Building ethics into the research design

International research

International research is, of course, not a method in itself but it does raise specific ethical considerations that your research proposal and ethics application should address.  The focus of this guidebook is on UK regulatory procedures, but there are also broader ethical and practical issues to consider in conducting international research.  The following questions are intended to be a starting point for reflection (and for completing your proposal and ethics application). Beyond these general points, we recommend you seek specific advice and guidance for the country or countries you are studying. The ethical guidelines of the Association of Social Anthropologists are a useful good source of guidance for international researchers in most social science disciplines, not just for researchers in social anthropology.  It is also worth looking at the Respect Code of Practice, which is designed to apply to socio-economic research in EU member states.

Do you need local ethics approval or permissions in addition to approval from a UK ethics committee?  

Most ethics committees now operate a principle of avoiding duplication (i.e. they will accept ethics approval awarded by another committee), but they vary in the approvals they will recognise, and may be less likely to accept approval from another country, where they have less information about the scrutiny process. Equally, ethics committees in other countries may not accept a UK approval.  There may well be established ethics committees in universities or other institutions in the countries you are planning to visit. Check local availability, and local requirements.

Are there any country specific cultural or legal considerations that you need to take into account?  

Countries can vary in their understandings of individual rights, and in particular of women’s and children’s rights to consent to research.  UK understandings of freely given informed consent may not be seen as necessary or appropriate in other cultures, and you need to consider if that’s likely to be true in the countries you are studying, and how you will deal with it. 

For example, imagine you are planning to interview women living in village communities and you need to get permission from the village elder, and from their husbands or fathers, before you can speak to the women.  The men of the community don’t feel it is necessary for you to seek consent from the women.  How can you make sure you get freely given informed consent wherever possible, without disrespecting the norms and hierarchies of the community in which you are conducting research?

The advice of the Wellcome Trust is a useful general guide in this context:

‘Researchers should make themselves aware of special cultural, legal or social considerations in the host country, which may inform the appropriate consent process. In some communities, it may be important to engage in community consultation and/ or seek permission from a community elder before approaching people for their individual consent.

The Wellcome Trust considers, however, that consent from a community elder should never replace the individual consent of a competent adult or appropriate proxy consent, or authorisation with regard to minors and participants with mental incapacity.’

Who will be collecting data? 

A range of questions arise, depending who is conducting fieldwork. 

UK researchers working overseas 

  • Does your researcher training addresses cultural understandings and other background information? You should aim to ensure that the research team is well-prepared to conduct ethical research in the country context – and won’t cause offence or upset because of cultural misunderstandings;
  • What systems do you have in place to ensure researcher safety and wellbeing when working far from home?
  • Do you (and other researchers) understand (or have access to information about) local systems and legal requirements should unanticipated events arise? That could range from an individual disclosure in an interview to adverse reactions (e.g. from the host country’s government) to the conduct or findings of your research.

Research conducted by local researchers in the countries studied

  • Does your researcher training address the ethical considerations of the research?  Are local researchers clear about the expectations you have, and the commitments you have made in securing ethics approval (e.g. in relation to seeking informed consent or confidentiality).  Bear in mind that local researchers – as with participants – may have different cultural understandings of what is appropriate practice, and you have to negotiate a solution that is both culturally appropriate and acceptable to your ethics committee.
  • Do you have robust local systems in place to support researchers in the field, in relation to issues such as researcher safety; disclosures of matters of concern; and systems for debriefing if conducting research on potentially sensitive topics?
  • Do you have robust systems in place for local researchers to report back to the principle investigator in case of ethics questions arising during the course of fieldwork?
  • Have you considered intellectual property issues?  Do you have agreements in place about how (or whether) local researchers can use the data themselves, or how their contribution will be credited in outputs from the study? Will they be co-authors or just acknowledged?  Will they be named?  Have they understood that?