Case Studies, Ethics, Student Fellow Reflections, Student Voice

Are student researchers ethical?

The third edition of the Student Research Journal is in the works! The University of Bristol has many students that put out insightful research, and of course, with research, comes concerns over ethics. I interviewed three student researchers [not applying for the Student Research Journal] and three former participants of student research studies. I asked them about ethics in research and their own experiences. In this edition of the blog, the focus will be on student researchers, and the next upload will be about participants. It’s important that even research done by students follows ethical codes and guidelines. 

[All the people interviewed wanted to be kept anonymous, so I’ve used made-up names].

First, I asked student researchers why ethics is important in research, and what they understand from this. Sammie said that without ethical guidelines, researchers have been seen to “run amuck”, and that this could “greatly affect participants and distress them”. She provided the example of the Stanford Prison experiment. In this experiment, participants role-played as either prisoners or prison guards. “Prisoner participants were made to be degraded by the guard participants, and both groups of participants ended up very stressed out. So yeah, I think ethical guidelines are important to prevent things like this and they need to be followed carefully.” 

Nadia had similar sentiments about ethical guidelines being very important, however, she spoke more about informed consent and the privacy and confidentiality of the participants involved. When asked about her experiences with this, she said that she didn’t handle her student research as ethically as she should have. “To be honest, [during research where I interviewed people] I didn’t keep the confidentiality of my participant. They were somebody from my course, and I knew them personally. Maybe that’s why I didn’t take it so seriously I think. I told other people what was said in the interview, and the person didn’t really care, but it was still wrong and definitely broke ethical rules.” I asked Nadia if there were any other reasons she may have taken the ethical guideline of privacy less seriously, apart from just being familiar with who the participant was. She replied: “Yes, I think that, when I first started the research project, I was already pretty uninterested. We couldn’t choose our research proposal or anything so we were looking into some phenomenon we didn’t care about, or at least, I didn’t care about it much. So, it was wrong of me, I didn’t take it seriously and I just pretty much looked at it as a report I had to write to get a good mark. I didn’t consider myself an actual researcher or anything.” Privacy is an extremely important aspect of ethics in research, and it’s vital that participants feel safe expressing themselves and taking part in research with anonymity. Although Nadia did not comply with this, she said: “I definitely take this much more seriously now, I was a first-year and just looked at my research project very immaturely.” The last student researcher I interviewed, Max, said they felt a similar way about their first research project. “Yeah, the first project? That did not at all feel like I was actually a researcher. It felt more to me like I was, you know, just doing as I was told.” 

Due to these answers, I decided to ask what the university could do to increase the confidence of students during their research, and what could be done to make the research feel more serious. Max said: “Well, probably this is because we are just students, so our research isn’t like, even taken seriously by other people, so we don’t feel like we should take it seriously either. It seems more like, for understanding how to write a report if anything– maybe if the uni like, put more emphasis on us being actual researchers in the process, I don’t know, it might make us feel more confidence.” Sammie added that: “Some of the research we’ve done is during Covid, and that makes everything feel so much less official. I conducted research on Zoom, with bad connection and it just didn’t feel like a research setting. Maybe students didn’t consider ethics as much because overall, they didn’t feel like it was real research”. From these experiences, it seems that the confidence of students should be improved, so that they feel like actual researchers in order to take the process of research seriously. This in turn, will hopefully make students appreciate the importance of ethics, because they consider themselves in charge of their research and the ethics involved. 

The third question I asked student researchers was what the most challenging part of ethics in research is. Nadia said: “Sometimes I had to ask a participant some more personal questions than what I’d usually ask a stranger. I guess, you kind of have to see the body language of the participant and try to decipher if they’re actually feeling stressed out or if they’re comfortable sharing their thoughts. I don’t think I’m particularly good at reading people’s expressions, so, I think sometimes maybe they are stressed and I can’t tell. But I guess that’s why participants can withdraw themselves or their information at any time, which is helpful.” The part Sammie thought was challenging, wasn’t really about ethical guidelines themselves. “We’re pretty much instructed on what to do from the start till the end, so I don’t feel like I’ve learnt much about how to fix ethical problems that might come up, I just did what I was told to do so I didn’t even have to think about what concerns I had [regarding ethics]”. 

Although these interviews brought to light some issues with how student research is viewed by students themselves as well as the processes within them ethically, student researchers also had positive things to say about their experience. Max claimed that “being able to conduct research did really help me with understanding the scientific method a lot better than just learning about it in a flowchart in lectures. It was so much easier to understand and grasp concepts when I had to actually do them practically instead of simply memorising stuff.” Additionally, Sammie said: “Initially, I had no desire of going into a research field at all, but honestly, being able to experience it made me question my decision. I feel like I’m actually contemplating going into research fields now in the future because it was something I was surprised I enjoyed so much.” On the other hand, Nadia was glad that she experienced what research was like because it made her decide that she “would never go into research” even though “she appreciated the scientific processes of research a lot better when she actually went through it, and it improved [her] grades”. 

Student research is very important, because it gives students the opportunity to practically appreciate the scientific method, which is important for learning skills and fully understanding the process. However, it seems that some ethical guidelines have not been followed as strictly as they should be, which is a big issue. To improve this situation, it seems that students need to have their confidence built up, and actually feel like researchers so that they understand the seriousness of the research they are conducting and the ethics involved. 

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