Fieldwork perils mount

August 3, 2007

Report identifies failures and omissions in sector's approaches to safety of social scientists. Rebecca Attwood reports

Instances of assault, murder and psychological trauma as a result of academic fieldwork are catalogued in a new report into the risks faced by researchers.

Levels of physical and emotional harm are much more common than would appear from the official record of complaints to universities, and institutions' safety systems are frequently failing to protect researchers, according to the findings of the inquiry.

Despite moves to protect research participants, risks to researchers appear to have been neglected, says the report commissioned by the National Centre for Research Methods at Cardiff University.

The report's authors analysed the experiences of qualitative researchers in social science and identified emotional harm as posing a particular problem.

They encountered an "extraordinary range" of distressing topics and arenas being examined by researchers, and "multiple instances" of emotional harm to female researchers in particular. One researcher told of her distress on learning that a sex offender she had interviewed in prison had discovered where she lived after being released. Another told The Times Higher how he had been held at gunpoint on a field trip.

Although the inquiry found many instances of good research management practice, there were "enough examples of poor management safety practice for research management itself to be viewed as a potential hazard to junior staff and postgraduates," the report says, with universities lagging behind comparable institutions such as aid agencies.

It found that many research grant holders and PhD supervisors were unaware of formal structures in place to protect researchers, did not know the details of insurance coverage, and did not plan for the costs of researcher safety or conduct risk assessments.

Mick Bloor, professorial research fellow at Glasgow University and chair of the inquiry, said he hoped the report would "encourage a change of culture in universities, so that research managers are actively managing risk".

However, the inquiry also raised concern that excessive risk aversion could impede difficult and possibly dangerous areas of research.

"You don't want people rushing out into the field without consideration of the risks, but you also don't want researchers afraid to address particular areas," said Ray Lee, professor of social research methods at Royal Holloway, University of London.

A Universities UK spokesperson said the report raised important issues for the sector to "build upon", but added: "Universities take the safety and wellbeing of staff very seriously. The sector, alongside the research councils, has already done much work in terms of developing research safety guidelines.

"We will look at the recommendations of this inquiry to see if we can further develop these safeguards."

A spokeswoman for the Economic and Social Research Council, the UK's main funding body for social science research, said its Research Ethics Framework required research proposals to consider risk to both the researched and researchers.

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