Managing risk in research

Academics have ultimate responsibility for the ethics of their project, says Ron Iphofen

July 3, 2014

Garrett’s exploits - and his photography - are exciting and tap into a natural curiosity about secret urban locations

Much has been written in these pages about the issues of research ethics raised by two high-profile cases that have made headlines nationally and internationally.

The Belfast Project at Boston College needs no introduction, while the Bradley Garrett place-hacking trial was followed by a conference in Oxford at which researchers who are willing – even proud – to risk “danger in the field” swapped stories and bemoaned the unreasonable response of the authorities to their trespassing in the name of research.

These concerns were also voiced at length in Garrett’s article in Times Higher Education, and it’s hard not to have a sneaking admiration for his adventurous spirit. His exploits – and photography – are exciting and tap into a natural curiosity about secret urban locations. One cannot help but appreciate an ethnographer who displays courage.

But, virtue though it is, courage has to be tempered by wisdom and moderation, and if the adventure takes on more significance than the pursuit of knowledge, that’s a problem.

I have been involved in reviewing, training and consultancy in the field of research ethics for some years in the UK, Ireland and for the European Commission. I wrote guidance for the EC on ethics in ethnography following concern from anthropologists that their work methods were not understood by non-social scientists on ethics review committees, and I have contributed to other guidelines at national and international levels.

So I was particularly interested in the commentary on the place-hacking case. Garrett feels aggrieved that his work led to prosecution despite having received ethical approval from his institution. But researchers must take personal responsibility for the ethics of their project, as only they know what is actually going on at every step along the way. Approval from an ethics committee or a supervisor does not remove that responsibility: advisers can only give advice.

In his THE article, Garrett describes his research as being “in the tradition of the Chicago School of Sociology”, but while his work is, like much ethnography, “challenging”, I would question this status. Perhaps there is merit in the political challenge of exploring the boundaries between public and private urban space. But I found it hard to distinguish the research from the politics, and both from the adventure-seeking, when exploring Garrett’s fascinating website. In any case, motives are only part of the issue – researchers must also consider consequences. Assessment of impact is as important as intent when making a decision on research ethics.

Garrett complains that Transport for London sought “to prevent the publication of illegally obtained information” in a book detailing forays into disused London Tube stations. Yet TfL might have good reasons. One would be to discourage copycat behaviour (which would further stretch TfL’s resources for security); another could be the disclosure of vulnerabilities in the Tube system that could place the travelling public at risk from those with malicious intent.

Were the actions of the British Transport Police in arresting Garrett and gaining access to his research data extreme? Yes, given the motives of these “explorers”. But were they to any degree justified? Yes, if the possible risk of harm was greater than had been judged by Garrett and his companions. And is it “chilling” that your “ethically acquired” data may be open to inspection by legal authorities? Not if you know your activities are, or verge on the, illegal.

Garrett argued in his THE article: “We need to think more carefully about our data collection and protection procedures in UK academia.”

No we don’t. In all ethics reviews I have been involved in encrypted data and password protection on all files has been insisted upon. Why wasn’t it in this case? If it had been, Garrett’s participants would have been protected. On this point, at least, there is some merit in his condemnation of lack of support from his university.

Garrett is right when he says that there are many lessons to be learned from his experience. Boundaries should be pushed when it is important to do so – but not without due and full consideration of the potential consequences.

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