Ethics and data security
When doing research, it is essential that you think about ethics and data security from the outset. Not only is this good research practice, there are also legal frameworks that must be followed.
Research ethics form part of wider research governance. Research governance is a process for making sure research projects in their entirety (from planning to dissemination) protects the safety, rights, dignity and well-being of all of those involved in that research (this includes research participants and researchers). It is useful to think of this as ‘my research will do no harm’.
Some schools, local authorities and other bodies working with children and young people may already have research governance procedures in place. You will need to check with senior leaders in any organisation where you will carry out your research whether it needs governance approval. All universities, for example, have rigorous governance processes that must be adhered to before research can begin.
Ethics must be considered throughout your research project. As things change, so might the ethical implications of your research. Ethics are important because they consider:
Informed consent: All participants must give consent to be involved in your research. To comply with the Data Protection Act (1998), you must tell participants what your research is about, what you will do with the information you gather and how it will be stored, reported (and disseminated) and deleted at the end of the project.
The right to withdraw: All participants have the right to withdraw from your research at any time, even if they have already agreed to participate. You must make it clear to all participants that they have this right, even where, for example, a parent/carer or headteacher has already given proxy-consent.
Confidentiality: You need to tell your research participants if what they tell you will remain confidential to only you (and your research team). This means ensuring they are never identifiable to anyone. You cannot even tell anyone who has/has not been involved in your research. Confidentiality also has practical implications for your research, for example, you must not write participant’s names or any other identifying information about them on any notes you take. Instead, you need to give them an anonymous identification code. Some research is carried out with the intention of naming individuals; this is fine in some circumstances and must be made explicit from the outset.
Explanation of disclosures: During any research, it is possible that a child or vulnerable adult may make a disclosure. This may be more likely for some pieces of research than others. You need to be familiar with your organisation’s disclosure processes and who your child protection designated staff member is, in the event of a disclosure being made.
Appropriateness of methods: When undertaking research, give careful consideration to how you will collect information (for example, surveys, interviews, focus groups etc). You need to ensure your chosen method is most appropriate for your intended participants. For example, sending a survey to four year olds or to disengaged young people is not likely to be appropriate; interviewing them would be better. In addition, you need to consider how much time you are asking participants to spend on your research - often the shorter the amount of time the better. See also: Planning your research, and Choosing your method.
It is essential for you to consider data confidentiality and security to ensure your research complies with the Data Protection Act (1998). This means that all named and identifiable data – including memory sticks with interview notes, survey responses; handwritten notes from a lesson observation or audio and video recordings - must be stored securely and confidentially. This includes electronic and hard copy files. Electronic files should be password protected when saved on a shared drive.
It may be useful to have a look at NFER's Code of Practice, which is available for download here.