By Kieran McCartan, PhD
Recently, I was asked to speak at a research event at my university on the challenges of ethical research with high risk populations. At first I thought that this was going to be an easy presentation because all researchers should be on the same ethical and moral page, but I soon realized that there is a lot of different notions of good research vs. good enough research and the related research governance, in general, never mind with “high risk populations”.
All research presents ethical issues and dilemmas which mean that the researcher should be a reflexive and considerate person. A researcher should be thinking about the consequences of their research on the research population, related organization's/institutions and their research organization (i.e., in my instance a university, but it does not always need to be); but, this is not always the case for sometimes see that a researchers allegiance can be to their findings and publications. This is not to say that researcher’s should not be mindful of their findings and the dissemination and impact of those findings; but, rather that they should be committed and mindful of the whole process not just the end point. A reflexive and considerate researcher is a good researcher. Being a good, creditable researcher is essential when dealing with high risk, risky or vulnerable populations. I recognize that these terms (high risk, risky or vulnerable) are sweeping generalized terms, loaded terms and intertwined terms, quite often someone who is risky is also vulnerable, someone who is a perpetrator is also a victim, etc. The populations that we research with (people who have committed sexual abuse, victims of sexual abuse and those impacted by both) present their challenges to us in terms of consent, confidentiality, anonymity, disclosure, health and safety as well as researcher wellbeing (physically, emotionally and psychologically). Therefore we need to start any research in the field of sexual abuse from a place of reflection, consideration and sensitivity.
I believe that there are four main components to any research project that need to be in constant consideration, all of which become essential when dealing with high risk/challenging populations;
- The researcher: The researcher always needs to consider their own physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. Are they supported throughout the research process? Does the researcher have the capacity to access all the different the types of support they need? Can the researcher receive physical support if necessarily in a confrontation, who can they discuss the challenges of the research with and are they able to withdraw from the research process if it becomes to challenging or difficult? Have they considered why they are involved in the research and what that means for their own going mental health? The person conducting the research is as central to the research process as the questions being asked or the data collected, therefore we have to make sure that they are supported throughout the process.
- The person being researched: Quite often research participants can be boiled down to numbers on an excel or SPSS spreadsheet, they can be dehumanized. Good ethical research reinforces the humanity of participants. We need to make sure that the understand the research process, the research questions, that they can consent to the research (as well as understand what that consent means), that they are not tricked, that they do not incriminate themselves or indirectly cause harm to themselves (or others). This means that we need to consider their vulnerabilities, capacity and degrees of “powerlessness” in the research process. As researchers we need to make sure that research participants are treated fairly and that the data that we obtain through them is fit for purpose.
- The various institutions and partners: As researchers we have a responsibility to the institutions that we work for (maybe universities or research bodies, but not always) and the institutions where we research (maybe prisons, probation/parole offices, police stations, etc.) to research in an ethical fashion. We are carrying the name and responsibility of these institutions with us. On one level this means conducting all research ethically, getting the appropriate clearance, responsible data sharing, agreeing confidentiality with host as well as partner organization's and being honest about the data that you are collecting/storing/disseminating. Remember that you are representing your institution, and your field of study, and any unethical research practice not only reflects poorly on you, but them too as well as other potential researchers in the future.
- The research itself: When conducting research it is essential to make sure that all the necessary rules, regulations and guidelines have been adhered to. Have you got ethical clearance from your institution? Does the host institution or organization need to give you approval (the police, probation, parole, prison, charity, NGO, etc.)? Do you need external body ethical clearance (the NHS, Department of Justice, etc.)? Do you have a safe and secure place to store your data? Have you made it clear to participants what you are going to do with their data? Do you have data sharing agreements with all necessary organization's, institutions and collaborators? It’s essential that your research is coherent, watertight, ethical and adheres to all aspects of research coherence because if it’s not your findings can be jeopardized.
Researching challenging and high risk populations can, and does, have rewards in that it can impact upon changes to policy and practice; but, it should be done ethically, carefully and with a great deal of reflection.