thesis know-how – reporting on ‘ethics’

I’ve read a number of theses which take a pretty cursory approach to ethical matters. The most worrying are those that simply make a short statement which reports that the research was approved by the relevant university ethics committee and/or meets the ethical guidelines issued by such and such a learned society.

Now I find this kind of token nodding pretty problematic and I know other thesis examiners do too. As an examiner, I assume that if I have a thesis in front of me then it has already been through the relevant approval processes. I don’t actually need to be told that it has been given the green light. And simply telling me it’s approved really doesn’t do anything – am I expected to know what is in each institutional and learned society ethics approval requirements? Or is this a statement which basically says “It’s none of your business, trust me, it’s all OK because my university has given me the go ahead”… Just saying the thesis has met an unknown set of criteria doesn’t tell an examiner what the researcher has thought about, done and why. I actually know much more about underpinning institutional ethical requirements if the thesis appendix contains the information given to participants and any relevant consent form(s).

Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that I want a general discussion about ethics in every thesis. No. No. Not that at all. Never. As an examiner, I’m absolutely NOT looking for a thesis which does the same work as the institutional Ethics application. I don’t want a tedious plod through the basics of consent, information, considerations of benefits and harm, confidentiality and anonymity and data access/storage requirements. The thesis is not the place for an essay about ethics. Save that for the forms. I’m looking for something else.

I do want to know however what the researcher actually DID and why – and I want it told to me economically and clearly. And then I’m looking for any specific ethical issues that the researcher had to think about at the start of, during and at the end of their research. I’m looking for discussion about any challenging issues that might have arisen. These are likely to be the things that are not as well-captured in those tick-box institutional forms.

Here’s a few entirely random and arbitrary issues I’ve come across recently in theses I’ve examined or looked at. In all cases I would have liked more acknowledgement of, and discussion about them:

(1) What is consent? Is consent simply a form-signing event? There is of course always the right to withdraw, but should people be seen as always in a state of giving consent – in other words, does the researcher have to continue to think about informing participants about what is going on in the research so they continue to agree to participate.

And how does consent apply to the use of data-mining large anonymous tranches of personal digital data? Should people know that twitter data is being used for research purposes and if so, do they have the right to say no to particular people and projects? How would they know? How would they consent?

(2) What is harm? Who should be the arbiter of what constitutes harm? And is it always straightforward? Questions of harm are often very difficult to determine – for example, does NOT asking a question of an interviewee on the grounds that the researcher considers it might be upsetting constitute a denial of the opportunity for the interviewee to make their own mind up whether to answer or not? This is an autonomy versus protection dilemma which often appears in research with children.

(3) Payment. Should people be paid for their participation in research? How much payment would constitute coercion – and how would we know? How can the ‘gift’ of research participants’ time be recognized? Should it?

(4) How to deal with a potentially negative analysis? How does the researcher approach the question of dealing with negative interpretations of the site or participants? How to balance the obligation to truth with that of potential harm? What about the right to be informed? Must the participants always be informed about critical elements of an analysis, and should they have the right to veto elements of the resulting thesis text?

Now, I wasn’t looking in the theses I saw for a standardised conversation about a predetermined set of answers in response to any of these issues. I was looking first of all for a recognition that these WERE ethical issues arising in the particular research. As an examiner, I wanted to know how the researcher understood and then resolved them for their project. I was looking for a bespoke explanation about the very particular ethical issues that had to be taken into account in the specific research project.

it’s about going beyond the forms you see. And the people on institutional Research Ethics committees generally want there to be more than the forms too.

Because questions of power, rights and moral principles underpin research, ‘ethics’ is never a matter of simply meeting institutional requirements. Yes, the form filling has to be done and it’s important, but there is more than this to questions of ethics. Ethics seems to me to be to be about a sensibility, a way of being in the world as a researcher. Ethics is also a way of doing research, it’s about the never-ending development of a research practice, underpinned by commitments to working with and through normative principles held in tension.

So I want to know, in a thesis, whether the researcher has/is this. Ultimately, as a thesis examiner – a gatekeeper of disciplinary and research practices – I want to see that researchers emerge from doctoral education understanding that the conduct of ethical research is often a matter of finding ways to reconcile apparently conflicting principles. I want to see somewhere that they understand that this means they must always watch themselves, their interactions and decisions with an ethical eye. I want to see that the researcher thinks about ethics AFTER their form was approved.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in consent, ethics, harm, thesis and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to thesis know-how – reporting on ‘ethics’

  1. Pingback: New structures (MOOCs) demand new ethics? | Jenny Connected

  2. Daniel says:

    I agree that ethics are an important issue in science. Not only when it comes to avoiding questionable research practices, or outright fraud like plagiarism, data manipulation, or data fabrication. But also when it comes to the treatment of the study participants.

    At least in my discipline (psychology, in Germany), I think the more basic questions you raised are covered in the “procedure” part of the thesis (e.g., as part of the procedure you mention the procedural issues like signing consent form, or being informed that they can quit any time). Other issues are usually decided or at least suggested on the level of the ethics commission (or institute). For example, the payment for similar studies by different researchers should be roughly equal. Otherwise, students and other participants follow the money …

    Regarding the use of publicly available data (e.g., Twitter), that would be a thesis (or more) in itself. Frankly, I think that if people make it public, you can use it. At the very least aggregated and anonymized. But that’s an issue in itself, e.g., I’m pretty sure that commercial organizations analyze their data without the users’ knowledge (might be in the terms of service, but who reads them). Then there are analyses like OKCupid Trends that look at data on their data site and come to interesting conclusions. Highly aggregated, but still. Sure, science should have higher standards, but there’s the inherent tension between informing participants and getting usable data. After all, we want to make conclusions about people’s behavior in everyday life (or at least generalizes there), not about specific behavior under observation in a scientific study while knowing the hypotheses and how to influence the results.

    I think disciplines like psychology have the advantage that many studies and surveys rarely inflict harm (e.g., in the sense of strong negative emotions or making people question basic assumptions — those studies exist but are not the norm). But they have the disadvantage that it is very easy to influence participants with the measurement, or allowing participants to influence the results. One reason why — within limits — incomplete information about the aim of studies is sometimes necessary and participants can retract their data after the study when they are informed about the hypotheses.

    But yup, there should be reflection on part of the researcher beyond ticking boxes. After all, research is creative and future researcher will encounter situations not yet covered by ‘best practices’ (or at least: established standards). And something is seriously wrong if researchers lose respect when it comes to participants (akin to the “the play was fine, the audience was a failure”). Participants are not only the basic data-generating parts of studies that hopefully end up as publications, but as the name ‘participants’ states … well, participants in the research endeavor (replacing the previously used term ‘study subjects’). They allow us to find out more about this world.


  3. Good post though I think that all of the papers I wrote or was involved with give that cursory nod. I now write technical chemistry papers in the nuclear industry and we write with an eye to keeping ourselves out of jail. It’s a joke but not really. I write with the idea that this document could land in court in five years on someone’s lap who knows little about the topic. It needs to be self contained and not rely on ‘cursory nods’. It makes the writing a little more tedious but makes for a better product. In the medical lab I worked at we obsessively followed every rule regarding our animals but I doubt that if push came to shove we could prove anything other than receiving good marks from the university vet staff.


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