2.3 Research in the Institution and Beyond

Activity 7: Ethical Implications of Openness

After considering both the Wikipedia definition of ‘open research’ and How to do open research: 5 basic principles reflect on the following questions and post your own thoughts in the forum below and comment on one other post:

  • Do you think that there are potential ethical issues raised by the suggestions made for ‘open research’?
  • Would they be covered by the principles outlined in the previous activity?
  • If not, are there new principles that we need to use when working ‘in the open’ (without institutional rules)? What might they be?

Once you’ve finished sharing your ideas and commenting on others’ contributions, head on back to section 2.3.

This seems like a minefield. The ethics procedures are based on informed consent and protection of data. Open research seems to imply the opposite e,g, allowing re-use (e.g. drilling down to individuals) of data by researchers who may not be aware of (or choose not to comply with) the conditions of consent. It is also difficult to see how identities can be protected if all data is open and primary researchers have no control over the standards of open participants.
I am not sure how researchers associated with an institution can also research in the open “without institutional rules”. Surely there is likely to be reputational damage if a well known institutional researcher follows different rules when researching in the open?

Hi! I think you’ve picked up on a lot of the complexity here, Guy. We tend to try and control as many variables as possible in order to make sure that we as researchers don’t cause harm. But with openness and reduced institutional influence this can be much harder to do. It seems to me that one question we must ask is whether we need to replicate the rules we typically find governing institutional research or whether everything (legal) is fair game when one is working openly…

I’m not sure this is a purely open issue - this may be a more simple issue of researchers not knowing about their own institutional policies when it comes to research ethics.

It does however speak to an issue I’ve observed about researchers’ (and the public in general) belief that ‘what can be found online can be used.’ I think it’s tied into a general lack of copyright knowledge, although of course there are strong arguments that copyright as it is written currently is far more prescriptive and should try and be truer to actual practice.

One element to this is the idea of whether the same rules we apply within institutions should also apply outside institutions in more ‘open’ contexts. A lot of the time researchers might not even have an institutional affiliation and just work with open or public data. So the question is really whether they need to abide by the same ethical rules or whether we in fact need a different set of rules for these cases. I’m tempted to suggest that the underlying principles concerning harm reduction, data quality, etc might be the same but there aren’t any clear guidelines (yet) for how this should work.

Open research could have unintended consequences of identifying participants by cross-referencing various open data.

The guidelines for ethics in open research might still have to be described (globally), as I am sure that the institutional rules do not cover all facets of open research.

Maybe the new rules need to include specifically stating the intention (purpose) of your research up front and openly and how you will handle unintended revelations. Not sure how :slight_smile:

I like your reply and the question it raises -“whether everything (legal) is fair game when one is working openly…”. At the moment, I’m not particularly struck by any new principles that need to be adopted when working in the open without institutional rules. I like the definition of open research and the 5 basic principles of how to do it. But, hey I’m new to this and I have a guerrilla instinct. However, with that being said, I’m willing to explore the concerns of others, concerns that my inexperience and naivety is currently blinding me to.

Hi Tess, and thanks for your contribution. You’re right to question whether institutions will need to update their rules to cover the new possibilities that are raised by open, digital, networked technologies. This could relate to data management policies regarding research activity, but exactly what it would entail is not that clear right now because it’s hard to anticipate the ethical issues of the future. It would be interesting to think about the kind of rules we might expect of different institutions, though - schools/colleges/universities, for example - do they have different needs or underlying principles?

Thanks Crumphelen! The extent to which legal and ethical concerns overlap is a long standing debate in philosophy and jurisprudence. Of course, we expect that our laws reflect morality (murder is wrong therefore it is illegal) but we also have cases where, say, slavery is considered perfectly legal (like Ancient Rome or in the more recent history of the USA). Does the fact that it is legal also mean that it is morally justified? I’d probably want to argue that it is not… an extreme example perhaps, but I hope it illustrates the point.

Got Ya. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical.
I just read the introduction for 2.4 “thinking for oneself about ethics is characteristic of a ‘good’ open researcher”. I agree. Better get my thinking cap on :slight_smile:

In thinking about the ethical issues around open research I keep coming back to there being two competing ethical considerations. First, there’s an obligation to make research outputs available, which includes raw data as well as finished analysis, and the methods used to get from one to the other. Second, you have to protect your subjects/patients. It’s incredibly difficult (arguably impossible) to do both, so researchers have to decide how they’re going to balance these mutually exclusive issues, and where they’re going to make sacrifices. How much privacy can you justify sacrificing in order to fulfil the obligation to be open? I’m not sure.

These definitely need to be considered closely if you’re an unaffiliated researcher, but arguably it’s important for affiliated researchers as well, since some of the implications of open data aren’t covered by institutional guidelines or understood by the IRBs involved. Somewhat related is the legality question that’s come up in a lot of the responses. While it’s pretty clear that not everything that’s legal is ethical (and vice versa), legal frameworks provide the only practical common ground for ethical guidelines. They’re sort of society’s consensus about what is “okay,” and allows us something to fall back on when we’re dealing with grey areas.

I must agree with you that when one is collecting data about individuals there needs to be careful thought before making the data open. Certainly it has to be anonymised first.

Regarding anonymisation, I’ve been reading a research paper looking at a participant activity in a number of FutureLearn MOOCs. The paper states:

“The terms and conditions of FutureLearn state: 7.11 Any Learner Content that is published on the public discussion areas of the Website (for example, the forums or areas where posts are made) will be subject to a Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-Non Commercial-NoDerivs; BY-NC-ND). For this reason, the authors of all direct quotations used within this paper are named and are not anonymised or assigned pseudonyms.”

So in this case the researchers are stating that due to the terms of service for use of FutureLearn,they are not under any obligation to anonymise students’ contributions. And indeed full names are quoted in the paper. This slightly surprised me, as I wasn’t sure if the fact that licencing one’s contributions as CC:BY:NC:ND to a platform if one is a student automatically gives the right to researchers to use that data for research - as far as I know there is no further ‘informed consent’, so it would seem that the agreement to take a FutureLearn course (and other MOOCs) constitutes informed consent in this case at least.

Balancing the conflict between confidentiality of certain data and the open principle of releasing all work in the open is the big ethic issue for me. Rough notes might need a covering explanation and incoherent notes might confuse some potential contributors or send them in the wrong direction which could waste their and your time or cause anxiety (especially if the rough notes contain sensitive data or personal comments which might be misconstrued). So a bit of judgement might need to be applied before releasing absolutely everything immediately. Perhaps curating the rough notes into a story to show thought process might be helpful to others – ie ‘making a clear account of the methodology’.

Maybe therefore, as good open research practice, all those of us who try to research in the open need to state what our understanding of open research principles mean for our research project so that those who subsequently participate in our open research project online know the interpretation and extent of openness we’re adopting.

I think it’s a key point about being transparent about the understanding of openness - researchers would have to define terms as open research is full of moveable definitions. True openness is not just being open but explaining how that is implemented.