Responsibility concerning the individual

In the conduct of research involving human beings, the researcher is obliged to proceed on the assumption that individual subjects claim the right to protection of their living space and personal integrity. This is a right that not everyone has the ability or the opportunity to safeguard. The researcher must strive to secure protection against objectively and subjectively perceived damage or strain inflicted on the individual by the research. However, this consideration must be weighed against the value of the knowledge created by the research, and the researcher must be able to exercise the right to produce new knowledge about the world we live in and about humans themselves. Finding the balance demands ethical reflection.

The basic elements in the interaction between the researcher and the research subject

Trust, loyalty and confidentiality are the basic elements in the responsibility the researcher bears for the research subject. These elements will be safeguarded both implicitly and explicitly in the relationship created and developed between them. The researcher must keep in mind the consequences that the research may have for the individual while also taking more general overriding ethical principles into account.

The responsibility of the researcher may be expressed in how voluntary informed consent is administered. This concerns such issues as who gives consent, how it is given, whether it is active or passive, verbal or written, and on what basis it is given. Such responsibility also relate to the extent to which anonymisation or de-identification is utilised – and at what cost. A radical protection regime vis-à-vis the research subject may threaten the quality of the data material, limit the use of sources, and result in distorted research findings. The responsibility of the researcher is also expressed in the analytical perspectives derived from the material, and in words and concepts selected in the dissemination of the scientific text.

How voluntary and how informed?

Regarding the voluntariness of consent, it is the researcher's responsibility in each case to consider how voluntary the consent really is and what may potentially threaten the degree of voluntariness. Good research practice requires that those asked to participate are not subjected to unnecessary pressure. But considerable pressure may be ingrained in the researcher's way of asking questions, in the reasons given in favour of participation, in implicit promises or explicit benefits linked to participation, or in the researcher's emphasis on the necessity of the research.

When researchers approach an institution, a company, an organisation or a school class, they have some knowledge about hierarchies and power structures in such settings. Nonetheless, concealed power structures of which the researcher is unaware can impact on the individual's consent. Nor is the researcher aware of what sanctions may affect those opposed to the research. Special attention is needed, particularly if the research topic is sensitive or if those asked to participate belong to a vulnerable group. Caution must also be exercised in the case of individuals or groups who regard the researcher as an authority who cannot be contradicted or argued with.

When it comes to what kind of information it is appropriate to give potential participants in a research project, the principle is that the researcher describes the purpose of the project, its duration and funding, the researcher's institutional affiliation and also any consequences of the participation, including elucidation of the possible use of the research findings. The information must be given in such a way that there is no doubt that the researcher has full overall responsibility for the project. The researcher must also ensure that the information provided is fully comprehended. Those asked to participate should be informed of their rights, including the right to withdraw from the project even after having given consent.

A special challenge regarding informed consent arises when the project is based on a qualitative research method. A qualitative approach is flexible, dynamic and processual. Therefore research issues, questions and perspectives may be altered throughout the entire research process. When giving information about the project – or in the communicative act between the researcher and the research subject – it must be taken into account that changes may occur. It must be possible to supplement written information given to the individual at the initial stage with oral information during the project. If the change is dramatic, the group of informants must be given a status report so that they may decide whether to consent to continued participation.

The use of different types of sources may pose different challenges demanding ethical reflection about the responsibility of the researcher towards the individual. For example, narratives about a third party often form part of qualitative interview materials. A third party has seldom consented to participation (for example, when someone is talking about a neighbour). This kind of situation requires particular vigilance when it comes to anonymisation or de-identification. Sources derived from various social media also present special challenges regarding consent and the perception by those concerned of boundaries between private and public spheres.

Anonymisation as protection or invalidation?

The researcher can protect the individual by anonymising or de-identifying the data collected. (See The Personal Data Act.) Promising anonymity to the research subject and performing a radical anonymisation that makes it impossible to recognise the informant may be extremely challenging. This applies in particular to small, transparent groups. Taken to extremes, radical anonymisation may imply construction of research data, and anonymisation must be weighed against requirements as to the reliability and credibility of the material.

In most cases, anonymisation or de-identification will lead to situations where control of the research project and the validity of the findings will be more difficult, and may also serve to protect the researcher just as much as the informant. Furthermore, de-identification does not always mean protection of the individual: if research subjects cannot be recognised, anyone who has expressed particular attitudes could be bracketed together, against their will, with the group, place, company or institution to which they belong. (For example, you do not wish to be regarded as a racist because the others are racists.) The individual becomes invisible, and anonymisation can be perceived as a kind of miscreditation.

The researcher's promise of anonymity can be negated by the research subjects themselves, for example through "small talk" in close-knit circles, by journalists in their reporting of research, or by other researchers. The time factor may play a role in the justification for setting aside the anonymisation, but it must be kept in mind that time lived is not the same as time experienced.

The researcher's duty to give evidence as a fellow citizen

Although assuming responsibility for loyalty and confidentiality, researchers may still be challenged when detecting dishonesty, breaches of law, or criminal acts. They are obliged by law to give evidence in line with fellow citizens. Yet, the obligation must be assessed and balanced against the duty of confidentiality and the nature of the dishonesty. There may be cases where ethical considerations and the duty of confidentiality carry more weight than the law. (For example, a researcher working on a project on euthanasia refused to tell the police which of his contacts had assisted in performing this act.)

Confidentiality and trust

In many research projects focusing on human beings and their products and artefacts, access to data will require trust in the researcher. Access to a wealth of confidential information, both written and verbal, is provided because research subjects trust that the researchers are committed to distinguishing between what is said in confidence to the researcher as an ordinary conversational partner and what is suitable as or intended to serve as research documentation. Researcher loyalty is expressed in the scientific text in that it respects this divide and does not divulge information intended for the researcher's ears only. The responsibility to find the proper balance between the intimacy that the qualitative method demands in data production and analytical distance is a criterion of all research. Researcher loyalty must also be expressed in deliberations as to how verbal statements "hold up" in a scientific text or in a text at a level other than the verbal, and to what extent the quoted words of the informant may lead to exposing and trivialising the person whose words they are.

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Jennifer Follestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.