Ethics and Data

A part of all education research is recognizing one’s responsibility to proceed in a manner that respects the subjects, the process, and the community. Ethical researchers do not endanger the physical or emotional health of subjects, and they take steps to ensure the privacy of subjects and preserve subjects’ right to withdraw without penalty. Also, rewarding subjects for participating poses a threat to data and must be avoided. While those lessons are generally learned as part of each educator’s initial preparation to enter the field, there are less obvious aspects of being an ethical researcher that emerge when educators approach education as a wicked problem. 

When designing solutions to wicked problems, planners understand that each solution matters because individuals’ interaction with the solution will be a permanent part of their experience. For researchers, this suggests that any data collection matters and any data collected from a population will influence data collected later. The influences can be exaggerated when data is collected and then reported to subjects. (I have often wondered if my perception that I was not a strong math student was the result of the D that showed up on my report card in fourth grade; most of the students in my classes when I taught math perceived me to be a good math teacher, the data collected and reported about me as a child notwithstanding.) 

In research universities, proposals for research are submitted to an institutional review board before any data collection begins. That board reviews the ethics of the methods and ensures that subjects are not endangered and the research will gather the necessary data; until that group is convinced the research is appropriate and ethical, it cannot proceed. While action researchers are unlikely to have access to such rigorous review, they may be well-advised have knowledgeable outsiders review the methods to ensure it is appropriate and ethical.