Saturday, January 31, 2015

How do You Make Sure Your Research is Ethical?

by Hannah Farrimond, The Guardian:

Philip Zimbardo's study into the psychological effects of becoming either a prisoner or a prison guard became infamous because of the questions it raised about research ethics.

The controversial study, run in the basement of Stanford University in 1971, saw participants passively accept psychological abuse and follow orders to harass other prisoners.

While most social scientists are unlikely to gain that level of notoriety, they do need to consider how to carry out their research ethically.

The practice of research ethics commands much more attention than in the past. This is not to say that researchers used to be unethical, but that there has been a move towards measuring ethics more formally.

Grant applications have sections to be completed on research ethics, PhD students are asked to submit their ethics approval certificates, and publications want you to certify that you have met ethical principles.

This may leave postgraduates, early career researchers and even those further down the academic career line wondering: what does all this form-filling have to do with doing ethical research? And how do principles such as confidentiality, anonymity or "do no harm" apply to me?

What not to do

When I run training on research ethics in the social sciences, we consider what not to do. We look at examples such as the Zimbardo experiment or the controversy surrounding the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who was accused of harming the Yanomami people he observed and wrote about.

Yet examples such as these are not always helpful. Who imagines they are going to cause serious harm by conducting a series of interviews or collecting survey data? Over the years, however, I have seen numerous small ethical breaches. For example:

When a PhD student running behind on his transcription asked a fellow PhD student to help out, and the latter recognised the voice of one of the participants who was disclosing highly personal and confidential information.
When names relating to data on a sensitive topic were left out on a desk.
When participants in a study were contacted by two sets of researchers independently, leading them to believe we were passing on their details without consent.
When historic criminal activity was disclosed and there was no protocol for dealing with it.

None of these are likely to make the history books of research ethics failures, but all could have been avoided with just a little forethought.

How should we think about research ethics?

The move towards systematised procedures doesn't have to be viewed as sinister - though there are undoubtedly implications for academic freedom in having all research pre-screened by institutions or funding bodies.

Increasingly, the implicit ways researchers used to pass on their ethical thinking and practices from supervisor to student are gone.

Students and researchers need and want research ethics training, but more than that, they want the space for ethical reflection. Initiatives such as the concordat to support research integrity, which aim to agree principles across the sector, may help institutions devise protocols. But principles are hard to interpret and may even conflict with one another.

People want time to discuss and reflect on the detail of their specific projects and the ethical dilemmas within them.

The internationalisation of the research world also means that flexibility is required. In some cultures, if you ask people to sign your form, they might think you don't trust them. Why is a handshake not enough? Should our need to have a signature in a box, verifying we asked for their consent, override these considerations and would it be ethical to insist on it?

What you should do to improve your own ethics in research

Those encountering the world of research ethics committees and form-filling should seek advice. The ethics committee secretary always knows more about procedure than the members, so make contact with him or her.

Disciplinary ethics codes and guidelines are now available online from organisations such as the British Psychological Society and the Association of Internet Researchers.

It is highly unlikely you are the first person to do research with a vulnerable group, such as people with dementia or learning disabilities, or to be using social media.

Make sure you find and learn from the body of literature appropriate to your topic. Adapt existing consent forms and consider participatory approaches. Spend time on less clear-cut ethical dilemmas that are bound to arise as you go about your research.

Research ethics is just one part of the whole research enterprise. We must not succumb either institutionally or individually to ethical hypersensitivity, but remain alert to ethical issues as they arise throughout the research process.

Dr Hannah Farrimond is a lecturer in medical sociology at the University of Exeter and author of Doing Ethical Research.

Prospering Wisely: How Research Helps us Confront the Tough Choices we Face in Creating a Healthier Society

Lord Nicholas Stern (
by Impact of Social Sciences:

We are witnessing a growing mistrust, not only in political processes and politicians, but in social institutions as a whole. Inequality is also rising on many crucial dimensions.

Lord Stern of Brentford, President of the British Academy argues we need a new kind of national conversation, and the voice of the humanities and social sciences must be at its centre.

Researchers and scholars help make the complex intelligible, and help us understand human values and possibilities. Our times confront us with tough choices, as societies, as economies, and as individuals.

To understand challenges which include an ageing population, migration, sustaining the environment and managing climate change, we require conceptual clarity and impartial, evidence-based research and analysis, together with open-mindedness and creativity in exploring new ideas.

This is precisely what research and scholarship in humanities and social sciences do. The quest for a better, deeper, more valuable life has always been at their heart. They seek to illuminate the human condition and explain how economies, cultures and societies function.

