My research and hence this blog have both been on a slow-burner for a couple of months now. The reason has been that I have subjected my research plan to ethical review by the University of Helsinki Ethical Review Board in the Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences. I have now received a positive statement from the board, meaning that I can proceed with my research and start conducting the interviews.
Ethical review in human sciences in Finland follows a set of recommendations established by the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity. In a fashion similar to the Finnish RCR guidelines, most of the Finnish research institutions have undersigned the recommendations and appointed boards or committees like the one in Uni. Helsinki. The purpose of the review is to make sure that non-medical research projects with human subjects respect certain key ethical principles in dealing with the subjects, namely
- right of self-determination,
- prevention of harm, and
- privacy and data protection.
In the case of my research the review wasn’t mandatory, since it does not require physical intervention, nor does it deviate from the principle of informed consent, all of my subjects are adults, there is no exceptionally strong stimuli involved or other mental harm beyond the risks of normal life and it doesn’t create a security threat to the participants. But because I am on uncharted territory with my pursuit for openness and since research misconduct can be considered a delicate issue, my instructor Erika Löfström, who is also the chair of the ethical review board in question (she of course recused herself from the decision making), advised me to go through the process.
The statement itself is very brief, but I found the thought process involved in preparing the review request very useful. The request requires quite a few documents, such as a cover letter explaining the need for review, a research plan, researchers own evaluation of the research’s ethical aspects, handouts for the subjects, interview questions etc. One of the things it got me doing was an openness plan for my research. I realized I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing in terms of opening my process; how, where, which content and to which audience and end-user. I will translate the plan into English and publish it on this blog in the near future.
The statement I received reads in its entirety as follows (it has the same content in both Finnish and English):
“ETHICAL REVIEW STATEMENT
University of Helsinki Ethical review board in humanities and social and behavioral sciences has reviewed Heidi Laines study ”Hyvää tieteellistä käytäntöä määrittelemässä: suomalainen hyvän tieteellisen käytännön ohjeistus ja muuttuva tiedeyhteisö” in the board meeting on the 3 rd – 6 th of November 2015. The review board finds that based on the received material the planned study follows the Ethical principles of research in the humanities and social and behavioral sciences issued by the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity. Thus the review board states that the mentioned study is ethically acceptable.”
In addition to the standard statement I received more personalized and unofficial comments about things to take into consideration. I have translated them from Finnish here, and I presume that they don’t reflect the official view of the board in the same way as the statement proper, and should not be taken as such:
- Reflections on research methods: how does the choice to not anonymize the interview data affect the quality of gathered information (sample, content)? There is a danger, that ethically critical aspects will not fully surface due to fear of labeling, leading to a subdued result.
- Reflections on responsible research conduct: could interview data that is in principle harmless give rise to new sensitive information on research subjects? It is advisable that researchers try to anticipate possible challenges and consider how to handle them if they should emerge.
I will get back to my research ethical reflections and choices in coming blog posts. Especially the first point about anonymity is something that I have given a lot of thought and am still on the fence about. But I did decide on offering the choice to my research subjects (earlier I was of the opinion, that the interviews of FABR chairs and secretary generals aren’t worth doing if they are anonymous, since the historical context will make them recognizable even without names, but if there is a danger that they will decline, it’s better to have an anonymous interview than nothing at all, and just try and write the analysis in a way that doesn’t point to individuals).