Code of ethics

Code of ethics

KSS CRC Research Unit

 

This document outlines the KSS CRC Research Unit’s commitment to conducting ethical research. The guidance is broken in to five sections. These are:

  • Responsibility to participants
  • Conducting research with service-users
  • Internet-based research
  • Researching from within (insider research)
  • Other ethical issues

Responsibility to participants

  • Protection from harm – the Research Unit is committed to ensuring that research participation does not place participants at risk of physical or psychological harm. This is particularly the case when the research involves those who are vulnerable due to an imbalance of power, for example research involving service users and their families. Specific steps to minimise risk of harm[1] include ensuring participants are clear on their rights as research participants (see section on informed consent, deception and right to withdraw for more details); conducting research in safe environments, and where relevant, providing information on support services for participants involved in more sensitive research (see also debriefing and aftercare).
  • Anonymity and confidentiality – every effort will be made to ensure participants’ anonymity and confidentiality, with the limits to such assurances being explained at the commencement of any research activity. Reflecting the British Society of Criminology’s Code of Ethics (2006), the Research Unit will also abide by this ‘duty of confidentiality’ by not passing on identifiable data to third parties without participants’ consent (see alsoSubject Access Requests). The unit will work within the confines of current legislation over such matters as intellectual property (including copyright, trademark, patents), privacy and confidentiality, data protection and human rights (BSC, 2006). On the rare occasion that confidentiality and anonymity is waived, this would only be for legal reasons (i.e. disclosure of information relevant to the Police – see section on conducting Research with Service-Users for more information) or due to issues around the safety and wellbeing of the participant or those in proximity to the participant. For example, if the participant indicated they were being harmed or that they were harming (or planning to harm) others. In the event of a disclosure of this kind, the participant would be informed of the researchers’ duty to report it to the appropriate authority[2]. 
  • Informed consent, deception and right to withdraw – participants will be made fully aware of what the research is about, why they are being consulted and how their information will be used. Consent forms and information sheets will be explained thoroughly and signed off before any research takes place. Each participant will be given copies for their own records. Participants will also be informed of their right to withdraw from the research, and that they can do so at any point and for whatever reason[3]. For vulnerable participants (e.g. under 18s, older people or adults with learning disabilities), as recommended by the Economic and Social Research Council, time and opportunity will be given so that they can access support in their decision-making, for example by discussing their choice with a trusted adult or relative (‘Research with potentially vulnerable people’, n.d).
  • Debriefing and aftercare – the Research Unit is committed to a ‘duty of care’ for participants. After research activity has concluded (e.g. interview, focus group, workshop, survey etc.) the participant will be informed again about what they have participated in and why, and what will be done with their information. The participant will then be given the opportunity to ask questions or request further information about the research (this will be offered by email if the research has taken place online – see Internet-based research for more details). For face-to-face research, this will also be the time when wellbeing checks will take place, for example checking the participant is happy with the research process and has not been left with any doubt, concern or distress. For research involving sensitive topics, (e.g. abuse, substance misuse, gambling, being a victim of crime etc.), additional information detailing relevant and appropriate support services may be provided. The contact details of the Research Unit will also be provided should participants have any later queries or concerns.
  • Holding participant’s data – all participant information and research data will be held securely and confidentially in the KSS CRC Secure environment. There will be a dedicated research folder that only authorised members of the Research Unit will have access to. Moreover, personal data and raw research data will only be accessible to the two Unit researchers, unless the participant raises a Subject Access Request (see below). This additional level of security has been put in place to ensure potentially sensitive data from KSS CRC staff remains confidential, even from senior management. Importantly, research participants will be informed that any data will be placed in digital archives, with their raw, anonymised data (i.e. not personal, identifiable data) being kept for a minimum of ten years. Finally, in accordance with the new laws surrounding the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), any personal data can be erased or accessed by participants at any time.
  • Subject Access Requests (SAR) – Under Article 15 of the GDPR, everyone has the right to access any personal data held about them by an organisation, and know how that organisation is processing and using that data. In terms of research confidentiality, this can be difficult as legally the organisation must offer access to all information held on an individual, and this includes research data. To address this then, service-users who participate in our research will be asked for their permission for a note to go on their file in MySIS. If a SAR is then requested at a later date, the staff member responsible knows to contact the Research Unit to get access to that individual’s research data too. Though to an extent this compromises confidentiality in that it will be known that a service-user has participated in a research project, (albeit with no other details), legally this translates into a robust protection the rights of individual where access to their data is concerned. This process will be explained in full before a service-user participates in any research, and will be signed off as part of the informed consent.