In addition to the intrinsic value of this quest, the insights it generates can guide - and promote - reasoned political and public discourse, by bringing fresh knowledge and ideas to the fore.

The UK’s deep reservoir of research and expertise across these disciplines - from history to psychology, economics to law, literature to philosophy and languages to archaeology - is a national asset which informs and enlarges our understanding and decision-making.

It is driven by a desire to examine and explain human behaviour and aspirations: to understand empirically how and where society is functioning and malfunctioning; to explore the ethical foundations of decision-making and its underlying assumptions; to seek to learn from history; to scrutinise how evidence supports or undermines policy options; to analyse the drivers and implications of a changing world economy and polity, and how different societies and cultures interact. It encompasses all of the elements that make for ‘a good life’ and a healthy society.

Alongside the complementary and similarly essential disciplines of science, engineering and medicine, the humanities and social sciences are vital drivers of human progress.

They provide the rigorous scrutiny and insights, the ideas and the long-term thinking that can and should have a profound influence on social and cultural well-being, on a modern economy driven by knowledge and innovation, and, ultimately, on our place and reputation in the world.

A society without thriving social sciences and humanities risks achieving at best only an arid kind of prosperity, far less rich than our creative human culture deserves - and at worst confusion, apathy, decline and conflict.

The crucible for creating ideas and understanding, and developing learning and expertise here in the UK is in our universities, hugely respected throughout the world.

Humanities and social sciences are taught by 65,000 academic staff (more than a third of the total, and around half of all active researchers). One million UK undergraduates study them (46% of the total) together with some 60% of all postgraduates; and most leaders in public life - government, business and the voluntary sector - were educated in these disciplines.

They also attract some 250,000 overseas students annually (nearly 60% of the total), making vital contributions to the future of our international relationships and to our economy.

More than three-quarters of the UK economy is now in services, which flourish by employing people with knowledge and skills from the humanities and social sciences - skills of critical analysis, problem solving, negotiation and communication, teaching and listening, and speaking other languages. And these contributions go far beyond sectors classified as ‘services’, into companies in manufacturing or natural resources.

An oil company, for example, needs the skills of geologists and engineers but, just as important to its ability to function successfully, it also needs skilled human capital and specific sector skills in a range of other areas. These include international relations, political economy, law, marketing, finance, management (particularly of risk), geography and logistics, the history, culture and languages of places where it produces and sells, and so on.

We have, in my view, reached a position which is potentially of great historical significance. We are witnessing a decline in confidence, and sometimes a growing mistrust, not only in political processes and politicians, but in social institutions such as the media and journalism, the police and religious organisations. Inequality is rising on many crucial dimensions.

We have, for many, a confusion or anxiety around moral or social values, and community or individual identity. In my own subject of economics, we have less confidence in our ability to understand processes of growth, employment and change. We must seek growth that is sustainable in relation to our natural environment. And these difficulties are not confined to our own country; they are reflected in many societies, rich and poor, around the world.

These difficulties affect us all, from young people looking for work, to older people worried about the future of their healthcare. If we, as a society, cannot put this process into reverse, we will all be the losers.

We need a new kind of national conversation, and the voice of the humanities and social sciences must be at its centre. Our researchers and scholars help delineate the choices we confront as a society and as individuals, and how best to respond.

They help make the complex intelligible, and help us understand human values and possibilities. Their business is to challenge and question, and their challenges are sometimes awkward and difficult for those in authority. They demand rigour and honesty, they force alternative ethical or social perspectives into the open.

The British Academy has a key role in a new national conversation that can strengthen public discussion and help us understand better the meaning of prosperity, and identify pathways to greater prosperity, in all its dimensions.

Lord Stern is one of the speakers with Universities Minister Greg Clark and Professors Julia Black and Conor Gearty at Enriching our lives - why the humanities and social sciences matter now at LSE on Tuesday 3 February.

This is an extract of Lord Stern’s introduction to Prospering Wisely: How the humanities and social sciences enrich our lives, a booklet and campaign produced by the British Academy containing contributions drawn from longer interviews with some of the UK’s leading academics, all Fellows of the British Academy (FBAs), which offer illustrations of the great potential of informed public reasoning in action.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the Author

Nicholas Herbert Stern, Baron Stern of Brentford is a British economist and academic. He is IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics (LSE), and 2010 Professor of Collège de France. Since 2013, he has been President of the British Academy. He led the Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change which was released in 2006.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Elite University Degrees do Not Protect Black People from Racism


Gaddis sent resumes to 1,008 jobs in three parts of the United States. Some of these fictional job applicants carried degrees from an elite university: Stanford, Harvard, or Duke.

