Respecting our sources, protecting our discipline

Felicity Matthews
Felicity Matthews

In this guest post from one of our board members, Associate Editor Felicity Matthews discusses the importance of ethical responsibilities to our sources, and offers advice for researchers trying to navigate these tricky waters.

In May 2014, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) launched a legal challenge to secure all of the recordings that were a product of the Belfast Project, a programme of oral history conducted by Boston College in the US intended to provide an account of the Troubles. Recorded between 2001-06, the ‘Boston Tapes’ comprise a collection of interviews with over fifty paramilitaries from the IRA and Ulster Volunteer Force. Crucially, interviewees were promised lifelong anonymity; and with the safety of this promise, many interviewees were candid about their involvement in a range of illegal acts. One such act was the murder of Belfast woman Jean McConville by the IRA in 1972; and in 2011, the PSNI launched a legal bid to gain access to the relevant recordings. Following a lengthy court battle, the PSNI were in 2013 given the transcripts of interviews with Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, and in the months that followed, a series of high-profile arrests were made. It was against this background that the PSNI sought to secure access to all of the Project’s transcripts, in a move criticised as a ‘fishing trip’ by Project founder Ed Moloney.

It is not the intention of this blog piece to offer an opinion on the moral or legal rights and wrongs of this particular case, the subject of which is far beyond my field of expertise and under an entirely different legal jurisdiction. However, as this legal battle ensues, serious questions have been raised regarding the limits of confidentiality and our duty as academic researchers towards our subjects; and it is in this context that I would like to pause and reflect on our responsibilities not only towards our subjects, but also towards our discipline itself.

As social scientists, we all have certain legal obligations that we need to respect, and in addition to such statutory requirements, many of us are also bound by the research ethics policies of our institutions and funders. Such frameworks exist to protect researchers and participants alike from any harm, distress or danger that may arise out of our research activities. Yet, as anyone who has been involved in the administration of such policies will undoubtedly appreciate, the issue of ethics is not black and white, ethical or non-ethical; and that a myriad of shades of grey exist with ample scope for discretion. In short, we are reliant upon human judgement – our own and that of our research ethics committees – to draw appropriate boundaries between the ethically acceptable and unacceptable.

Does this mean that we should be less risk-adverse, play it safe and focus on the anodyne at the expense of the importance? No. On the contrary. In my view, our role as social scientists is to pose critical questions and to confront challenging social and political issues, as by doing so we can generate key insights that will benefit citizens through more effective policy or better governance. At the same time, however, what we must remember is that when we ask those challenging questions, we risk exposing the professional and personal vulnerabilities of our research subjects. When we encourage a government minister to reveal political and ideological tensions at the heart of government, we are effectively asking her to set aside the governing convention of collective responsibility; and when we solicit the opinion of a civil servant regarding the feasibility of their minister’s policy agenda, we are effectively asking him to disregard the overriding principle of impartiality. Similarly, when we consult a clinician about a potential culture of malpractice or wrongdoing within her hospital, we are effectively asking them to ‘blow the whistle’, the risks of which are well-known; and when we survey an individual service user about their experiences in such a hospital, we are effectively asking him to be critical of the doctor-patient relationship in ways that may foster doubt or distrust.

Without the willingness of our subjects to engage with the research process, and share – often highly sensitive – insights about their own experiences, we would have no answers to those very questions that fire our intellectual curiosity and fuel our desire to make a difference. We therefore owe it to our participants to treat them with integrity and respect: to ensure the anonymity we promised; to keep those comments made off-the-record private; to store their precious personal data securely. During the past few months, I have been fortunate enough to conduct a series of high-level political interviews. Yet on several occasions, participants actually thanked me for my transparent approach to informed consent; and I was dismayed – even embarrassed – to hear how some academics had not adopted a similar approach, citing names with abandon and using direct quotations when no consent was given. I therefore argue that we also owe it to ourselves and our colleagues to act with propriety, and to preserve the reputation of our discipline. The relationships that we build throughout the research process are predicated on trust; and if we act in ways that undermine this trust, then we in turn undermine our capacity to make a difference by not only deterring potential participants but also by limiting our pool of potential recipients.

To conclude, I will leave you with the wise words of Albert Einstein, who remarked that ‘whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.’ To me, that gets to the nub of what I have tried to elucidate in this blog piece. And in the spirit of transparency and integrity, I will admit that I found this quote on a well-known search engine.

This piece reflects the opinions of the author alone.

Dr Felicity Matthews is Associate Editor of Policy and Politics and also Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. 

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