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Towards a model of critical ethics to inform the research process in postgraduate research


Author - Aidan Kenny


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Research ethics in education research

As Pring (2001: 407) notes, ‘Educational researchers are becoming increasingly conscious of the ethical dimension of their research’. He highlights two practical examples to reinforce his statement. The members of both the American Educational Research Association (AERA) estimated at 25,000,[11] and the British Education Research Association (BERA) estimated at 2,356[12] have adopted (and regularly updated) codes of conduct and ethical guidelines for educational researchers. Of course there are other examples of education research focused associations that have codes of ethics in place, such as the Australian Association of Educational Researchers (AAER), and the individual national associations involved with the European Educational Research Association (EERA) which counts 20 European national associations in its membership[13] including the Educational Studies Association of Ireland (ESAI). The emergence of education research associations seems to be unevenly distributed over the last century[14]. While the American ERA claims to have been founded in 1916, the other associations seem to have emerged after the Second World War: France in 1945, then gradually from the 1960s onwards, Germany in 1964, Australia in 1970, Netherlands in 1975, Switzerland in 1975 and Finland in 1978, with a further clustering of newly formed associations in the 1990s, Britain, Portugal and the Czech Republic in 1990, Spain in 1994, Lithuania in 1999, and then Slovakia in 2001, Ireland in 2002, and Scotland in 2003. These examples show there is a clear trend for educational researchers to group together and establish national associations in the interest of promoting and developing educational research. In nearly all the ERA web-based Homepages that were searched, there were hyperlinks leading to documents relating to research ethics. These documents varied in size from two pages to 43 pages. It would seem that Pring’s (2001) statement holds currency when tested on a limited web search of ERAs, but what about Higher Education Institutes in Ireland (HEI)? Do they have research ethics codes in place?

Visibility of research ethics in Irish Higher Education Institutes

To explore the visibility of the research ethics material in HEIs that is publically available through electronic resources, a brief keyword search run was made on the 7 February 2008. The focus of the keyword search was the public access websites of the seven Irish universities, the 13 Institutes of Technology (IoTs) and the DIT. These make up the majority of publically funded HEIs in Ireland.[15] The search procedure involved opening up the homepage of each HEI and utilising the search facility provided. Three keyword searches were used: (1) ‘research ethics’; if nothing surfaced then enter (2) ‘ethics committee’; if nothing surfaced then enter (3) ‘ethics’. Each hit was explored separately looking for further linkages and documents. The results of this brief online search (presented in Table 2) revealed that most of these HEIs had a specific ethics document relating to research. In the universities, the DIT and two of the IoTs, Ethic Committees were established and guidelines for making a research submission were provided. While some of the IoTs did not have institutional research ethics documents they did have ethics as an item included in some subject programme documents and in one case as part of their procurement policy. Also it is worth noting that some disciplines seem to have more documents and a greater level of complexity and rigorous procedures relating to research ethics and research project submissions, for example medical, medicines, and engineering.

The universities seem to have had their research ethics procedures in operation for a considerably longer period of time than DIT and the IoTs; most of the IoT documents were dated in the last three years, while the DIT’s Ethics Committee was established in 2001. The results from this search are based on information obtained from public access websites. In the two cases of Maynooth and DCU the general ethics committee page could be accessed and all the hyperlinks to documents were password protected. Also it should be borne in mind that some HEIs may have hard copy research ethics documents that have not been transferred into electronic format and therefore were not accessible during this search. The main purpose of this website search was to map out the visibility of documents relating to research ethics, in terms of codes, guidelines, policies and procedures. As such the results demonstrate that most HEIs have research ethics documents located on their respective websites, which are accessible to the public and general users worldwide. The HEIs view research ethics as a matter of considerable importance, worthy of the substantial investment in terms of the staff time needed to produce the necessary processes and procedures, and the time and space to operate research ethics committees. Although these codes of research ethics in the various HEIs are not specific to educational research, there is some cross over on the substantive areas, such as respect for the rights of the human subject, informed consent and no harm clauses, similar to the items listed in Table 1.

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