Some had names that suggested a white applicant (e.g., Charlie or Erica) and others names that suggested a black applicant (e.g., Lamar or Shanice).

Both phone and email inquiries from people with white-sounding names elicited a response more often than those from black-sounding names. Overall, white-sounding candidates were 1.5 times more likely than black-sounding candidates to get a response from an employer. The relationship held up when other variables were controlled for with logistic regression.


Gaddis goes on to show that when employers did respond to candidates with black-sounding names, it was for less prestigious jobs that pay less.

Comparing applicants who are black and white and have elite vs. more middle-of-the-road university degrees, blacks with elite degrees were only slightly more likely than whites with less impressive degrees to get a call back. As is typically found in studies like these, members of subordinated groups have to outperform the super-ordinated to see the same benefit.

H/t Philip Cohen.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Self-Care in Academia: Balancing Studies and a Family

Fouzia Choudhry
on PhD Talk:

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Fouzia Choudhry in the series on Self Care in Academia. Fouzia is a full-time lecturer, a mother of 4 and a part-time Doctoral student at Staffordshire University.

Due to my busy lifestyle I carefully plan each day, week and month. I find sleep is very important to keep me going so although I start my day at 5am every week day, I go to sleep early at around 9pm.

By doing this I avoid feeling tired and am able to focus well on my writing as well as my other daily jobs.

The key thing for me is not to feel stressed out at any point and not to neglect the kids as a result of my studies. Therefore, I read and write first thing in the morning, whilst the kids are asleep.

Achieving at last two hours of study first thing in the morning, keeps me happy and motivated all day. Keeping fit makes me feel happy, energetic and motivated too, so although it’s very difficult to arrange for a babysitter whilst going to a gym, I have set up my own space to exercise at home, with some equipment I would use maybe once a week.

The other important routine I have is to cook healthy for myself and the family. As I plan what I will cook in advance, it makes it easier as I have the ingredients required and don’t have to run to the shops last minute.

At the weekends, I have a strict routine of spending the Saturday getting up-to-date with the housework and the kids homework. On Sundays, as my husband is home, I aim to spend between four to five hours studying and I take the kids out or spend time with them for the rest of the day.

In order to cope with the demands of studying, my job and the kids, I have a cleaner who comes over every Saturday. This is very important because if I am not up to date with housework, I don’t feel mentally ready to study and it would stress me out.

Initially, I moved to a bigger house during the first year of study because I felt I needed more space where I can lay out my books and have more than one area in the house to study. However the down fall to that was the bigger the house, the more cleaning.

I believe that including social activities is also part of my self-care habits. However, during term time I keep this to a minimum unless it’s course related such as conferences or meeting with course tutor or mentor. I use the school holidays to visit the library, friends and family.

Overall I would say it is how I plan and manage my time allows me to include self-care habits into my daily routines, whilst keeping on target with my other duties.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Case for a University Happiness Ranking

by Chris Woolston, Nature:

Universities are often ranked using metrics for research income and academic impact, but scores such as those published by the Times Higher Education don’t say much about the quality of life of researchers at those institutions.

A blog post by structural biologist Jenny Martin that calls for new researcher-friendly metrics for ranking universities - including a happiness index - is drawing enthusiastic reviews on social media.

“I am so going to work on increasing our Happiness-index in the group!” tweeted Jodie Bradby, a physicist at the Australian National University in Canberra. Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley, a conservation scientist at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi wrote on Twitter:

Martin, at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, wrote a post on her Cubistcrystal blog criticizing the current ranking system.

She says that universities at the top of the list attract more and more PhD students, leading to a researcher oversupply that creates extra competition for jobs, unnecessary pressure and, ultimately, disenchantment.

She proposes other measures that, in her view, would provide a more realistic view of life at a research institution. The Happiness index would be calculated using surveys of workplace satisfaction and the number of days of leave taken without prompting.

The Fairness Index would track the ratio of average salaries for men and women in leadership positions, and the K-index would measure ‘kid-friendly’ attributes, such as parental-leave policies and access to on-campus childcare. Such indices, if ever put in place, “might drive new, perhaps more socially just, workplace behaviours”, she writes.

Martin admits in her post that she may be a dreamer, but “the new metrics I proposed were meant to get us thinking about how we can change the status quo,” she said in an interview.

The proposals seemed appealing - if not especially plausible - to Eve Emshwiller, a botanist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who tweeted:

In a follow-up interview, Emshwiller said that if universities started competing to improve their rankings with such metrics, it would “add a lot to quality of life for those of us who work in these institutions.”

