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‘Is there a right not to be researched? Is there a right to do research? Informed consent and the principle of autonomy

By Martyn Hammersley & Anna Traianou

The right not to supply data about oneself is built into the principle of informed consent. But is there also a right to control the use of these data? Also, is there a right not to be researched, and does this too follow from the concept of informed consent? Finally, what about a right to research; and if there is such a right, who has this? As these questions indicate, a range of rights have been claimed in relation to social research, but the assumptions underpinning them have rarely been addressed. Yet it should be clear that these rights can come into conflict, so that we need to be clear about what would and would not be legitimate grounds for claiming them. This also requires giving attention to the very concept of right, and what different sorts of right there can be. These are the questions that we explore in our article.

They follow on from the issues that we addressed in our 2012 book Ethics in Qualitative Research (London, Sage), where we examined what count as ethical issues, and the meaning of the various principles that are central to research ethics: concerned with minimising harm, respecting autonomy, and preserving privacy. In working on that book we came to recognise some of the complexities involved in the notion of informed consent – regarding what counts as being informed, what counts as consenting, and what people are consenting to. Since it is widely assumed that there is a right to be informed that research is taking place, and a right to decide whether or not to supply or provide access to data, this led us on to thinking about the nature of the various rights surrounding social research.

However, the immediate prompt for the paper was a proposed conference in Canada that, unfortunately, did not take place because funding was not available – this was a follow-up to the ‘Ethics Rupture’ summit that had been held in 2012, organised by Will van den Hoonaard. We had been invited to contribute, and one of the issues that was to be the central at the conference was the rights of indigenous communities as regards participation in social research. We decided that this would provide an opportunity to explore the general issue of research rights. Around the same time, we had also been thinking about the nature of academic freedom, which also involves rights claims (Traianou, The erosion of academic freedom in UK Higher Education. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics, 15(1), 2015, pp. 39-47; Hammersley, ‘Can academic freedom be justified? Reflections on the arguments of Robert Post and Stanley Fish’, Higher Education Quarterly, 70, 2, pp108-26, 2016). This, too, fed into our article. We explore some of the issues surrounding research rights, rather than providing definitive answers. It is our view that ethical judgments, along with those relating to methodology, must take account of the particular circumstances faced: blanket injunctions are not helpful. Different principles, and rights associated with them, need to be considered and reconciled, as far as possible, according to the particular character of the research and the situation in which it is being carried out. At the same time, it is essential that there is clear understanding of those principles and rights claims, and our aim was to highlight the need for this and to contribute to achieving it.

See full IJSRM article here.

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