Reporting of Ethics in Early Childhood Journals: A Meta-Analysis of 10 Journals from 2009 to 2012
Mayne, Fiona, Howitt, Christine, Australasian Journal of Early Childhood
Educational research involving children is highly regulated to protect its vulnerable, at-risk participants. However, can the same be said about the publication of this research? As readers of academic journals, it is assumed that informed consent is received from all research participants prior to the commencement of data collection and that institutional ethics approval has been obtained. These and other exemplary standards are deeply imbedded in the modern research process. But what evidence actually exists to confirm to the reader that correct ethical standards were followed? The purpose of this paper is to present a meta-analysis of current ethical reporting practices in 10 international early childhood education research journals.
Nothing has been published about the reporting of ethics in early childhood education research. As Flewitt (2005, p. 553) points out, 'ethical issues arise in all aspects of research, and are particularly salient when studying vulnerable members of society'. Although the ethical complexities associated with research involving young children is becoming more prominent (Alderson & Morrow, 2011; Christensen & James, 2008; Farrell, 2007; Harcourt, Perry & Waller, 2011; Mortari & Harcourt, 2012), reporting standards are not yet part of the conversation and have not been explicitly defined. No education-based regulations currently exist to determine which aspects (if any) of the ethics process should be included in published manuscripts. This is potentially problematic, as the entire structure of a research project should be transparent and subject to ethical scrutiny. Given the vulnerability of young child participants, it is particularly crucial that research agendas and methods are explicitly visible,
Informed consent and assent
'Informed consent' describes the interaction between potential participant and researcher, where the research is discussed, understanding results and a desire to participate is freely expressed (Harcourt & Conroy, 2005; Helseth & Slettebo, 2004). 'Informed assent' is a relatively recent term that was first used in an education research context in 2005. It has taken on special significance in research where children are active participants. It describes consent from minors who agree to participate in research, but are not yet old enough to enter into a legal contract (Harcourt & Conroy, 2005; Ungar, Joffe & Kodish, 2006). When used, informed assent is obtained in addition to formally documented consent to participate from the child's parent or guardian (World Medical Association, 2008).
The terms 'consent' and 'assent', though subtly different in meaning, are both used to describe an expression of agreement and pertain to the granting of permission. In the publication of research involving young children, the meaning and use of these terms is continuing to evolve, and are often interchanged and used in a synonymous manner. Consensus has not been reached; in the context of providing formal agreement to participate, 'consent' tends to be used when referring to written permission provided by adults and 'assent' is often used to describe informal agreement by children, as defined above. However, debate exists around the implied inequality and reduced value of the term 'assent', with some preferring to use 'consent' equally when referring to permission provided by both adults and children (Harcourt et at, 2011).
Reporting of ethics in educational research
The Belmont Report, a foundational document published in 1978 by the United States National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioural Research, identifies basic ethical principles governing the conduct of research involving human subjects. In the case of young children, the Report acknowledges that 'special provision' may need to be made, but 'even for these persons' a respectful approach should afford 'opportunity to choose to the extent they are able, whether or not to participate in research' (The National Commission, 1978, p. …