And improving quality of life would result in better scientists, says Bradby. “I believe that scientists, like everyone else, work much better when they are connected, valued and supported,” she says. One of her strategies is to give monthly awards for small achievements by those in her lab group, such as if they submit a paper or get a tricky experiment to work.

Including these indices would shake up university rankings, says Januchowski-Hartley. Universities that excel on the basis of conventional measures generally “aren’t going to score high in happiness”, she says.

Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, acknowledges that its ratings don’t consider factors such as workplace satisfaction or pay equality when scoring universities.

Collecting usable data on such issues from institutions around the world would be a huge challenge, he says. Still, he adds that the Times Higher Education often reports on quality-of-life aspects of academia. “We take these issues very seriously.”
517, 415

Friday, January 23, 2015

Making Time Count When Doing Your PhD

Lisa Murphyby socphd:

I am a first year PhD candidate in Applied Psychology at University College Cork. I did my undergraduate degree in Applied Psychology here and I honestly love the School! 

Its home to a lot of memories, but more importantly it has what I need in terms of progressing as an academic and as a professional. 

So, I’ve decided to embark upon a 4 year structured PhD programme - exciting (and terrifying) times ahead! In these early days, I sometimes need to remind myself that I’m actually doing a PhD - not so long ago, this was something that only grown up’s did!

You can tweet Lisa or visit her website, where this blog was originally published.

Time is perhaps the most important thing in our physical and psychological world. We can neither save it nor store it, exchange it nor rewind it. We are constantly spending, and often wasting, our most precious resource.

Since beginning my PhD, I have come to understand the importance of time (both my own as well as the time of others) more earnestly than ever before. Our time must be planned, utilised effectively, enjoyed, never squandered and always considered.

Yet I sometimes wonder - even if I succeeded in planning each and every minute of the next four years to a degree of astounding precision, and completed each minute exactly as scheduled, would this time be enough to accomplish all of the things that I want to accomplish, mainly, four perfectly designed and impeccably executed pieces of research? Probably/definitely not!

Somewhere, somehow, a trade-off must occur between completing your doctoral research in a reasonable amount of time and conducting ‘perfect research’ of faultless quality.

Although the latter, in my opinion, can never be accomplished, it is certainly achievable to waste mental energy and more importantly, precious time, trying to conduct perfect PhD research.

For example, at the moment I spend a considerable amount of time every day sitting at my computer, books and journal articles covering the surface of my desk, a new Microsoft Word document open on the screen, faced with a blinking curser, and no words.

Here is why (a.k.a what not to let happen):

I have become so preoccupied with writing ‘the perfect literature review’, that I have convinced myself the only way to do so is to study every word ever written on my topic, before I put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, so to speak).

My topic is time perspective. Writings on the psychology of time perception go back as far as the year 1781 (to the best of my knowledge). By this outrageous logic, I must therefore study, review and recall every detail of roughly 250 years of literature before I can even begin to write my introduction section.

At that rate, my supervisor should receive the first draft of this introduction section by the year 2018 (I am a relatively slow reader). She is a patient woman, however given that it is in my research plan to submit for publication in December 2015, I imagine her patience would be tested to a large extent in this instance.

As I take my seat each day, vowing to be productive and do some writing, I am consumed with writing the perfect literature review. And what happens next? I am not sure how many of you will relate, but fear is what happens next.

I am afraid to write in case I haven’t discovered the most important paper ever written in my field, identified the most influential thinker, or studiedthat thing that everybody else in the area knows, but I have yet to uncover. In essence, I am terrified that I will leave something important out … so nothing goes in!

Even more ironic, I sit staring into space, contemplating what little time I have to read all of this literature, when I could actually be reading the literature! What a gigantic waste of my time!

Today, following a brief meltdown, I had an important conversation with a friend. She told me that it really doesn’t take an exceptional amount of intelligence to complete a PhD, but still many do not finish.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not a reflection of intelligence, but rather of character, or more importantly, a reflection of one’s responsiveness and reaction to an intense and difficult character building process.

And it hit me - more than I wish to write the perfect literature review, I hope to build my character and resilience to setbacks and meltdowns, enjoy the highs but learn from the mistakes, push through procrastination and panic, and acquire the skills and expertise necessary for a successful career in academia, all the while conducting research on a topic which gets me so excited that I could cartwheel, research which will never be perfect, but will be my best.

This, I have been told, is good enough, and that, in my opinion, will be time well spent!