The myth of the ivory tower

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Bubbleby Rosanne Anholt | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /


In the social sciences, we often obtain our data from people. We may collect opinions, experiences or understandings from different groups of people through various methods, like surveys, observations or interviews. As researchers, we have the responsibility to do our research participants no harm, and to behave ethically and with integrity towards them. Often however, there are others involved in our research – in addition to research participants – and we have a responsibility towards them, too.

To protect those who allow us to interview them, partake in our focus group discussions or document their lives in our photovoice projects, we obtain informed consent, ensure confidentiality and put data protection measures in place. Besides research participants however, we may encounter a range of other people at various stages of the research process. Fixers, for example, who help us arrange interviews with people we might otherwise not have access to, or interpreters and translators, who help us understand our research participants. There may also be student-assistants, who transcribe our interviews, take over our teaching duties during our fieldwork, or accompany us in order to gain some research experience. Sometimes, we seem to forget that the “do no harm” principle applies just as much to them as to the people we interview or observe – of which the following true story is a deplorable example.

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During one of my fieldwork trips for my PhD research on how humanitarian and development practitioners interpret the idea of “resilience” and translate it into practice, I am hosted by a young Syrian who works for a humanitarian organization. One morning, as he and I are having chai (tea) outside in a hesitant Spring sun, he tells me about a time he was hosting a student from a European university who was studying the experiences of Syrian refugees for his master thesis research project.

Without any Arabic speaking skills nor access to the Syrian refugee communities, the student asked my Syrian host to help him out. They agreed on a decent compensation, after which my host organized more than a dozen interviews with different Syrian families both inside and outside the country’s different refugee camps, as well as acting as an interpreter during the interviews. When the student left the country, he promised to transfer the payment for the hours of work my host put in and the expenses he made – like travel costs and small gifts for the Syrian families participating in the study.

In the few months after the student left, there were different excuses to delay the payment. From bank accounts allegedly not working, to money running low due to hospital expenses made for a family member. The student even went as far to propose using his university department’s charity fund on the condition that my host could produce a counterfeit company name and registered address – the illegality of which could have put my host in real danger. My host declined, and when the student stopped replying to his messages, he eventually gave up.

If we fail to practice our research in a principled manner, as this student has, we may cause harm to the people we work with. We also risk discrediting the scholarly community, and ultimately put people’s trust in researchers and their willingness to work with them at stake. Transparency is one important measure we can take in order to be accountable to the people we engage with throughout the research process. This means, for example, to negotiate a contract when outsourcing research-related activities. We may also share information about the institutions and individuals – including supervisors – involved in a research project, to give research participants and others the option to file a complaint in case agreements are violated.

Contrary to popular belief, researchers don’t operate in a vacuum. The ivory tower, where researchers are completely cut off from the world in order to cook up scientific theories, is a myth. Even when we don’t co-produce knowledge through the interaction with research participants, we are ultimately embedded in institutions where we engage with our colleagues, students and non-academic staff. Moreover, universities increasingly interact with the outside world – not just with other academic institutions, but also with societal partners like municipalities or non-governmental organizations. That also means we may have more responsibility than we think.


Rosanne Anholt is a Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research focuses on how humanitarian and development organizations interpret and use the policy buzzwords resilience, humanitarian-development nexus and local ownership in responding to the impact of the Syria crisis in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

 

Wearing two hats?

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Serving seniors or serving science: a dilemma game

MarijeBlokBubble1 by Marije Blok | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

Serving seniors or serving science?
Loneliness is a serious problem among older people. My organization, the National Foundation for the Elderly, aims to tackle this challenge through different activities. My team works on innovations to support ageing in a meaningful way. We investigate wishes of older people in interviews; explore their ideas in co-design sessions and test prototypes. I love my job! And it only got better when I succeeded in creating a PhD position to enrich it: now I would even be better able to serve the elderly! However, soon I discovered that serving science is not always the same as serving seniors and I started to face ethical challenges.

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Dilemmas of a double role
All researchers face ethical challenges. Lucky us: there are guides to help us out. The Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity – the integrity Bible for (Dutch) researchers – provides methodological and ethical standards. It introduces a set of ‘virtues’ for good scholars, including honesty, scrupulousness, transparency, independence, and responsibility.

As a researcher working for an employer outside the university, I’m also supposed to take principals of my organization into account, including making a difference, being involved, flexible, connecting and distinct. However, both sets of principals sometimes conflict. I often feel like I’m wearing two hats, as values of my organization and science are not always aligned.

The Erasmus University developed the Dilemma Game, supporting researchers in practicing with hypothetical dilemmas. Inspired by playing this game in a course at the faculty, I reflect in this blog post in a playful way on dilemmas I faced in my work. Next to exploring what to do when interests of seniors and science seem to clash, I hope to motivate fellows operating both in science and society to reflect on their work as well. All blocks contain a dilemma (left) and the considerations I made (right).

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Representing a wellbeing organization, I felt responsible to make participating a pleasant experience for the older people (B). However, I also found the value of scrupulousness important and didn’t want to be flexible at the cost of this scientific value (A).  I choose A, as including new persons would anyway affect the reliability of the results (A+C). Unfortunately, this was not a happy-ending story. The collaboration was disturbed and another participant left because her friend wasn’t welcome.

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This dilemma forced me to choose between being flexible and connecting (A) – according to my organization’s values – or scrupulous and independent (B) – following scientific principles. C was a successful mix: beneficial for my organization without ignoring scientific standards.

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As an elderly organization, we joined this project to make a difference in older people’s lives and considered this approach (B) suitable for this. Our partners considered replacing participants at the cost of scrupulousness and not in line with ethical standards (A). We considered B, but first discussed this with the partners once again. This worked out surprisingly well, so we ended with C.

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Considering what would be most honest from a scientific point of view (A, B) I decided to be transparent in reporting, but to not use their input (A). Instead of interviewing her husband I spent additional time having coffee with the lady, as I felt responsible after her sharing her story (C). This mix was a good strategy and in line with both my organization and research

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A beautiful hat
I am not a talker at all, but I feel you really listen to me and that makes me share my story’ – an 85-year old lady when I finalize my interview. For a moment I feel guilty, as my primary interest was a valuable dataset. But then I realize that a valuable encounter can be valuable for my research at the same time. Reflecting on my dilemmas taught me that although my organization’s values are not always similar to those in science, decisions aren’t necessarily black or white. Am I wearing two hats, in my position? No, I’m not. I’m wearing a very special one and will do this with pride!


Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU) and a project manager in the Innovation department at the National Foundation for the Elderly (Nationaal Ouderenfonds). Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

 

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.