Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Risk Management

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Risk Management

Article excerpt

Researchers working at the edge of the law have ultimate responsibility for the ethics of their project, says Ron Iphofen

Much has been written in these pages about the issues of research ethics raised by two high-profile cases that have made headlines nationally and internationally.

The Belfast Project at Boston College needs no introduction, while the Bradley Garrett place-hacking trial was followed by a conference in Oxford at which researchers who are willing - even proud - to risk "danger in the field" swapped stories and bemoaned the unreasonable response of the authorities to their trespassing in the name of research.

These concerns were also voiced at length in Garrett's article in Times Higher Education ("Access denied", 5 June), and it's hard not to have a sneaking admiration for his adventurous spirit. His exploits - and photography - are exciting and tap into a natural curiosity about secret urban locations. One cannot help but appreciate an ethnographer who displays courage.

But, virtue though it is, courage has to be tempered by wisdom and moderation, and if the adventure takes on more significance than the pursuit of knowledge, that's a problem.

I have been involved in reviewing, training and consultancy in the field of research ethics for some years in the UK, Ireland and for the European Commission. I wrote guidance for the EC on ethics in ethnography following concern from anthropologists that their work methods were not understood by non-social scientists on ethics review committees, and I have contributed to other guidelines at national and international levels.

So I was particularly interested in the commentary on the place-hacking case. Garrett feels aggrieved that his work led to prosecution despite having received ethical approval from his institution. But researchers must take personal responsibility for the ethics of their project, as only they know what is actually going on at every step along the way. Approval from an ethics committee or a supervisor does not remove that responsibility: advisers can only give advice.

In his THE article, Garrett describes his research as being "in the tradition of the Chicago School of Sociology", but while his work is, like much ethnography, "challenging", I would question this status. …

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