messy research: the ethics of recruiting participants

This guest blog by Dr Simon Bailey, a research fellow at the Manchester Business School, addresses a very messy area in research – that of the basis on which we recruit people to our projects.

WHAT’VE THE RESEARCHERS EVER DONE FOR US? This is a perfectly reasonable question for any research participant to ask, after all, we take time, energy, and personal information from them, but what do we offer in return?

Unfortunately the answer may often be ‘not very much’.

As Pat’s last post suggested, research can be messy. Outcomes can stray far from the best intentions, and researchers can get caught up in getting the data, sometimes at the cost of the people we are collecting it from. This is obviously something to try and avoid. Yet the messy and often improvised nature of research means that snap decisions get made and harm can be caused.

My PhD was about children described as having, or suspected of having, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The research consisted of observational and interview work in 2 schools and with 2 families.

Although I was very interested in the relations between home and school, I did not want to use the school I was conducting research in to identify participants among their parents, though this would almost certainly have been the easiest way of accessing them. I didn’t want to do this because I was trying to deconstruct the manner in which children became defined as problematic through the everyday practices of schools, and using the school as a way of identifying ‘problem’ parents would be reinforcing the scrutiny placed upon those parents. Therefore I decided to keep the two different sites completely separate, and instead sent out an invitation through a national support group for parents of children with ADHD.

This strategy really felt like cold-calling, and so the materials I produced, while informing participants about the research, needed to attract them to the project. I tried to accomplish this partly by telling a little more about myself and my own relevant experiences in this area, and by trying to emphasise some of the benefits that parents might gain through participation.

In the immediate term this was a successful strategy. Two families volunteered and I was able to arrange interviews with them. My concerns were raised on interviewing the first of the families and it became clear through the course of our meeting that they had expectations about my role and the things I could accomplish which I did not feel able to meet.

It seemed they were looking for an advocate. Someone to go along with them to meet various different health professionals, and help fight their corner. They also thought that the things I said in my research might have an immediate impact on the policies and practices of these professions.

Of course, impacting policy and practice is what many of us are in this game to try and do, however, it is not a simple matter of, ‘say something, watch it change’. I was also distinctly uncomfortable with the notion of advocacy.

Advocacy didn’t feel ‘right’ to me in research terms. It’s one of those uneasy areas where as a researcher you don’t want to get too ‘interested’ in a particular case because it might cause bias. No matter how much we might want to throw out the language of scientific neutrality, there have to be boundaries drawn somewhere, otherwise we could easily find our motives questioned further down the line, and could have work discredited.

From a purely selfish point of view it would have been fantastic to go to these meetings, just to be a fly on the wall would have been a degree of access I could only have dreamed of in my early research schemes. But the reality, for me, was I had to back out, extract myself from the situation as best I could and try to re-negotiate some expectations. To this day I feel like this was a ‘run and hide’ type strategy. In my defence I was a novice researcher with a great deal of insecurity about my ability to carry the whole PhD thing off. This feels pretty flimsy now, although it raises implications for doctoral training and how best to prepare people for these challenges.

I think my main take-home message here concerns those means by which we first make contact with participants – the information sheet. Sometimes these forms can feel like part of an overbearing institutional process which calls itself ‘ethics’ but can feel very routine and bureacratic. Although these processes may be boring and performative they also require careful consideration. The first thing your participant reads about you and your research is of fundamental importance in setting the tone for your relationship. Therefore, there needs to be an explicit attempt to set some aspirations and boundaries: where you want to go with the research and how exactly you want this person to be involved. A big part of this is how you present yourself. Of course you want to be real and human, but your compassion and good intention needs to be tempered via a realistic statement of the things that you might achieve through the research and the extent to which participants might or might not benefit through their involvement.

The ultimate thing is delivery. Do not offer things that you can’t deliver. If you offer support in practical situations, such as a meeting with a school, then this needs to be a legitimate offer, and one you are able, and qualified, to deliver. If you offer opportunities for participants to engage with your interpretations and analysis of what you have produced together, then make sure you build enough time into your research strategy, and prepare yourself for some testing conversations.

If you are only offering participants the chance to engage with and reflect on their own experiences (and this is all many of us are offering a lot of the time), then this should be stated plainly and honestly from the outset. That way, when a participant asks, ‘So what has this researcher ever done for me’ you can answer, ‘Exactly what I said I would’.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in ADHD, ethics, mess, research methods, research plan, rules of engagement and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to messy research: the ethics of recruiting participants

  1. Simon Bailey says:

    If you’re interested then you can go to for more of these kind of stories


  2. Pingback: analysing blogs is messy, but that’s OK. #acwrimo work in progress | patter

  3. Pingback: a little Romantic messiness | patter

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