So, it sounds like an easy job: The University Research Ethics Committee (UREC) recommended the production of some new digital resources to promote the issues relating to Research Ethics within the University. In conjunction with the University Careers Service a high quality student with Digital Media skills had been appointed for a 100 hour ‘On Campus’ placement and we were ready to start filming.
Or were we? Let’s face it; very few people actually like appearing in front of a camera! It seemed, that in trying to promote the issues around ethical research, we were having to consider the ethical implications of our work…
Firstly. would we need consent under the University of Sheffield Research Ethics procedures? Within the University consent is needed for ‘all research projects involving human participants, personal data or human tissue’.
The considerations in this definition are discussed in a University of Sheffield Research Ethics Policy note which cover a range of common topics. In this case, it is the first note which is relavent, ‘Defining Human Research Participants, Personal Data and Human Tissue’. So, interviewing people on tape definitely involves human participants, but was this project research? The definition of ‘Research’ used within the University is taken from the Research Assessment Exercise of 2008 and includes:
‘All investigation undertaken to acquire knowledge and understanding’
‘ – Work of educational value designed to improve understanding of the research process
- Administrative research’
But it does not include:
‘ – Routine audit and evaluation or the routine testing and analysis of materials, components, processes etc’
If Departments are unsure of this we advise them to contact their Departmental Ethics Contact or Administrator who would, if in doubt, contact the UREC. There is also a tool produced by the Health Research authority to aid the decision making process in Medical Studies. Unfortunately, in this case, that would be us and we had to make sure that we got this right.
In deciding that this work did not constitute research our main consideration was what we wanted to do ultimately do with the material obtained: produce the promotional videos. This is part of the UREC’s role of ‘promoting awareness and understanding’ of ethical practices. We were not looking to analyse the output of the interviews, publish or present our results. We were not trying to generate a new dataset or analyse the ethical issues which were discussed in the interviews, we simply wanted to record people’s experiences to educate others.
Another recent example which we have explored for a Department within the University was gaining student’s opinions of webpages in order to improve them and attract new students. This was not considered to be research as the sole purpose and use of the data was to better design the webpages: the results were not going to be generalised or published.
Having determined that the work was not research it was still imperative that we acted ethically in carrying out the recordings: considering the issues of consent was particularly interesting.
Firstly, as we’ve already established, no one (or very few people) really wants to be filmed on camera. Therefore how did we ensure that we did not coerce people into participating? All of our potential subjects were employees or students of the University and therefore may have felt that they were under an obligation to the University to participate? Therefore we made it clear in our correspondence, that while we would really like them to participate, and felt that they would produce valuable material, there was no obligation on their behalf. We were, however, extremely grateful when people did (albeit sometimes with trepidation) agree. Had this been a research project, we would expect this issue of coercion to have been discussed within the application.
Next, there was the issue of clear, informed consent. When providing guidance on the consideration of Ethics applications we stress the importance of the researcher being able to tell the participants what their data would be used for. However, we ourselves did not know what data we would get from the interviews, how much of the recording of each participant would be used and what the final videos would look like. We wanted the videos to be natural and therefore couldn’t control this through the use of a detailed prepared script. We were therefore upfront with our participants, explaining that the output would be produced through assembling clips from a number of our videos, and that we would give the identified participants an opportunity for feedback prior to their distribution. We will also enable interviewed participants to be deleted from the videos should they wish.
Had this been a research project, we would have, at this point, expected an information sheet outlining the project details, all intended uses of the data and, preferably (where not inappropriate), a signed consent form from all the participants.
We are now awaiting the feedback from our named participants and hope to update you soon with these new suite of videos! Look out for them at www.sheffield.ac.uk/ethics