for permission to conduct research at a primary school? And how do you collect data in countries where freedom of expression is under threat? This is what staff directly involved in the – often complex – process of research ethics recently discussed at a meeting, with the aid of some case studies. We asked three of them what they learned.
Liza van den Bosch, assistant professor of Education and Child Studies and member of the Education and Child Studies Ethics Committee (ECPW)
‘I found it useful to take a helicopter view of ethical issues – and to learn how colleagues from other faculty go about it. I noticed that at ECPW we look at what you can and cannot ask of your participants, for example when it comes to research in schools. Whom do you ask for permission: the school, teachers, children or parents? And what is the best way to inform everyone? But colleagues from other faculties focus more on the researchers’ position and the university’s image. One of the cases was about researching people’s opinions in an autocratic country. How does that affect the safety of the scientists conducting this research, for instance?
‘I feel that the role of ethics committees is becoming increasingly important, and ethical issues can be diverse and complex at times. Technological developments such as AI also raise all sorts of new questions. This makes good cooperation between research support staff essential. Ethics is an incredibly broad topic, so it is important to look at it from different perspectives and areas of expertise. What did surprise me was that while the ethics committees’ recommendations are binding at our faculty, they are not at others. I didn’t know this differed throughout the university.’
Thomas van Beek, Information Manager and member of the Leiden Law School ethics committee
‘As an ethics committee, we always try to explain to researchers as best we can what we are doing and why: to protect them, the people they are interviewing and the university as an organisation. I’ve noticed that the workload is growing, partly because there are more privacy and security-related things to do and partly because researchers are realising that this is important. Questions I receive as an information manager include: How do you deal with voice recorders and how do you encrypt certain data on your computer?
‘Apart from the content, I also thought the meeting was a really good networking opportunity. I got to speak to lots of support staff I wouldn’t normally speak to and even talked to someone about possible data management collaboration. What also struck me was the dedication of everyone there. They don’t all do this as their main job and for quite a few it was actually their day off but they had come anyway. That says something about the commitment of the staff who deal with ethics, data management and privacy.’
Jaap-Willem Mink, Data Steward for the Institutes of Psychology and Child and Education Studies
‘The meeting was very interactive: for example, I learned interesting things about how some colleagues archive documents, and in turn, was able to tell others about our process for making datasets available online. I really do believe it is in the university’s best interest for its research support staff to be on the same page. Now it sometimes feels like institutes have to keep reinventing the wheel. Good cooperation prevents you from getting bogged down for months on end on how to draft a certain protocol, while another faculty two kilometres away has a really good plan ready to go, so to speak.
‘I think it is important to be open to all types of questions researchers may have. As data stewards at Psychology and Child and Education Studies, we link up a lot with privacy officers and the ethics committee. For example, we were recently approached by a researcher who planned to conduct interviews with seriously ill people through Teams and wanted to record these conversations. I found this a very interesting case study, and it also showed how important it is to be able to find each other as research support staff. There is always overlap in research ethics; it really is something you do together.’
Who organised the meeting?
The ‘Research Ethics: Why it Matters’ meeting was organised by the Research Ethics community from the Leiden Research Support Network. Within the network, Leiden research support staff from different domains exchange knowledge and experiences and work together to answer sometimes complex questions from researchers. If you have questions about the network or meeting, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.