Conflict of interest: you vs. your research

Looking at the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity with a qualitative eye

Lisa-Marie Krausby Lisa-Marie Kraus| Reading time: 6 Minutes / 

The replication crisis, questionable research practices, plagiarism and fraud. Anyone who is reading this blog post, is probably familiar with these buzz words. To promote and foster integer research, the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (NCCRI; KNAW et al., 2018) was introduced.

As a researcher, I have gone through both extensive quantitative as well as qualitative training. Thus, two types of methodologists reside in me. While reading the NCCRI for the first time, the code predominantly spoke to the quantitative rather than the qualitative researcher in me – which I think should not be the case.LMKAfb1

Let me explain why that is.

The code addresses topics such as Communication, Honesty and Transparency. Needless to say, all of these topics are important to academic research in general, but qualitative researchers would probably argue that there is more to Transparency than currently described in the code.

While conducting a study and when interpreting the findings, researchers bring certain values into the project, which are grounded in their own, unique worldview. Being aware of that, is a practice rather elementary to qualitative researchers. I would argue, however, that this habit is a valuable one just as much for quantitative researchers. It may be true that the epistemological assumption of quantitative research presupposes an objective reality that can be measured and described as such. Yet, the way surveys are put together – in terms of what questions are asked, and more so: not asked! – conducted and eventually interpreted by the researcher is a different story (here, also see Postpositivism). Hence, this “type” of Transparency, that is the elaboration on one’s positionality (O’Dwyer & Bernauer, 2013) is also advisable within the quantitative tradition to keep up comprehensive ethical standards.

Each person, regardless of their research approach looks at a topic through a certain lens, influenced by personal interests, preferences and world views. For example, a part of my PhD project (Becoming a Minority) is concerned with the reactions to growing cultural diversity of native, upwardly socially mobile individuals. Upward social mobility is the movement within the social hierarchy from a lower to a higher position in terms of social class. Since I am socially mobile myself, there are certain personal values and ideas that I hold and bring into my research. Needless to say that I do my best to be as objective as possible, yet it would be disingenuous to pretend my personal life trajectory has not shaped the view that I have on the topic.

In my research I hypothesize that the socially mobile could be more open to diversity. I do so since the socially mobile have experienced more heterogeneous types of contact throughout their life trajectory compared to socially stable individuals. Consequently, the socially mobile should be “used to” adapt rather easily to social change. At the same time, the upwardly socially mobile could have more negative reactions since their social position might be more sensitive to “threat” compared to other middle-class individuals who have inherited their social status from their parents.

I don’t think it comes as a surprise that, surely, the former is a finding much more appealing to me personally (to back-up this claim scientifically, check out Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 2004) and the need for a positive image of the self). So what if I find a pattern revealing that in general the upwardly mobile do not “deal well” with growing diversity? Is it in my interest to reflected upon myself or the mobile as a group like that?

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I think that favouring one hypothesis over the other is not always a conscious process. But a first step is to be aware of your own background and critically evaluate it when conducting research. Your life trajectory influences the decisions you make as a researcher – and can pose conflicts of interest with the self. Hence, the NCCRI should also create awareness of these sometimes unconscious processes which can pose a threat to ethical research standards.

The NCCRI tries to tackle general integrity issues but the inference that can be made is that the “I” is in no way a matter that only applies to qualitative research. Also, more quantitative researchers face conflicts of interests. In order to be more inclusive of all types of methodologies as well as more exhaustive in general, the NCCRI should take the posed matters into account.

In conclusion, I propose to reformulate certain sections of the code. There is – to some extent – a guideline in the NCCRI that already hints at a topic related to the described issue. In the section for “Standards for good research practices” it states:

“Make sure that the choice of research methods, data analysis, assessment of results and consideration of possible explanations is not determined by non-scientific or non-scholarly (e.g. commercial or political) interests, arguments or preferences.” (number 18, p. 17)

And

“Be open and honest about potential conflicts of interest” (number 55, p. 18)

As these predominantly refer to 3rd party interests, I suggest to include the researcher’s position and personal gains in the statement:

“Make sure that the choice of research methods, data analysis, assessment of results and consideration of possible explanations is not determined by non-scientific or non-scholarly (e.g. commercial or political) nor your own interests, arguments or preferences.” (p. 17)

And

“Be open and honest about potential conflicts of interest”, by adding “[…], these include your own interests”.

References

KNAW; NFU; NWO; TO2-federatie; Vereniging Hogescholen; VSNU, (2018). Nederlandse gedragscode wetenschappelijke integriteit. DANS.

