Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Partners in Inquiry: Ethical Changes in Team Research

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Partners in Inquiry: Ethical Changes in Team Research

Article excerpt


In this paper I explore some of the ethical challenges encountered during the course of team research. In ethics discourse, we often speak of ethical concerns toward our clients, sponsors, or "informants." But rarely does one read in the scholarly literature of concerns or issues involved in team research -- such as each team member's responsibilities toward one another, both during the course of the research and during the preparation and dissemination of results. One might hope that ethical behavior among team members would be a `given.' Unfortunately, both anecdotal evidence and my own personal experience indicate otherwise. Indeed, Raymond Bradley has found that "... such problems occur quite often and seem to be regarded, even by those whose interests have been hurt, as an unnecessary but nonredressable evil of team research."(1)

Research teams, of course, must grapple with much the same concerns with which individual researchers must deal -- namely, issues of confidentiality, informed consent, protection of human subjects, and obligations to all stakeholders.(2) However, team research, simply by virtue of its structural characteristics, presents additional ethical challenges not generally encountered by the individual researcher.(3) And of course, team research "... involves all the dynamics of groups -- developing roles, leadership, norms, cohesiveness, and balance between task and social dimensions."(4)

There are many research situations that might fall under the rubric of `team research.' A research team may be composed entirely of anthropologists or it may include some members from a variety of academic disciplines. A team may comprise faculty and student researchers. A research team from one institution might collaborate with individuals or teams from other institutions, such as a university / college collaboration. It could be that academic researchers might conduct research with members of a community organization, or with practitioners, such as social workers. In the field of education, academic researchers might team with teachers in the classroom for the purpose of analyzing and improving classroom pedagogy. Finally, researchers from a variety of cultural backgrounds might form a partnership.

"Collaboration" is often used to describe a wide variety of research situations. A team composed of a demographer, a statistician, and an anthropologist may be said to be "collaborative." However, it may well be that these individuals are, by and large, able to conduct their research independently, and given their different roles and levels of expertise, may not interact very closely. Yet another way in which the term "collaborative" is used is in the `new model' described by Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban and others in which the "subject" (or subjects) is participant in a far more active way than in what she refers to as traditional, colonial-style research.(5) There are many levels of involvement, however, and the distinction is important. As Margaret A. Gibson notes, collaboration with host communities, for example, can occur in the joint development of change strategies, in the joint administration of research funds, or in the form of partnership in the research itself.(6) For my purposes, collaboration will be used interchangeably with team research. I will limit my use of these phrases to those research situations in which team members are, at least ostensibly, considered equal partners in the research endeavor.

For the purposes of this paper, I begin with Raymond Bradley's definition of team research as "... a collaborative endeavor [which] involves a group of researchers who come together, and pool their ideas, skills, energy, and time to pursue a mutual professional interest-joint research on a topic of common concern."(7) I modify this definition to include as well, those research situations in which academicians and community practitioners collaborate toward a `common' goal, such as improved services. …

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