Conducting research with service-users

Conducting research with people within the criminal justice system (both in custody and in the community) requires a further level of thought when it comes to ethical practice. Service-users are a vulnerable population, and a number of additional issues – on top of the general ethical responsibilities to participants – must be considered. These are outlined below.

  • Protection from harm – conducting research with service-users introduces a number of complex power-dynamics, especially in the case of the Research Unit where its placement as part of KSS CRC increases the power disparity with service-users. As such, not only will the general responsibilities to conducting ethical human research (as outlined previously) be applied, additional effort will be made to assure service-users that their participation will not in any way impact on their relationship with the CRC or be in any way connected to the completion of their Order. Finally, it will be made clear there is no compulsion for any service-user to be involved. Indeed, the voluntary nature of participation will be emphasised at every stage.
  • Digitally recorded research – research has shown that those involved with the criminal justice system can be more resistant to being voice recorded than other participants due to concerns related to confidentiality, trust and potential risk (Sandberg & Copes, 2012). For service-users taking part in KSS CRC research projects, the option to refuse digital recording will be underlined and the choice of other recording options will be offered i.e. interview notes (written during data collection) or field-notes (written post-data collection).[4]
  • Prison-based research – on the rare occasion that research with our service-users takes place in custody, the same ethical protocol will be applied as related to research with service-users in the community. However, in this eventuality, permission will be sought in advance through an application to HMPPS (in accordance with their online guidance – https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/her-majestys-prison-and-probation-service/about/research).
  • Prior access to information – given the location of the research team within Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC, data on service-users is instantly accessible in a way that it wouldn’t be for external researchers. Here, the Research Unit notes its ethical responsibility to only using offender assessment and information system (MySIS) in ways relevant and appropriate to the research. For example, though researchers might use the system to conduct analysis on a given topic area in terms of offender characteristics (using a similar protocol to KSS CRC internal audits), the systems will not be used to ‘check-up’ on service-users to see if what they have suggested in the research matches later patterns of behaviour. See Endogenous research: Conducting research from the inside for more information on conducting insider-research.

Internet-based research

As Sugiura, Wiles & Pope (2017, p.185) note, online research has created new challenges for ethics committees, institutions and researchers, and has forced a rethink around ‘established ethical principles of informed consent, privacy and anonymity’. For example, there are now specific and unique challenges around online privacy; gaining informed consent for information already in the public domain; issues of identifiability; and specific legal requirements concerning data protection (‘Internet-mediated research’, n.d.). The Research Unit takes the privacy and security of others extremely seriously. Our commitment to ethical internet-based research is outlined below:

  • Social media – caution will be exercised if using social media sites (e.g. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook etc.) as sources of data. If using such sites is considered relevant to a given project, only data that is explicitly designed to be in the public domain will be used i.e. when privacy settings are set to public[5]. In addition, if social media is used to recruit participants, this will only be through the Research Unit sharing information in the public sphere. No private accounts will be targeted for such purposes, and no personal information will be utilised.
  • Identifiability online[6] when using methods such as online surveys/questionnaires, participants will not be required to give identifiable information. There may be an option for participants to add personal details (in the event of further research participation) but it will remain at the discretion of the participant. Conducting qualitative research online and/or using the internet to recruit potential participants may mean the participant becomes identifiable. However, in these instances the usual protocol of anonymity and confidentiality (as outlined earlier in this document) will apply.
  • Protection of participants – the same processes for conducting research online will apply to research conducted offline. Ethical issues such as protection from harm, confidentiality and anonymity, informed consent (described in detail next) and withdrawal from the research etc., will all be covered before research participation takes place. Participants will also be given chance to ask questions and request further information, either through real-time (using instant messaging) or through the provision of the Research Unit’s email contact details.
  • Privacy and Informed consent – where primary (new) data is being gathered using online methods, informed consent will always be sought. This might be through the researcher emailing a consent form directly to the participant or, in the case of online surveys, making an opening statement clarifying that by participating that person has given their informed consent. For secondary data (i.e. data that is already in the public domain), additional steps will be taken. As recommended by Sugiura, Wiles & Pope (2017) if using data from public forums all identifying information will be removed (e.g. profile name; handle; any personal details), and no URL or hyperlinks will be added. Additional caution will also be taken in handling verbatim comments, with a preference given to summarising, altering word order or deleting words (without sacrificing meaning). As the authors state, using quotes exactly as they appear can often be traced back to the original website ‘and thence to the forum member who made them’ (2017, p.194). The Research Unit refers directly here to the guidance set out in the British Psychological Society’s, Ethical Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research, which recommends that where there is ambiguity as to the public nature of the data, researchers should consider if ‘undisclosed observation’ may have potentially damaging effects, before making decisions on whether to use it (BPS, 2017, p.7). For example, in decisions around using data extractable from online forums, social media feeds or any other public forum.

Researching from within (insider research)

 The KSS CRC Research Unit is in a unique position, in that it is funded by and situated within the organisation it is conducting research for. The type of research is known as insider research.

Insider research (sometimes referred to as endogenous research) has great advantages. It improves access to naturalistic data i.e. people, places and systems. It has financial and practical benefits, in that it can be cheaper and easier than research conducted from the outside. And arguably of most importance, there may be a better chance of having a ‘real world’ impact, especially when conducting action research or when using research findings to address implications for policy and practice (Trowler, 2011). However, such positionality can also bring challenges. As Trowler (2011) notes, it can affect the researcher’s ability to produce culturally neutral accounts. It might make ‘seeing’ more difficult because certain social/organisational practices become normalised. Challenges may occur with role conflicts as the researcher acts in other capacities in the line of work. And finally, such research runs a greater risk of ‘interview bias’ – respondents may have pre-formed expectations of the researcher’s alignments and preferences in ways that may influence their responses (Trowler, 2011). As such, the following ethical commitments are embedded within our research approach:

  • Maintaining independence/critical distance – research conducted by the Unit will likely involve participation from KSS CRC staff. As such, the Unit is committed to doing so in a way that does not compromise the confidentiality or anonymity of participants, and is clearly communicated as independent to the general interests of the organisation. Research findings will be used only in the interests of furthering knowledge, and not as a means to inform management of staff practice (good or bad). Participating staff will be assured of their ethical rights, and that their participation will not place them at any risk or disadvantage (or indeed any advantage). Finally, though staff may have to check with their line-manager about research participation or might reveal their participation during supervision, this will be at the discretion of that staff member. Even amongst colleagues, the Research Unit operates from the ethical position of protecting confidentiality and anonymity.
  • Research integrity – both the Research Unit, and the wider organisation, are wholly committed to conducting research that is ethical and responsible. As such, research findings will not be altered, adapted or omitted should they present the KSS CRC organisation or general practice in an unfavourable light. Research findings will be presented fairly and equitably as they would be if the research had been conducted by an external organisation.
  • Role conflict – insider research can bring challenges with role conflict. However, in the case of the Research Unit, the researchers are solely employed in their capacity as researchers. As such, issues with role conflict will likely be negligible and easily avoidable.
  • Interview/researcher bias – colleagues participating in KSS CRC research will be fully informed as to the Unit’s commitment to ethical research. It will be made clear that responses are confidential, that there should be freedom to participate freely and without fear of reprisal, and that there is no compulsion to respond in certain (favourable) ways.
  • Research steering – to ensure that research conducted by the KSS CRC Research Unit is robust and ethical, a steering group is in place to review proposed research and advise on practical, ethical and other related issues[7]. The steering group is made up of internal and external professionals with research, project management and/or probation and criminal justice experience. [8]

