One of the key stages in planning research in higher education is ensuring that what you want to do has received ethical approval from your research institution. Typically, any research involving human participants will be assessed for the potential harm it could cause, or any rights it could potentially violate.
Our project is evaluating the potential for development of openly licensed textbooks in the UK – we will be working with a range of volunteers (librarians, educators, technologists, administrators) and collecting data through surveys, focus groups and interviews.
We now have institutional approvals in place from both The Open University (UK) and the University of the West of England (who will be doing a lot of the data collection). Obtaining dual approval is not necessary (nor all that common) but it provides additional cover for the project by adding an independent process of ethical review.
The ethical risks for our project have been deemed to be ‘low’, primarily because of the types of interactions we expect (soliciting opinions about open textbooks) and the relatively low risk these pose. Our study involves no use no use of human tissues, no legal minors, and no participation by people with cognitive deficiencies. We do not wish to discuss sensitive subjects (except perhaps funding in higher education!). Participants are self-selecting and take part with their full consent. Participating in focus groups or completing surveys on relatively uncontroversial subjects are unlikely to cause harm to those taking part.
However, as with every research project, there are some elements that require some attention. Firstly, our attitude to open dissemination means we want to make as many of the artefacts we create available on an attribution licence. There is a question about informed consent here, because it could be argued that those taking part might not fully understand the implications of open dissemination. We foreground it clearly on our consent forms as a result – and these materials comprise part of the application for ethical approval.
Another area for us to be aware of is the question of researcher bias. Most of the research team are also at some level advocates for open education. It’s important for us to keep our research and advocacy aspects clearly distinguished and minimise the possibility that we might somehow influence our results. Perhaps an additional element characteristic of our project is the need for the project teams to practice cultural sensitivity when working across borders.
Although the risks have been deemed ‘low’ it is of course necessary to maintain regular reflection on the ethical dimensions of the project. We will continue to do this as we move through the project activities.