Library ethnography is a relatively low-risk field. We are, as researchers, observing public behavior in public spaces, and asking people about what they do in the pursuit of their academic goals. However, people’s lives are not always easily compartmentalized into public and private, academic/professional and personal, and there is a lot of grey area wherein private events in personal lives can have a huge impact on someone’s public/professional/academic behavior and choices.
I’ve written about research ethics before, with my colleagues on the Visitors and Residents project. The following is from the Visitors and Residents methods section of the InfoKit (pdf):
“It is tremendously important when doing research about your patrons to pay attention to the requirements of ethical research behaviour standards. At its heart, basic research ethics is about being careful to gain informed consent , and to be considered in your subsequent use and dissemination of the data. Every university has a human subjects Institutional Review Board, and any projects should be submitted to local IRBs for approval before any research is underway. At least basic ethics training should also be obtained by all of the individuals conducting the research. In general, it is a good practice to offer your participants incentives, because people are busy, and if we rely only on participants who are passionate enough about library services and resources to participate for free in our evaluations, we run the risk of ignoring large chunks of the population who may also need those same resources and services. We used incentives extensively in the Visitors and Residents (V&R) project. Interview participants were offered vouchers/gift certificates to local big box stores or online merchants for their time, each time they were interviewed. Generally we offered $20 voucher to participants in the US, and £15 in the UK. For the survey, we will similarly be offering incentives to participants, in roughly those amounts. Incentives do not have to be that large, and can vary widely in amount and type. Some projects are successful with giving participants gift cards to local cafes or campus bookstores, or promotional library swag such as water bottles, flash drives, or even just food (the latter is particularly effective for focus groups). In all cases, incentives should not be seen as bribes towards a particular kind of information, but as an attempt to compensate (and thank) research participants for their time. Incentives should not be so large as to make people likely to say or do something that they would not ordinarily do. “
Researchers should always be mindful of the fact that people can perceive questions and observations as putting them at risk, even if the research does not immediately see that as the case. The best way to think through the ethical implications of what you are proposing to do, whether it is an interview-based study, participant observation, or some other methodological approach, is to write up and submit your ethics protocol to your local Institutional Review Board.
Depending on where you work, your IRB might be located in a variety of administrative places. If you work for a university, your IRB will likely be associated with the university’s Research division. Public school districts in the US require ethics clearance, for example. Ask around, find out to whom you must answer for your behavior as a researcher.
I have posted for your information one of my old IRB protocol applications (pdf). Each IRB will have specific forms, but in general this is the sort of case you will need to make for why what you are doing is ethical. If you think you are not being risky, or asking people to take on much risk, you have to spell out exactly why you think that. If you think you shouldn’t have to use consent forms all the time (and I make this argument for participant observation), you need to spell out why you think that should be OK.
You need to get informed consent for formal interviews, focus groups, and any other structured interaction with your project participants, wherein you will be recording their words to use for research purposes. You can, however, make a case for a Waiver of Consent (pdf) when you are doing participant observation or other free form fieldwork, including unstructured interviews with people “on the fly.” In these cases, oral consent can be enough. While you should always be clear that you are doing research, you don’t necessarily have to get written consent every time.
A good rule for consent forms is if you are recording the participants,
sound or visual, you should get written consent. You can find here find a
range of consent forms that I’ve used in the Atkins Ethnography project (pdf).
Feel free to adapt them for your institution. Your IRB may require specific language that is not in the forms as I write them.
Incentives are tremendously useful in getting people to help you with your research–students and faculty are busy, we cannot expect them to just give their time away. You need to talk about what kind of incentives you will be offering in your protocol, and generally need to specify in your consent form as well.
Be prepared for the IRB to kick things back. I find it useful (because my IRB at UNCC is fantastic!) to send in rough drafts of brand new protocols so they can tell me what needs more work. This back-and-forth is part of the process. It’s important; you should be thinking carefully about your research plans and how they will impact the people among whom you hope to do your work. So, make time for the ethics protocol. Factor it in when you think about how long it will take to do your project.
In short: be careful, be deliberate, be respectful, and document everything possible.
Image credit: GIRL USES A MAGNIFYING GLASS TO STUDY PLANT LIFE IN THE TUNDRA OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS. THE DENVER PTA SPONSORED A WEEK-LONG SUMMER WORKSHOP FOR 8 TO 14 YEAR-OLDS TO STUDY THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT