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.