Written by Dr. Hannes Nel
I discuss the following issues on ethics in this article:
- Analysis, reporting and publishing.
- Research ethics and society.
- Copyright and intellectual property right.
- The originality of your research.
- Promulgation of results.
Trust. Trust is the classic key to good research relations. Even so, trust is a constant challenge in any research process. All participants and stakeholders in a research project must have a healthy trust relationship. This includes knowing that you, as the researcher, can be trusted not to erode the relationship between participants to the extent that they would be reluctant or unwilling to co-operate. Trust also applies to the report or the discursive practices defining the standards for presenting both you and the work as trustworthy.
Deception. We have seen that the handling of subjects’ identities is an important ethical consideration. Handling your own identity as a researcher can also be tricky. You must have a good reason for not revealing yourself as a researcher to those you want to study. Most of the time, however, you will benefit from conducting transparent research. Even when you must conceal your research identity you need to keep in mind that, because deceiving people is unethical, deception within research needs to be justified by compelling scientific or administrative concerns. Even then, the justification will probably be arguable.
There is no excuse for providing members of your target group any false information about your own identity, whom you represent, what the purpose of your research is or what the research findings will be used for. It is, therefore, advisable to promise to send the participants copies of your research report before you submit it or use it. If time allows you should also provide the respondents time to appeal against the contents or findings of your report. Some people will set this as a precondition for their participation.
Analysis, reporting and publishing. In addition to your ethical obligations to subjects, you also have ethical obligations to your colleagues in the scientific community. In any rigorous research, you as the researcher should be more familiar than anyone else with the technical shortcomings and failures of the study. You have an obligation to make such shortcomings and failures known to your readers. Even though you may feel foolish admitting mistakes, you should do it anyway.
Negative findings should be reported if your respondents point them out, provided you can confirm them, of course. In science it is often as important to know that two variables are not related as to know that they are. Similarly, you must avoid the temptation to gain recognition and praise by describing your findings as the product of a carefully pre-planned analytical strategy when that is not the case. Findings are sometimes unexpected, even though they may seem obvious in retrospect.
You should always strive to maintain objectivity and integrity in the conduct of scientific research. This implies the following:
- You should always adhere to the highest possible technical standards in your research.
- You should always indicate – at the conclusion of a research study – the limits of your findings and the methodological constraints that determine the validity of such findings.
- You should not under any circumstances manipulate your data or observations.
- You must adhere to the public nature of scientific practice. One implication of this is that you should always be prepared to disclose your methodology and techniques of analysis.
In addition to the ethics of analysis and reporting, it is also imperative that you must maintain the same standard of ethical work when publishing your findings. The ethics of publishing involve the following issues:
- Appropriate ascription of authorship to a publication.
- Rejection of any form of plagiarism.
- No simultaneous submission of manuscripts.
Plagiarism. Somebody once wrote that nothing that is now written has not been written before. I would have given credit to the original writer of this insightful statement if I knew who it was. No doubt there are many who claimed credit for being the first. It might be true, but you should not use it as an excuse for claiming authorship of someone else’s work. You will know when you are plagiarising someone else’s work. For example, if you are rewriting what is written in a book that is open right next to you on your desk, then you know that you should acknowledge your source. It is even worse if your readers can see that what you wrote is not your own because of subtle tell-tale signs, for example a sudden change in writing style, a cliché, switching from first to third person, etc.
It takes a good measure of honesty, maturity and a healthy self-image to always give credit for good work by others. It is, furthermore, not necessary to be paranoid about being honest. You will have ample opportunity to show your cognitive thinking and creative writing skills in a thesis or dissertation of more than a hundred pages. Besides, giving credit where credit is due lends validity, authenticity and quality to your work.
While examining the research literature, particularly when photocopying and taking notes, you may copy extracts from sources verbatim (exactly as it was written in the original document) with the intention of incorporating these extracts into your final written report. Although it is common practice to accumulate an abundance of quotations in the initial information collection stage, it is essential when writing the final report that quotations be selected judiciously and used sparingly. Over-quoting can damage the flow of your arguments. The essential selection criterion to follow is relevance, whereas the basic mechanical consideration is the length of quotation. Long quotations are rarely justified and may cause readers to wonder whose ideas they are assessing.
The ability to cite the work of others appropriately is a major indication of your ability to interpret data and to generate your own ideas and arguments on a particular topic from the data that you collected.
You commit plagiarism in your thesis, dissertation, or any other document that you write, when you use words, ideas or opinions that you obtained from the written work of somebody else without giving credit to the original writer. Strictly speaking it is still plagiarism even if you break the original argument down into its component parts (deconstruct) or change the original meaning or level of the original message or argument (reconstruct). This can become confusing when doing research because, after all, you must consult other sources of information. Furthermore, most research is to some extent a reconstruction or deconstruction of existing knowledge with the aim of adding value or providing a new perspective on existing knowledge and philosophy.
The obvious solution would be to acknowledge your sources. You must provide references whenever you quote (use the exact words), paraphrase (use the ideas of another person, in your own words) or summarise (use the main points of another’s opinions, theories or data).
