Dr Hazel Partington – author behind the Ethical Research updates – discusses her experience of revising the two courses in Epigeum’s Ethical Research programme and the parallel issues running between the resource and her work on other ethics-based research studies.
Hazel Partington is a Senior Research Fellow in Ethics and Health working in the Centre for Professional Ethics at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).
Earlier this year, I was tasked with the revision of the two courses in Epigeum’s Ethical Research programme – Becoming an Ethical Researcher, and Research Ethics in Practice. This was to ensure that it continued to provide current, accessible content on ethics policies and responded to new ethical challenges. Having written quizzes and learning activities for the original programme back in 2019, I was eager to revisit this useful and interesting resource. During the project, I observed several parallel issues between revising Ethical Research and my extensive work on three funded ethics-based research studies: PREPARED, the Leaving No-one Behind in Research (LENS) project, and the irecs project.
The PREPARED initiative, which stands for Proactive Pandemic Crisis Ethics and Integrity Framework, represents a substantial coordination and support action that is funded by the EU, UKRI and SERI (Swiss government funding). Made up of 16 partner organisations and 15 advisers, its goal is to work towards designing a framework to accelerate research without sacrificing ethics and integrity during times of crisis.
This is a wide-ranging project with many tasks contributing towards the ultimate construction of the research ethics and integrity framework. One of the tasks that the UCLan team (comprised of my colleague Dr Kate Chatfield and I) have been involved in was to gather key insider perspectives on the broader ethical, social, and cultural challenges of coping with sudden global crises such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic. To this end, we conducted qualitative research into the experiences of two groups of people who had been severely impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic: frontline healthcare personnel, and people with chronic illness or disability. I presented a brief report on the results of both studies at the PREPARED conference held at UNESCO, Paris in June 2023 (page 39).
In our study on disabled people’s experiences of the pandemic, we were fortunate to be supported in gathering the data by community researchers (peer researchers); individuals with experience of the issues being studied who take part in conducting research. I am very keen on the idea of democratising research and breaking down traditional power imbalances between researchers and participants by using community researchers where appropriate, therefore this resonated with me. A related democratising approach is the use of citizen scientists, a term used to describe members of the public who volunteer to collect or monitor data, such as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Inspired by this idea, I incorporated the use of citizen scientists into an activity in the module on Ethical concerns associated with different research methods and activities. In this activity based on ethical challenges for research methods in environmental science, students are invited to take a systems theory approach as they consider the different overlapping systems that would impact on a project involving citizen science researchers mapping species diversity in an uncultivated field prior to it being planted with a wheat crop.
Closely aligned with the theme of democratising research is the work being carried out by the Leaving No-one Behind in Research (LENS) project, which is about exploring the meaning of vulnerability for vulnerable populations and developing appropriate research methods to involve community researchers from such populations. The LENS project is currently working with two key groups to find out what vulnerability means to them: the San Indigenous Community in South Africa, and a group of sex workers in Nairobi working with Partners for Health & Development, Kenya (PHDA). The approach used has been to train local community researchers to interview their peers about how they understand and experience vulnerability. The data gathered so far is extremely rich and it is the opinion of the project management team that this richness stems from the efforts of the community researchers, who have been able to communicate with participants in a sensitive way with their knowledge of local conditions, culture, and traditions.
My involvement with the irecs project also resonated with some of my revisions to the Ethical Research programme. This new Horizon Europe project (an EU scientific research initiative) focuses on developing an understanding of the ethical challenges of new technologies used in research and develops training materials to prepare researchers and members of an ethics committee to deal with these issues. The original modules for Epigeum’s Ethical Research already included some references to new technologies including Artificial Intelligence. Therefore when updating and refreshing the course I designed a new section for the module on Working ethically in challenging circumstances. The new section of the course is about staying ethical in rapidly changing fields such as AI and engineering research. It reinforces the point that working in such dynamic fields requires an ongoing assessment of ethics as new capacities and possibilities become available.
I thoroughly enjoyed working on the updates to Becoming an Ethical Researcher, and Research Ethics in Practice, I hope that students find it useful, and would like to thank my editor Sarah McKeown, Learning Designer at Epigeum, for her excellent support throughout.
The international updated version of Ethical Research is available now, with an Australian regional one to launch this December. To find out more and to request a free trial, visit our website below.