O’Dwyer, L. M., & Bernauer, J. A. (2013). Quantitative research for the qualitative researcher. London: Sage.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (2004). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In J. T. Jost & J. Sidanius (Eds.), Key readings in social psychology. Political psychology: Key readings (pp. 276-293). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.


Lisa-Marie KrausLisa-Marie is a PhD candidate at the Sociology Department of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research is part of the Becoming a Minority project and focuses on how (socially mobile) natives react to and make sense of becoming another ethnic minority in European cities.

 

Attending a summer school abroad: It’s not just back to school, it’s an experience!

Celine Klemmby Celine Klemm / Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

“Ljubljana? Where is that? Slovakia?” – “No, no Slovenia.”

“Ummm…and where is that?”

This was probably one of the most common reactions I encountered when I told friends and colleagues about my plans for this summer. I was going to attend a summer school in Ljubljana to learn about interviewing and qualitative data analysis. But I came back with much more then just knowledge about scientific methods. But you will see. So, are you also still asking yourself where Ljubljana and Slovenia actually are? I certainly did. But we are in good company. It seems to be a common ignorance – David Letterman experienced the same, with painful consequences for his sidekick. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEyhdpaRuug

I fill you in: Slovenia is placed in between three popular tourist destinations, next to Italy, south of Austria and north of Croatia. If you put your finger right in the middle of the petite country, you find the capital: Ljubljana. My boyfriend drew this little map for you:

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Ljubljana is home to 272,220 people, roughly a third of Amsterdam´s population. It is also home to the yearly which is my reason for being here. The school promises “cutting-edge courses in the full span of qualitative and quantitative topics”, something I felt I was in desperate need of, and so I enrolled for 2 courses, each one going on for 1-week.

The faculty where the course takes place is situated out of town, about 3km north, but Ljubljana has (I know this simple fact alone will touch the heart of every Dutch), and you can easily bike up north. A half-an-hour ride later, I found myself in a small classroom with around 20 other students from all around the world and a self-confident Slovenian lady with an intriguing British accent. “Back in school!” I thought immediately and thoroughly enjoyed being back on the other side of the classroom; the simple unadulterated pleasure of soaking up knowledge. The course was on expert interviews and how to unravel the inner thoughts and personal opinions of experts. Usually being well-trained public speakers and used to giving interviews on professional rather than personal views, the real challenge in conducting good expert interviews is to get them to talk about their true and personal opinions, as we learned in the class. And so we discussed some useful strategies.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands stuck into some actual interviewing, though, which we could eventually on the third day. We eased into it, interviewing classmates first and then random campus people. Eventually, two students could interview a PR spokesperson of the government, in front of the classroom. In 2007, Slovenia had become the first former Communist country to join the Eurozone, and we interviewed Matjaž Kek, then responsible for the EU accession campaign. I learned a lot watching the interview, being able to observe what questions can open up a conversation – and which lead into a dead end. This interesting interview day tagged along painstaking hours of interview transcribing the next day – a good exercise but also a good reminder: Do I really want to conduct interviews? In all seriousness, it is worth thinking about the time investment needed for interviewing and considering it in your PhD planning, and if possible: hire an assistant for transcribing. All in all, the course was rather theoretical in nature though; the interview day was doubtlessly the most instructive.

In the second week, we were introduced to a French-Canadian teacher, now living in Spain, who left us all deeply impressed when she ordered her lunchtime coffee in fluent Slovenian. Her class was on ‘Qualitative Data analysis using NVivo’, and let me tell you, we really dug into it. We learned all steps from the storage of the interview data to the final data analysis and writing up for publication. We were introduced to a number of features of the NVivo software for developing a systematic and comprehensive coding scheme, and for getting a better feel for the data, such as words clouds, creating summaries of coding categories, visualizing data and analyzing relations between concepts through data matrices. It was a very hands-on class, a lot of work and preparation, but just as worth all efforts.

We (apart from those poor few whose duties commanded an immediate return home) ended summer school with food and drinks at the Friday markets, feeling that this was a good summer. I left Ljubljana with a sense of confidence for my upcoming interview study, both in how to conduct the interviews and how to conduct data analysis; even with excitement about the prospect of interviewing. Almost without noticing, I had also learned more about European history, Slovenian culture, about hypnosis during birth-giving (can’t hurt to know random facts), met students with such fascinating and courageous projects as interviewing convicted criminals in prison, and I made a friend in Helsinki, the place I was gonna go next on a research visit.

And if you know ask yourself, where Helsinki is…

… go back to the video and your geography book.

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Celine Klemm is PhD candidate at the department of Communication Science. Her research focuses on the role of media and journalists in a public health crisis.