The number of sentences or pages of somebody else’s work that you use are not relevant. Whether it is one sentence, a whole section or perhaps even an entire chapter or assignment, it is still plagiarism. You will know when you are guilty of plagiarism, therefore you cannot argue that you did it accidently or unintentionally. If you use somebody else’s work as if it is your own, you are guilty of plagiarism.
Plagiarism can lead to you failing your studies and perhaps even being expelled from the university.
Legality. You must always ensure that your conduct of the research and reporting your research findings are done within the boundaries of legislation. Legality relates strongly to ‘informed consent’. Although you should guarantee confidentiality, participants in your research need to understand and accept the potential risks of participating. Cruelty to animals, damage to the environment, etc. may be illegal and you need to avoid such transgressions.
Professionalism. Regardless of whether you belong to a professional body or not, you are always expected to conduct your research in a professional manner. This includes making use of scientific methodology and acknowledging any sources that you consult and use. It also implies accuracy in collecting data and reporting analysis of data collected. Research must always be of benefit to the research participants and society at large.
Research ethics and society. The most important principle that guides the relationship between science and the rest of society is that of accountability. Although we sometimes refer to the scientific community as a distinct and relatively autonomous sector of society, this does not mean that the scientific community can do what it wants without regard for the rights of the rest of society. This accountability refers to a general obligation to conduct research in a socially responsive and responsible manner. Accountability in research is manifested in the following:
- A rejection of secret and clandestine research.
- An obligation to the free and open dissemination of research results.
- A responsibility to funders and sponsors of the research.
Coypright and intellectual property right. In the academic context, copyright is primarily about getting the most from your hard work rather than legal complications and plagiarism. Legislation largely protects your copyright. However, some universities have a precondition for embarking on master’s or doctoral studies that the copyright belongs to them. This is mostly specified in your enrolment application, but you need to make sure what the regulations are and that they are acceptable to you.
Intellectual property right describes a class of several different legal regimes that generally concern creations of the human mind. Copyright can be regarded as a subsection of intellectual property right (together with trademarks and patent laws).
The originality of your research. It is not only the identity of individuals that needs to be protected. Especially in online research the challenge to protect data is rather daunting. There is so much information available on the internet that it is almost impossible to protect and ensure the validity of information. Computer programs can store information passively or incidentally. It is almost impossible to book a hotel room without the hotel or accommodation service provider capturing substantial personal information belonging to you. Some electronic watches not only tell you the time and date, they also measure and store your heart rate, blood pressure, weight gain or loss, running times, etc.
The ease with which electronic devices can collect and store personal information is becoming a challenge and opportunity for researchers. Because of this, ethical issues continue to grow more complicated as new technologies and capacities develop.
Electronics make it increasingly difficult to protect and prove the originality of your research. It is already difficult to create original ideas, philosophies and theories – to prove that the results of your research are your own and original is even more difficult. Acknowledging the sources that you consulted is a good start – at least you will show that you respect the intellectual property of others. With such literature and field study as foundation, you should demonstrate sound arguing and thinking skills. This will already count in your favour when your work is evaluated for originality.
Promulgation of results. The worst scenario imaginable for an individual who completed a thesis or dissertation is the report becoming a dust-collector on a library shelf. To avoid this, you should make the results of your research available in a format usable by people who may benefit from it (with prior permission, of course). You can, for example, have all or some of your findings published, act as a speaker for symposiums, etc.
Trust is the foundation of cooperation.
Even though research on master’s and doctoral level is mostly an individual project, you will need the assistance of many other role players.
Therefore, the success of your study largely depends on mutual trust between you and others who are involved in your work.
You should not deceive people about your identity, whom you represent, what the purpose of your research is or what your research findings will be used for.
You owe it to the academic fraternity and society to make any shortcomings and failures of your study known.
Transparency is key.
Always give credit for writing and other forms of research by others that you use in your thesis or dissertation.
Do not transgress legislation, rules, regulations on any level when conducting research. However, it is possible that legislation might obstruct progress or be wrong for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it might sometimes be necessary to follow you own good judgement. Just keep in mind that we are all subjective.
You must always conduct your research in a professional manner.
Keep in mind that you are accountable to society for the research that you deliver. Therefore, your research should be to the benefit of society or at least part of society.
And preferably not at the expense of other sections of society.
Make sure what national legislation and the university’s policy regarding copyright and intellectual property right are before you enrol for post-graduate studies.
Obviously, you must be willing to accept and abide by such legislation and policies.
Proving the originality of your research is difficult to achieve.
It would be impossible to check the internet and other sources of information to ensure that your ideas and arguments are your own.
The best you can do is to acknowledge the sources that you use.
Do not use this situation as an excuse for committing plagiarism.
Share the result of your research by writing books and articles, making videos, acting as a speaker at conferences and lecturing.
In my 98th article, dealing with deconstruction and empirical generalisation, I asked if deconstruction is not just a euphemism for plagiarism.
The answer is captured in my discussion of plagiarism in this video.
Almost all researchers need to use the work of others in their research.
Such work can serve as the foundation for your research and to corroborate and enrich your arguments.
However, you must always acknowledge the work of others that you use.
Enjoy your studies.