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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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The ethical responsibility of the researcher

In his studies of the ethics, conventions and standards of the academic system in the USA in terms of academic misconduct Decoo (2002) high lights the growing regulatory environment within which higher education institutes are required to operate purposeful codes of ethics. His attention is particularly focused on ‘academic misconduct’ relating to plagiarism and falsification. His research provides detailed accounts of both items in relation to both academic staff and student misconduct. In an Irish higher education context, probably the most cited case of plagiarism is the Flannigan versus University College Dublin High Court Case 1988.

Looking specifically at the educational research field and the respective codes and guidelines relating to research ethics as detailed in the literature reviewed, emerging themes and clusters of items can be identified. A principal theme that is identifiable is that of ‘responsibility’ of the researcher, and guidelines directing the researcher to consider questions such as the following.

  • Whom are you accountable to?
  • What are you liable for?
  • What is the legal setting?
  • How to present a truthful accessible account of the research process?
  • What is the most appropriate methodology to utilise?
  • Have you got the necessary know-how and knowledge to undertake this research?

Utilising this concept of ‘responsibility’ is clearly seeking to place the charge of accountability for ‘actions’ on the shoulders of the researcher. The researcher as the informed thinker, knowledgeable in the field of research and in many cases an expert, has a duty of care to those not so enlightened.[16] The researcher has to give assurance that the research process will not be harmful to participants and indeed communities in the broader society. It places an onus on the researcher to produce trustworthy findings in accordance with scholarly conventions. The researcher as the agent of the research process is placed at the heart of the decision-making process. It is the researcher’s burden to think of the wider political, social cultural issues and concerns that may arise before, during and after the research process. The researcher therefore has a duty to consider the potential risks and benefits of the research process and make an informed judgement on how best to proceed. The researcher cannot then blame another or pass on responsibility by claiming they were only following orders. When responsibility for the research process is centred on the researcher as the agent, then all action must be carefully calculated, for if there is a breach, fault, misleading claim, misconduct in the research process then the researcher must take the blame. As such, adopting a researcher responsibility approach can act as a powerful risk assessment tool which can inform the research process at the early stages of development.

The research process decisions a researcher makes depend on the researcher’s world view or positionality. Scott and Usher (2003: 68–71) detail how researchers may base ethical decisions on their epistemological position, suggesting that there are three main models: ‘covert research’ (the researcher makes a decision not to disclose full information relating to the aims and purpose of research to participants), ‘open democratic research’ (the researcher decides to give participants access to information and a right to review data), ‘autocratic research’ (the researcher decides to protect the interests of participants but does not give a right to veto). This decision-making process could also be linked into the issue of gender. Giroux (1992: 61–82) provides an interesting discussion relating to feminism and questions of ethics. From that discussion one might question, are codes of ethics gender bound? In that, if society’s structure is strongly influenced by patriarchy, would patriarchal values, norms and inequalities be both intrinsically and extrinsically embedded in codes of research ethics? Is there a need to have a distinct section in codes of ethics to deal with gender issues? There is a strong position for this, in that most of the prominent research figures – CEOs of companies that fund research and heads of research councils – are men, from this it could be suggested that the dominant voice recorded in codes of ethics is a male one. Riddell’s paper in Burgess (2004 :77–97) sets out the research ethics dilemmas she faced, and her deliberations as a feminist carrying out research in an educational setting. She details five main areas where she reflected on her experience and developed her own solutions. They are: ethics and choice of method, ethics of access, power relations, analysis of data, and dissemination. In these example the researcher is being positioned into taking an active part in the decision-making process, the researcher as an agent in the social context needs to be critically aware of the external world.

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