Research Ethics for Students. Part 1: Doing the Real Thing

By Natascha van der Zwan & Andrei Poama

On February 24, 2020, Dr. Andrei Poama (Institute of Public Administration, Leiden University) visited our course on Research Methods (Master of Public Administration) for a guest talk on research ethics. Dr. Poama is a well-known expert on the ethics of criminal justice. He is also a member of the Ethics Committee at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. In our conversation with Dr. Poama, we discussed the ethical dilemmas confronting researchers in the social sciences, possible solutions to these dilemmas, and how the codes of conduct for Dutch researchers apply to graduate students. This is Part One of two blog posts, in which we present the highlights from our conversation.

Please note: The guest talk has been modified to a question-and-answer format for easier reading. The spoken words have been edited for length and readability.*

Q: Andrei, you started our conversation today by asking students to what extent they thought of themselves as doing scientific research, on a scale from 0 to 7. Most students here gave themselves a 4, stating that they didn’t feel as if they were doing real research. They mentioned various reasons for this, for instance because they studied a limited number of cases or because they experienced a lack of data availability. This outcome surprised me, because these issues struck me as being normal parts of the research process, regardless of who the researcher is. I myself tend to view my thesis supervisees as actual researchers and I expect them to behave as such.   

A: For me, it depends on the motivation that the student has. In terms of expectations, I would say something like a 6 or a 7. I don’t really draw any kind of distinction between what [students] are supposed to be doing and what we are doing. The questions that [students] have – problems with your database, you don’t find [particular sources], you don’t have enough material or data – those are recurring questions for actual researchers as well.

I think it’s important [for students] to understand that you’re not doing this other thing. It’s not about doing your homework or writing an essay for class or something, you’re actually producing knowledge. You are supposed to be doing research, even if you’re not in the classroom. And that’s the way I would see it. But, of course, [as students] you don’t legally fall under the standards from the codes of research ethics. So, if something goes wrong – plagiarism aside – then you’re not going to be sanctioned.

Q: So what do you tell your own supervisees, when they don’t see themselves as researchers?

One thing that I’m doing for the first time in my thesis capstone this year is a small workshop, where  we just meet and everyone reads each other’s two-pager with a research question, the hypothesis and broadly the literature. Then we’re supposed to briefly give feedback to each other. And the reason I introduced that [element of peer review] was that I really did feel there was this kind of student-teacher relationship in some of the supervision processes. It really depends on the student. So you have very proactive students, who just draw on the literature. They have an idea, they have a method and they just go for it. Then there are students, who think they are doing their homework.

I guess what I’m going for is that when you’re going to do [research] and write your thesis, but also in other courses, you should be thinking about it as the real thing and not some kind of second-rate task.

Q: Andrei, you showed us a short video about a documentary called Three identical strangers (see trailer below). Can you tell us a little about what we just saw?

A: So yes, this happened in the 1960s. There were a series of so-called twin experiments. Sometimes they involved twins, sometimes they were triplets. This happened throughout the 1960s, when the ‘nature versus nurture’ hypothesis was at its peak. What happened was that an adoption agency – the  Louise Wise adoption agency in New York – started a collaborative project with a couple of psychologists and psychiatrists at New York University (Peter Neubauer and Viola Bernard), who wanted to test the ‘nature versus nurture’ hypothesis.

So in this particular case, the mom had died at birth after having quadruplets. One of the kids had also died at birth, so then they were triplets and they were put up for adoption. Now, without telling the [adoptive] parents, one child was given to a blue-collar family, one to a middle-class family and one to an affluent family. Then the adoption agency, in collaboration with the researchers would just call up the adoptive family on regular meetings for check-ups, to see whether the kid was doing all right. But what they actually were doing is that they were measuring each of the triplets on these dimensions to be able to compare them.

Q: Was this a typical way of conducting these twin studies?

There were many other twin studies in the 1960s and the 1970s. But most of them were observational, in the sense that you had [children] who were up for adoption and then the [researchers] did a series of observations, interviews, personality tests and so on to see if being raised in a particular family with a particular socio-economic background made for different personality traits. This is one of the few actual experiments. So what happened in the 80s and up until the 90s, as you see in the trailer, is that it just blew up, because [the triplets] realized what had happened and that obviously became a big scandal.

And, you know, in a sense it was a happy moment for them, to find each other. But they also struggled with depression, identity problems and so on. What happened in the end is that one of the three guys committed suicide. So the question I’m posing here is what do you think is the problem with this? After all, you know, these kids had families that cared for them.

Q: Purely from a gut feeling response to seeing this video, I’d say this constitutes a very straightforward breach of research ethics. But you seem to hint that it’s more complicated.

A: You know, from the researchers’ perspective, everything was almost spot on. It was single-blind. You know the research design, research methods… perfect or almost perfect. So how is this worse than from, for instance, experiments in social psychology, where you go to a lab? Deception happens all the time, you’re being debriefed at the end of it. There is a sense [in this case], that the experiment was not over, when [the triplets] found out about it. You could imagine that they would have been debriefed after 20-30 years, because the experiment is a long one. So, we use deception all the time in experiments. This is different. So the question is: why is it different?

Q: One of our students said that this is different, because you are changing the lives that these people could have had. There is a status quo: there are triplets. You split them up and there can never be this status quo again.

A: Yes, it troubling, even the idea of watching it. There is something voyeuristic about it. It’s not like physical suffering, as in the case of a medical experiment. There were no substances involved. But there is a sense in which stopping the experiment, disclosing the experiment to the participants, is what is doing the harm. Because imagine that they would have never found out. All the depression and so on actually kicked in, when they found out what was happening. So what I find very troubling about this is that the bind of the blind experiment, if I may put it like this, is complete in a way. Once the experiment has started, there is a sense in which you can’t make it right again. All the options that you have at your disposal are wrong in some dimension. There is a sense in which minimizing the harm that it can do to participants in social science studies, especially when it comes to psychology, means that you try to keep the degree to which the participants take part in the experiment localized and limited. So don’t involve all of the person’s life into the project.

Q: What about studies that are not experiments? I think many of our students would instead do interviews or conduct surveys. How do research ethics apply to these kinds of studies?

A: There are many ways in which ethics is typically involved in our research activities. We have all these codes that we’re supposed to be reading and be aware of. And when we conduct research that actively involves human and non-human subjects, then we fill in these forms and we send them to the Ethics Committee. I’m also a member of the Ethics Committee of the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. And then the ethics committee looks at the project and the informing consent documents, using the codes of conduct as a standard. Then they say: well, you have a problem with your informed consent form. Or: everything is perfect and you’re good to go. These documents also apply to you as students. You are not on the payroll of the faculty, but you still count as individual researchers. So if you take anything out of [our conversation] take this idea, that you are actually doing research. You are not a student writing something for a course. You are a graduate student, who is also a researcher.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

*With thanks to Brecht, Edo, Meike-Yang and Nev for their insightful comments and questions.

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Filed under Flipped Classroom, Institute of Public Administration, Open Education, Research Methods

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