A Journey through Ethics: A PhD candidate’s perspective

16 May 2016 - 14:15

The last ten years have seen social scientists place great emphasis on the ethics of their research. The ethics clearance process for studies involving human participants serves many purposes; such as protecting the subjects involved in the research from social, physical and emotional harm, ensuring the quality standards of the study, ascertaining that the researcher will be able to legally publish the information gathered, and ensuring that the researchers’ safety and well-being is protected during the field work phase. The whole process serves another fundamentally important underlying purpose: it forces thorough planning. It compels the researcher to think about such things as: access to participants, the research methods most suitable for the study, the need for various contingency plans, creating a specific timelines and verifying the availability of the funding necessary to make the study happen. At the University of Cape Town, the written ethics clearance is submitted to the ethics committee which evaluates the solidity of the project before granting approval, and only after this phase can fieldwork begin.

The ethics process is a very rational and practical part of research planning. It is especially important for students, as it helps to minimize risks and unexpected issues in the course of field work.

At the beginning of the academic year, as a first year PhD candidate, I attended the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Law induction programme, which consisted of four days of immersive workshops, meant to provide students with the tools and knowhow to start and survive the doctoral journey. While walking out of the classroom after a seminar on ethics, I asked some of my peers if they were planning to have human participants involved in their research projects. I felt I needed the comfort of knowing that I was not alone in having to navigate my way through the ethics review procedure. One peer replied “no” with a really relieved look, while others said the ethics plan sounded too complicated and time consuming, so that the use of human participants would need to be reconsidered. Luckily, I also found a number of other doctoral candidates with research plans involving human participants, especially among my criminologist peers. Lawbreakers, police officers, convicted offenders, victims of crime and policy makers are often the main research subjects of criminology studies. Frequently the same research will encompass more than one group of these subjects in order to enrich the quality of the study, but in so doing, it also increases the complexity of the fieldwork. Some researchers may perceive the ethics review as an obstacle that obstructs their research goals and takes up their time.

Is it really possible to provide meaningful insights on criminal behavior without deceiving people in the process? Protecting anonymity is another paramount ethical priority. To what extent, however, can the researcher avoid reporting criminal behavior without being morally or legally undermined? Is it possible to completely eliminate the risk of researcher-harm when dealing with law breakers? How can objectivity be preserved through research when dealing with immoral, illegal and unethical behaviors? There are no definitive answers to these questions, as each research project, as well as each group of participants and researcher is different and unique and has different needs.

I started working on the ethics proposal for my doctoral project before beginning work on the research proposal itself, but I have not yet finalized it. Working on my ethics proposal at the beginning of the process helped me to focus my overall research proposal in a very practical way. In the process of examining ethical issues, I experienced several feelings: at first I felt frustrated, anxious, excited and angry, but I never felt alone. I found support from other students who had gone through the process before me; from my supervisor who pushed me to believe in my project during moments of uncertainty; and from another senior academic who offered me her vast experience and critical reflections on my work.

The ethics plan should not be regarded as an obstacle to research or degree progress, as this is clearly not the reason it has become so important to social science research. Rather, the ethics plan and review assures research quality, the researchers’ safety and respect for the participants.  The ethics clearance also offers a solid foundation from which to begin the PhD journey, by assuring that the plan has been thoroughly examined and evaluated and that it meets accepted research standards. I would encourage future research students to see the ethics approval process as a chance to reflect, think creatively, and prepare thoroughly for the work ahead. An adventure awaits.


- Valentina Pancieri