Other ethical issues

 Researcher safety – whilst the safety of participants is paramount, the safety of researchers is also of concern. Where possible, research will be undertaken in KSS CRC offices or in third party locations e.g. community centres; day centres; libraries; coffee shops etc.[9] For research undertaken in participants’ homes, a protocol of researcher ‘safety checks’ will be employed. Here, the researcher will alert another member of the Research Unit before entering and after leaving a property. In addition, the researcher will leave the name and contact details (address/phone number) of the participant with that member of the Unit, and an estimated start and end time of the interview.

  • Responsibility to colleagues – members of the Research Unit, and any affiliated researchers and/or authors[10], will be appropriately recognised for their contribution in the research process. This will be through a named acknowledgement on any publication produced as part of that work.
  • Contribution to the field – any work produced by the Research Unit will be undertaken to the highest ethical standards, and will be conducted with integrity and honesty. All findings will be reported exactly as they appear, with as little selectiveness as possible (i.e. research findings will not be subject to ‘cherry-picking’). Any ensuing publications will uphold the excellent reputation of the discipline of criminology.

 

[1] Here the term ‘risk of harm’ is used in a safeguarding context and not a probation context i.e. the risk that taking part in our research may cause harm to the participant

[2] The anonymity and confidentiality clause will be clarified with participants as part of gaining their informed consent

[3] Right to withdraw refers here to withdrawal of participation – the right to withdraw data is discussed in the later Data Management section.

[4] This option will be available to all research participants, but a greater emphasis will be placed on this for service-users in order to mitigate the additional power imbalance involved with this more vulnerable group.

[5] It is important to note here that different social platforms have different parameters for what is considered public information, and therefore users’ expectations of privacy may not be what they expect.

[6] The current direction in research is to utilise software which does not track IP addresses. This is not something we currently have at KSS CRC, however the Research Unit will absolutely not be tracking the IP addresses of anyone participating in its research.

[7] This will only be for major research projects. Shorter research projects and DIP samples will be agreed and steered by the senior management team only (SMT).

[8] Though the steering group will advise on the practical and ethical issues around larger-scale research projects, ultimately the direction of the Research Unit will be informed by the decisions made by the SMT.

[9] It must be noted here, third party locations can bring another set of ethical issues including confidentiality and anonymity. Conducting research, especially digital recorded research, in public spaces can attract attention. This is something to be discussed and agreed with the participant in advance of the research encounter.

[10] Affiliated researchers/authors comprise anyone outside of the Research Unit who contributes significantly to the data collection or writing process.

 

KSS Research Unit

February 2019
Please note – this is a live document, and will be reviewed annually. 

 

References

British Psychological Society. (2017). Ethical Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research. Retrieved from https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/bps.org.uk/files/Policy/Policy%20-%20Files/Ethics%20Guidelines%20for%20Internet-mediated%20Research%20%282017%29.pdf

British Society of Criminology. (2006). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.britsoccrim.org/docs/CodeofEthics.pdf

Internet mediated research. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://esrc.ukri.org/funding/guidance-for-applicants/research-ethics/frequently-raised-topics/internet-mediated-research/

Research with potentially vulnerable people. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://esrc.ukri.org/funding/guidance-for-applicants/research-ethics/frequently-raised-topics/research-with-potentially-vulnerable-people/

Sandberg, S. & Copes, H. (2012). Speaking with Ethnographers: The challenges of researching drug dealers and offenders. Journal of Drug Issues, 43(2), 176-197.

 Sugiura, L., Wiles, R. & Pope, C. (2017). Ethical challenges in online research: Public/private perceptions. Research Ethics, 13(3-4), 184-199.

Trowler, P. (2011). Researching your own institution, British Educational Research Association on-line resource. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Researching-your-own-institution-Higher-Education.pdf?noredirect=1