 

A matter of social attitudes?

Snoby Tamira Sno / Reading Time: 9 minutes

 

issp

From May 23 until 28 2014, I attended the annual meeting of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) in Tampere, Finland. The ISSP is one of the major international social sciences projects around the world and measures attitudes on a socially relevant theme. ISSP data are an important source for international comparative social scientific research. The survey has a different theme every year. This year’s theme is Citizenship. A total of 70 participants from 39 countries around the world, ranging from Australia to Canada and from Suriname to Russia, attended the meeting.

Since last year Suriname has become an associate member – ISSP-SR is incorporated in my PhD research. One of the conditions of the ISSP is conducting the survey every year, with a response of at least 1000 respondents. For Suriname I am in charge of the data collection and meeting the requirements of the ISSP.

The agenda

ISSP members meet annually. At these meetings decisions are made in a strictly democratic way (ISSP has no governing body or principal investigator). Amongst other topics, a main issue was to decide on the content of the questionnaires for the upcoming 3 years. During the conference I took part in the discussions on the content and wording of questions for the upcoming 2015 module “Work Orientation IV” and the 2016 module “Role of Government V”, as prepared by the Drafting Group. It was interesting to find out how questions could have political consequences in some countries, which questions were not relevant for all countries and how members would interpret questions. For example: in Suriname the question on left and right wings parties would not be relevant because our political system is not structured that way.  After 2 days of discussions, where members gave their comments, the questionnaire for 2015 and the list of topics for 2016 were brought to a vote and were accepted after some adjustments. With this, the members can now conduct the survey for 2015.

Also, a proposal for a theme for 2017, made by several countries, was presented and accepted by vote. The theme for 2017 will now be “Social Relations and Social networks”. This is a new theme within the ISSP.

Research session

Traditionally, the Sunday before the start of the meeting, a research session is organized, in which participants are given the opportunity to present papers that are (preferably) related to the themes of the ISSP modules. Together with my supervisor Harry Ganzeboom I prepared a presentation on “Post Stratification and Efficiency Weights in the 2012 ISSP of Suriname”. The paper describes the construction and use of post-stratification and efficiency weights in my survey on Social Mobility in Suriname that included the ISSP Social Inequality IV module.

Post stratification weights are used to correct biases, caused by selective non response. In my survey we found for example an overrepresentation of women so it seems relevant to think about using weights or not. Efficiency weights adjust for the fact that the sampling design deviates from the commonly assumed Simple Random Sampling design, but is clustered in multiple stages. In my sample, first there was a systematic sample with a random beginning, where some 60 primary sampling points were drawn; in each sampling point a cluster of 80 respondents were then selected.

The most important results and conclusions of this presentation were:

  • We found the Surinamese survey to be fairly representative with respect to district, ethnicity, age, education and occupation, but with a strong overrepresentation of women (65%), instead of an expected 50-50% distribution of men and women. This has arisen mostly from substitution within If the targeted respondent was a man and was not found at home, some interviewers immediately substituted him with a woman who appeared to be at home, despite of the instruction that substitution was not permitted in this case. The use of post-stratification weights to repair this, turned out to be of little value, because gender has a minor influence on social attitudes and usually is a control variable in the analysis.
  • Efficiency losses were found to be very strong because of the large cluster size in the sample and are reinforced because in certain areas interviewer portions were very large. These interviewers had an impact on the quality of the survey for example if they would substitute incorrectly or have made mistakes with the coding of occupations, etc. In the next survey we will use smaller clusters and smaller interviewer portions to cope with the efficiency loss.
  • In this presentation we have shown that interviewer effects can also be significantly reduced when respondents used write-in modes and thus answer questions without the intervention of an interviewer. Unfortunately, in Suriname we cannot use write-in modes on a large scale because there is a relatively high level of illiteracy in the interior, compared to the capital. Therefore we have to hire interviewers and conduct face-to-face interviews.

The construction and use of weights is currently of strong interest within the ISSP. A special working group is installed at this meeting for mapping this problem within the ISSP data and to come up with recommendations. Ganzeboom and I plan to contribute to this methodological research in future meetings.

Closing

On the last day, shortly before the closing of the conference, the representative of South-Africa showed a video to promote her country, because South Africa will be the host for the next ISSP conference in 2015. The audience reacted with approval. After some final remarks, the conference came to an end.

ISSP appeared to be indeed a matter of social attitudes.

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Tamira Sno is PhD candidate at the department of Sociology. Her research ‘Status Attainment and Social Mobility in Suriname’ focuses on studying patterns of occupational status attainment among Surinamese in Suriname and elsewhere.