Ethical musings

I have just got back from a few days at this year’s IATEFL conference in Harrogate. Perhaps I’ll blog about the conference itself sometime, but what I’d like to try and write down now is the essence of what for me was a very interesting series of conversations. They started in the very elegant surroundings of Betty’s tearooms  (Harrogate tea, delicious cakes and a pianist providing the background music) with a group of people who are all interested in practitioner research. The discussions continued over the next couple of days as two of us gave presentations.

It was all related to the ethical issues of second language learners being asked to sign consent forms and the idea of anonymity. The first concern was with the type of PIS and Consent forms that we need to use at all of the universities we represented and how for second language learners they can not only seem like quite frightening contracts, but we also wondered how informed ‘informed consent’ really is when the forms are so long and address issues that are quite alien to many of these learners. Even though we can write in the simplest way possible and go through it with them in class, do they really understand what they are actually signing up for? Also, if (as will be my case) the research is taking place over the period of a 10 week course, are they really aware 5 weeks into it for example, that that activity we are doing will form part of the data, while the one we did 10 minutes ago won’t? Do we keep on telling them (as I tried to do with my pilot study) which bits are for the research and which bits aren’t? What if we forget? And of course, all this signing has to happen before the research starts. It would almost make more sense to get the actual consent at the end when they know what they have contributed, even though the project and its purpose are explained at the beginning.

Another issue in terms of informed consent was that of the data itself. In qualitative research in particular, data is often revisited, sometimes several years after, and used for a different purpose. The PIS forms say whether or not we intend to publish the material, but are our learners (and maybe this could apply to all research participants) really aware that their work, ideas etc. could be used by the researcher for many years to come?

One person suggested that the consent form should be co-constructed with the learners so that it really is ‘informed’. The idea would be to negotiate together what could be used as data, how it could be used, when it could be used etc. I think we all agreed that this would be a lot more ‘ethical’ in its approach, but would it get through a university ethics board?

The second issue was related to anonymity. Several of us commented that when we have talked to the learners about this they don’t really understand what it’s all about and if you ask them for a preferred pseudonym, as I did recently, they all say, just use my name. Some had the feeling that anonymity depersonalises the participant: by changing their name, we are taking away their identity and in some ways their ownership of what they have said and done; it’s as if it doesn’t belong to them any more. In a sense that is true. It doesn’t, because they have signed to say that it now belongs to the researcher.

But this issue of anonymity extended to ourselves. Two of the participants from my MA research study, which formed the basis of my presentation, were actually present in my presentation. We chatted afterwards about whose voice is being heard and I think we identified a real tension between the idea of the anonymized and again almost ‘depersonalized’ participant and the ownership of the ‘voice’. The same thing happened to this person in her own presentation the next day. In this case, the participant in the audience said who she was during the question time. Is anonymity always the best way?

Anyhow, lots of food for thought 🙂