Conducting your research

Unintended consequences

In considering the effect that participating in a study might have on participants, you need to look beyond the end of the immediate research interaction.  Could problems arise later on, prompted by their experience of participating in your research?  What could happen?  What is your responsibility for that?

An example comes from the experiences of a researcher, working outside the UK, on a longitudinal study that involved interviews with University students about their ongoing educational experiences.

What happened?

M, a student, seemed enthusiastic about the study.  For example, after each of the first two interviews, she asked whether there would be another interview, and was keen to continue with the research.  However, after the second interview, the researcher found out that she had dropped out of her course. M did not respond to any subsequent attempts to make contact with her.

Was it just coincidence that M dropped out of her course - a result of other things going on in her life?  The researcher was concerned because it seemed surprising that she did not respond to his attempts at making contact, given her earlier enthusiasm about the study. 

M was very critical of some of her lecturers in her earlier interviews, and after taking part in the research she had failed their modules.  The researcher was worried that she may have thought he had shared his findings with these members of staff, and that she might have attributed her failure of the module to his breach of confidentiality.  Equally, he wondered if the interview discussions - reflecting on her problems in the course - might have increased her dissatisfaction, and contributed to her leaving the course.

What did the researcher do?

The researcher made reasonable attempts to make contact with the student, by telephone and email.  He could not do more without risking undue pressure on the student.  After all, it was her right to withdraw from the study, without giving reason.  But because M did not respond to his attempts at contact, he could not discuss his concerns with her, or reassure her that her information had been treated in confidence.

Lessons for the future

This dilemma highlights two key points. 

First, as a researcher, you need to feel confident that you have done all you can within the research interaction to make sure that participants understand confidentiality (and any limits to that), and to make sure they are fully informed about what they will be discussing.  It is also important to ensure that participants have details for the researcher (or research team), and, if relevant, for appropriate sources of advice or information, in case they have questions or concerns at a later date.

Second, while it was not the case in this example, it is not unusual, in research within organisations, for those who grant access to expect feedback about how the work is going.  In this example, a programme leader or head of department might well have asked for some feedback, as a condition of allowing the researcher to access his students.  Could this render some participants identifiable, to a course leader or manager who knows them?  Might they be able to guess who has been critical?  What consequences could that have for the participant?  In such cases, you need to be very clear about what sort of feedback you can, or cannot, provide to those in positions of authority.  You must prioritise your assurance of confidentiality.