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Ethical and Legal Considerations in Conducting Research

Page history last edited by x28de 13 years, 6 months ago

The following is an extract from Research Methods in Education - An Introduction, Eighth Edition 2005 by William Wiersma and Stephen G. Jurs

page 450 - 453  For your perusal please.  John 2/3/2009


Researchers need access first to the research site and then to the individual participant.  Whenever research is conducted in an educational setting, it is necessary to obtain permission from the site's "gatekeeper," who might be the principal, the superintendent, or a committee that is charged with this responsibility.  It is important to know and follow the approval policies of the agency.


The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 and the set of regulations called the Common Rule that was issed in 1991 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services apply to educational research.  The federal regulations require that univerisities and agencies engaging in research with human participants have an institutional review board (IRB) for the review and approval of research proposals.  This includes the research proposals of students. 


IRBs are required to review research proposals and certify that the proposed research will be conducted in accordance wtih the law and will protect the human subjects who are involved in the research.  Typically, each institution has a standard form for IRB review that is available from an Office of Research or equivalent.  Criteria for IRB approval of research projects can be summarised generally as:

  • Projects should identify anticipated risks to subjects and be designed to minimize such risks.  Risks are reasonable relative to expected benefits.
  • Participation of subjects is voluntary and equitable.
  • Informed consent will be obtained from each prospective subject and properly documented.
  • Additional safeguards must be taken for the inclusion of potentially vulnerable subjects such as children.
  • Adequate provisons are made as appropriate for ensuring the safety of subjects, monitoring data collection, and mainaining privacy and confidentiality of subjects and data.  (Paraphrased from the Protection of Human subjects 46.111.)

There is some controversy about the role and practice of IRBs in practitioner research, such as action research, because practitioner research is usually an integral part of ordinary educational practice, and thus is not subject to IRB review.


The Common Rule defines research as:

A systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to contribute to generalizable knowledge.


The definition of generalizable knowledge is left to the researcher or the IRB, but practically all educational research falls within this definition of research.  The definition of human subject is also broad:


A living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research obtains (1) data through intervention or interaction with the individual, or (2) Identifiable Private Information.


The researcher is obligated to protect participants from risk.  Risk has a broad definition as exposure to the possibility of physical, social, or psychological harm.  Harm can occur in a variety of ways.....  Two ways to limit the risk of harming human subjects are participant consent and confidentiality/anonymity.


Participant Consent

Informed Consent.  The National Research Act requires that research participants are informed about their role in the research and that they give their written consent for participation.  Consent forms should not contain any exculpatory language that may cause subjects to waive, or appear to waive their legal rights.  Consent forms must comply with local, state, and federal laws or regulations, and they cannot place limits on the authority of professionals...

Informed consent must address the purposes and procedures of the research, and a description of any possible risks or negative consequences.  The subject must be informed of the likely duration of the research and the necessary commitments of the participants.  The subject should know who to contact if any questions arise.


Passive Consent.  An example of passive consent would be sending a description of a questionnaire or activity tht is to be used to parents, asking them to indicate in writing if they do not want their child to participate.  Failure to respond is considered as informed consent.


Implied consent.  The requirement of informed consent may be waived under certain conditions.  Surveys involving questionnaires, for which only group results are reported, usually have what is called implied consent.  That is, respondents have the option of refusing participation (failure to return the questionnaire), and if they return a completed questionnaire, they have, in essence, given consent to participation.




Confidentiality.  Confidentiality referes to the researcher not disclosing the identity of the participants or indicating from whom the data were obtained.  Note that the researcher does not have lawyer-client or doctor-patient privilege.


Anonymity.  Anonymity means that the names of the participants from whom the data have been obtained are not known.


Federal legislation protects the privacy of students' educational records.  The researcher must guard against unauthorized identification of students.  Written consent must be obtained if it is necessary to have personal identification and the identification information must be destroyed following its use for research.


The seven guidelines given by Bogdan and Biklen (2003) for meeting the legal and ethical requirements for conducting educational research.  These guidelines were developed for qualitative research, but they generally apply to all educational research

  1. Aovid research sites where informants may feel coerced to participate in your research
  2. Honor your informants' privacy
  3. There is a difference in informants' time commitment to you when you do participant observation in public places, and when they do an interview with you
  4. Unless otherwise agreed to, the subjects' identities should be protected so that the information you collect does not embarrass or in other ways harm them
  5. Treat subjects with respect and seek their cooperation in the research
  6. In negotiating permission to do a study, you should make it clear to those with whom you negotiate what the terms of the agreement are, and you should abide by that contract
  7. Tell the truth when you write up and report your findings


Here is the link to ethics and code of practice

http://www.brookes.ac.uk/res/ethics/documents/ethics_codeofpractice.pdf [accessed 17/03/2009] by John  (Thanks Jenny - I got this through your University's link)  May be we could base our research on those ethics and code of practice as indicated in the document.


