Academic freedom versus the last taboo

November 23, 2001

After claims that a sociologist abused research into paedophilia, Olga Wojtas looks at the case for a code of conduct.

Next month, Glasgow University's senate is expected to discuss an investigation of sociology PhD student Richard Yuill that began after press allegations that he had misused his position as a researcher into paedophilia.

An inquiry cleared him of breaching the university's code of discipline and code of conduct for his use of IT facilities, but it told him to modify his research methods, particularly in conducting interviews, and to obtain approval for "sensitive aspects" from Glasgow's research ethics committee.

There is no overarching agreed code of conduct for social science researchers in the United Kingdom. But departments frequently endorse professional ethics guides established by bodies such as the British Sociology Association or the British Psychological Society. The Economic and Social Research Council also has a code demanding honesty to both staff and subjects about the purpose, methods and uses of research. Glasgow is unusual in having an ethics committee that covers non-medical research. Judith Masson, professor of law at Warwick University, says such committees can "bring a range of experience and thought to ethical issues that can arise".

Jenny Kitzinger, reader in sociology at Brunel University, agrees that they can offer a useful framework for handling sensitive issues before and during research, but adds that guidelines do not guarantee ethics. Masson warns of the dangers of a universal code rigidly applied. A narrow view of "informed consent", for example, could prevent research into the perspective of children with severe learning difficulties. But should there be no-go areas for research?

Glasgow has from the start defended paedophilia as a research topic. A spokesperson said: "Sociologists are interested in researching all aspects of social life and in any area of sociological investigation, researchers need to be able to report accurately on processes or situations and develop scientifically grounded explanations. Given that humans have a wide range of sexual tastes and can follow these in situations where they may be regarded as immoral or illegal, sociological research cannot be restricted to practices that the layperson may regard as 'normal'."

That must not imply free rein, according to Sarah Nelson, an Edinburgh University research fellow in sociology and a child sexual abuse specialist. "While it is important for social researchers to investigate unpopular subjects, it is vital that all researchers make their motivations explicit, that the research does not collude with criminal behaviour and that their methodology is not designed merely to achieve the results they sought in the first place."

Nelson says special care is particularly crucial where there is a large imbalance of power between different groups of interviewees. But there can also be ethical dangers in avoiding particular topics, Kitzinger says. "I do not think it is inherently ethical simply to avoid potentially difficult areas. This can mean colluding with cultural silencing and assumptions. This goes on in questionnaires or interview schedules, for example, that assume that every woman is heterosexual or that first intercourse was always consensual, because they do not wish to touch on 'sensitive issues'."

Sensitive issues can affect interviewers as well as interviewees. David Berridge, professor of child and family welfare at the University of Luton, says tackling topics such as child prostitution or sexual injuries exposes researchers themselves to severe stress. He advocates carrying out research in teams, which offers individuals support, particularly less experienced researchers, and questions whether younger, inexperienced research students should work in difficult areas. "Any researcher working in the child welfare field deserves close supervision," he says. "I still come across things that are unpleasant that I need to talk to people about."

Team work can also be a protection against misunderstandings and misconceptions. "If an individual researcher is beavering away in the corner of the room with a computer, that raises issues of secrecy and privacy and what might be going on," Berridge says. "I would want to alert colleagues to the work I was doing and how I was going about it."

His unit seeks police checks on the background of researchers who are in contact with vulnerable children: he himself has undergone a check. But not all police forces will do checks, seeing academics as less of a priority than those whose principal work is with children, such as nursery staff. Terry Thomas, senior lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University's school of health and community care, and an international expert in the policing of child-sex offenders, sees a crucial difference between secrecy and confidentiality, which he believes are often confused.

Confidentiality applies to individual interviewees, and means someone who is, for example, mentally ill or a paedophile can be discussed without being named. But it does not apply to techniques or practices, he says. He has heard covert video surveillance, designed to detect child abuse in hospitals, described as a "confidential procedure". "It is not; it is a secret procedure," he says. Researchers may decide to keep the secret, but there is no ethical requirement for them to do so.

Masson says social scientists are generally very concerned about maintaining the confidentiality of their subjects, but many are less aware of the potential impact of contacting and talking to them. In research on domestic violence, for example, if a researcher were talking to both partners and the woman was in a refuge, it would be essential to ensure that no information on her whereabouts could be leaked to the man.

Safety is another issue and one Masson is big on. Interviewees may be highly emotional, disturbed or prone to extreme behaviour. "There are fairly simple safety precautions," she says. "Make sure somebody knows where you are going and what time you are expected back. Ask the taxi to wait for you until you have decided whether you are going in or not. I am always telling research assistants that they do not need to get the data - they can leave."

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