So far in these columns we have discussed mainly methodological issues in research such as identifying your own perspective and engaging your community. While musing this week on where to go next, I found myself faced with a number of my own research challenges and realized that all of them revolved around research ethics. So I thought it was high time we opened up that can of worms!

As practitioners, we all aspire to work ethically with our clients. We make ourselves aware of codes of ethics and breathe a sigh of relief that we have a clear framework to steer us out of some of coaching’s trickier situations! So, as practitioner researchers, is that enough or do we need a separate ethical framework specific to research?

After all, we do a number of similar things as researchers and as coaches—we uncover an individual’s truth through question and challenge, explore meaning through analysis and synthesis, and may even experiment with new behaviors and design alternatives. In short, the initial stages of most coaching models mirror those of the research cycle, and the skills the coach and researcher bring to interventions are very similar. Surely we can use the same ethical framework for research as for coaching!

The answer to my mind is no—we need to go further for a number of reasons. The main one is the care of your participants. When you undertake any research, you are hoping that your participants will give you their time and engagement to provide you with their perspectives, thoughts, and feelings on the research topic. In return, they get the opportunity to have their voice heard. That’s it! Nothing more.

So the balance of “gifts” between researcher and participants is rather one-sided. You are getting a wealth of information and knowledge from your participants; they are giving you their hopes, considerations, and reflections. They are prompting your thinking, shining a light on issues hitherto uncovered, and generally exposing their opinions/thoughts/feelings to your scrutiny and trusting you with it all. Your participants are going to provide you with the building blocks of the entire study. You are simply asking the questions. As a researcher I am left feeling profoundly grateful!

I owe my participants a debt: to take care of what they have given me and what I do with it. I need to make sure that it is kept secure and, when reporting my study, I need to keep my participants’ safety uppermost in my mind. It is not just putting a tick in a box, but a sincere undertaking that acknowledges the debt of gratitude I owe to my participants, placing the burden of care squarely on my shoulders as the researcher.

Poorly run practitioner research can have devastating effects if we do not keep to a tight ethical framework. One veterinary surgeon I knew, interested in the development of diagnostic skills in young practitioners, designed an inquiry that would have resulted in his sharing his opinion of the skills of a small group of four vets with their boss. It would have been interesting to see who would have been the first vet to sue after being dismissed from their post. A quick rugby tackle by his research supervisor (me!) stopped that design going live, but it threw light on how ethical dilemmas emerge as soon as we start looking.

But it is not all bad news—there is a range of research ethical codes available from the major professional bodies. Best practice, such as a clear contract between you and your participants at the beginning, is also out there in the many books on research practice. But we also need to develop good internal ethical awareness, as no standardized code will cover all eventualities.

One rule of thumb that helps inform me is to consider the information given by a participant (in whatever form) as remaining their property. It is not something the researcher can use as he or she sees fit, but is, instead, a prized possession such as a work of art. An artist remains the spiritual owner of his/her art and the collector simply a custodian of the work. Its value comes from who created it. In a similar way, the participants continue to “own” their data and must give their permission for whatever happens to it. This will mean that we need to check back with our participants to ensure that we are correct in what we have heard from them, that they are amenable to their information being included, and that they give us explicit permission when we want to use quotes from them—even when these are unattributed.

This stance also stops us “giving” our data away to others, even fellow researchers, and this is not a bad thing. Data is bespoke to the study within which it was collected—a product of the question, design, methodology, and instrument used. Rarely is it transferable in its raw form. The outputs of the data analysis can be transferable and of general use, but not the raw data itself.

So keep ethically aware and you are not only taking your participants’ gifts to you seriously, but you are taking your own research and work seriously!

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June Issue 2009, Volume 5, Issue 2).

Worth a Look

The British Psychological Society code of research ethics.

Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis

Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis is a senior researcher and education coach with the Professional Development Foundation. The author of more than 60 research articles and studies, her recent book The Case for Coaching, presenting a literature review with research case studies and interviews from over 20 organizations on coaching efficacy, was published in 2006 by CIPD, UK.

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