Mathemagenic just published the ethics part http://blog.mathemagenic.com/phd/reserach-ethics/  of her PhD about blogging. I haven't skimmed it yet but it should accommodate open environments.


Comments (6)

Jenny Mackness said

at 11:15 pm on Mar 2, 2009

Thanks so much for this John. I'll have to read this through carefully. I think Stephen and George need to be careful because their research comes out under their University auspices. And obviously they can't disclose course participant information, even if it is openly available (i.e. they can't provide us with email addresses, even though we can get themfrom the Moodle forums). My very limited experience suggests that we just need to be very careful about not identifying people or quoting them without their permission - but otherwise, I don't think we will have difficulties. Can you see anything else we would need to be careful about?

suifaijohnmak said

at 12:16 am on Mar 3, 2009

Dear Jenny, you are right in that Stephen and George have to abide to the protocols on research with their University of Manitoba. Any formal research must be approved by the Institutional Review Board under such institution.
After reading George's email, I think he just wishes to alert us that any researches done within an institutional setting should be reviewed by the IRB (especially if the research involves surveys or interviews). So, if our research is conducted within the auspices of our institution for an educational degree or award, we would need to submit it to the IRB for approval.

When I was a student in the MSc (Eng) course, I had to submit a research proposal for approval before conducting the research. I was allowed to use the Unversity's letterhead to post formal letters on the research.

I have include the following statement in my letter accompanying the survey form for your reference: "Please be assured that all information collected will be kept in strict confidence. The views expressed by individual respondents will be presented in my research project only in the form of statistical summary and your responses are completely anonymous"

We need to be careful not to identify any people or quotes without their permission - that is absolutely essential to ensure compliance to the National Research Acts. I don't see we will have any other difficulties.

If we are to keep any personal data on this wiki, then only authorised persons are allowed to have access to them. And any data which are directly linked to an identifiable source (such as a recorded personal interview) might need to be handled with care, since anyone could record them if we broadcast such interview podcast on the net.

We must ensure the confidentiality and anonymity of respondents throughout the research, and must seek consent on any reference to publications and quotes if we are to publish our papers in journals.

suifaijohnmak said

at 5:43 pm on Mar 8, 2009

Jenny, Matthias, and Roy
I think so far if we have an mutual understanding that we act in good faith (ethical manner at all times), have sought consent with respondents on the survey,and discuss before we disclose any identities in public, we have already committed ourselves in protecting the rights of ourselves and those involved in the research, and prevented and minimised the risks out of the researh. This documentation on ethical and legal consideration and discussion amongst us is sufficient to the test of any audits that I am aware of on review.

Jenny Mackness said

at 9:50 pm on Mar 8, 2009

I think the area of greatest risk is quoting people without their permission. We need to try and remember where we get quotes from, so that when it comes to the write up we can easily contact people.

suifaijohnmak said

at 1:29 am on Mar 17, 2009

Jenny, Matthias and Roy,
Please refer to the link on ethics and code of practice.

suifaijohnmak said

at 1:15 am on May 5, 2009

x28de said
at 6:09 am on Mar 3, 2009
I am not familiar with such statements (maybe in Germany it's all covered by the very strict privacy regulations, anyway, or I just don't happen to have seen such statement).

However, I think also the anonymity is different in such a new, open context. When I responded to Antonio's questioinnaire about CCK08, I filled in free-text responses which could easily be matched to the statements in my blog posts, and I appened a note that I dldn't mind that even though he assured privacy. Similarly, due to the small number of active course participants, many have a unique role or almost unique role which will be recognized, no matter how much we try to disguise, for instance, a participant.

Perhaps there is a wording which only states that WE won't disclose their identity or make it more identifiable, rather than promising that it WILL NOT be identifyable?

What if the whole survey is publicly available on surveymonkey? Then we really don't know the identities and just might guess them. I think this sounds desirable. Although it might theoretically adulterate the results if one responds as a CCK08 participant if in fact they were not. But we would not have to collect all the email addresses? On the other hand, if we want to target the pronounced blog fans or forum fans, the surveymonky URL should not be public, and I don't know what that means for the ethical statements.

> participant information, even if it is openly available (i.e. they can't provide us with email addresses, even though we can get themfrom the Moodle forums).

Caution: it is not PUBLICLY available in Moodle, the way the discussions are. You need to log in to see the paticipants' profiles, and for signing in you might have acknowledged some fine-print saying this is a closed user group. I understand Stephen's refusing very well and anticipated it on Feb 23rd http://connectivismeducationlearning.pbwiki.com/First-thoughts .

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