“Research is formalized curiosity”, wrote the American author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. “It is poking and prying with a purpose.” Research ethics ensure that when we poke and pry, we do so responsibly, without causing harm along the way.
In international development and civil society more generally, research is essential for understanding complex challenges, for shaping policies, and for driving positive change. This effort must be guided by robust research ethics to ensure the integrity, relevance, and impact of research in the sector.
We need to consider what ethics in research means, and why it is so important. In light of ongoing developments, we must also consider the implications of artificial intelligence (AI). Over the past two years at INTRAC, we have formed a working group to reflect on the research we are involved in and to consider how we can ensure that it is done in an ethical manner. A Code of Research Ethics has been developed and approved, and work is underway to embed this into all relevant stages of the consultancy cycle, from the proposal right through to the completion of a project.
Civil society actors strive to address complex social, economic, and environmental issues while promoting sustainable development. Ethical research practices ensure that the rights, dignity, and well-being of individuals and communities are safeguarded throughout the process. Additionally, they enhance the credibility and legitimacy of research findings, increasing trust and collaboration among stakeholders.
Several key principles underpin research ethics. First and foremost is the principle of safeguarding to protect the physical, social, and psychosocial wellbeing of all participants. This includes obtaining informed consent, ensuring participation is voluntary, and protecting privacy and confidentiality.
Having clear protocols on data protection is vital, as is ensuring that a strong data protection policy actually leads to changes in practice. Participant data should be kept only as long as is necessary to achieve the research objectives, and all data gathered should be carefully processed, stored, anonymised where possible, and ultimately deleted.
Other key principles include honesty and integrity, rigour, accuracy, and accountability. Researchers must conduct their work with transparency, present findings accurately, and avoid conflicts of interest. Although language around avoiding bias and scientific objectivity often find their way into discussions of ethics, we as researchers should instead strive to be open and explicit about our positionality – understanding ourselves and how our unique identity and experiences inevitably inform how we view and respond to information.
Researchers must also be sensitive to the cultural, social, and political contexts in which they operate, seeking to engage with communities on equal terms and to avoid the perpetuation of power imbalances. Researchers must engage in meaningful dialogue and collaboration with local communities to ensure the research is respectful, relevant, and appropriate.
Researchers should prioritize the representation of marginalized groups, ensuring their voices are heard and their perspectives inform the research process. Local stakeholders should be involved in the design, implementation, and dissemination of research in order to foster a sense of ownership, equity, and inclusivity.
Informed consent can be challenging to obtain, particularly in communities with limited access to information or differing understandings of research. It is essential to invest in effective communication strategies, providing clear and accessible information about the purpose, procedures, risks, and benefits of the research. They must also prioritize ongoing informed consent, allowing participants to withdraw at any stage without repercussions.
AI: opportunities and risks
It is clear that the use of AI tools offers several opportunities to researchers working in the civil society space. AI can enhance the efficiency and speed of data analysis, enabling researchers to process vast amounts of information and identify patterns and trends that may otherwise be challenging or time-consuming to detect. This can potentially lead to more comprehensive and evidence-based decision-making.
We must be conscious, though, of the risks posed by AI tools. The risk of bias in algorithms is one example; another is the ethical considerations around informed consent, privacy, and data protection. We must also be cautious of over-reliance on AI, and the risk of neglecting the vital role of human expertise, contextual understanding, and empathy.
Research ethics play a crucial role in international development and the work of civil society more generally. Sound policies in this area ensure that research is conducted responsibly, with integrity, and with a focus on safeguarding the rights and well-being of individuals and communities. They enhance the credibility, legitimacy, and impact of research findings, fostering trust and collaboration among stakeholders. Key principles such as safeguarding participants, obtaining informed consent, protecting privacy, and promoting equity and inclusivity are fundamental to ethical research in the sector.
Alastair Spray is a Consultant – Projects and Research. He joined INTRAC in 2020. In his research capacity he undertakes in-house research on INTRAC’s strategic themes and provides support to colleagues applying a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods.