DREaM event 2: Research ethics and legal issues

Professor Charles Oppenheim at LIS DREaM 2

Professor Charles Oppenheim


Professor Charles Oppenheim presented a workshop session examining research ethics and legal issues at the the first DREaM workshop on 25th October 2011.



This was an interactive session based around a series of handouts, embedded below:

Workshop Activity

View this presentation on Slideshare


View this presentation on Slideshare

Session Summary

Charles Oppenheim chaired a lively interactive workshop session to round the day off, in which he challenged participants to consider the ethical and legal issues surround a series of five scenarios. Participants split into five groups to debate one question each, gathering back together at the end of the session to feedback the key points from their discussions.

Here is a summary of those key points:

1. You are undertaking a research project, which requires access to certain electronic resources, which your employer does not subscribe to. Your partner works for an organisation that does have access to these resources. Do you ask them for help?

The group considering this question discussed the issues of licensing and professional ethics, before listing the range of factors which could potentially influence their response to this scenario. They noted that they would need to consider the risks involved in asking for the resources from their research partner, their purpose when using them, the convenience and time involved in obtaining the resources officially, the relevance of the information involved, the scale or amount of information involved, and the costs associated with obtaining the resource officially.

The group also drew the distinction between publicly-funded and commercially-funded research, explaining that the source of funding that supported the production of the resource in question could also colour their attitude towards this scenario.

2. Your boss asks that you confine your background literature search just for “all the dirt on this company/person you can find”. Do you just present him/her with the “dirt” or do you provide a comprehensive survey?

This group felt that it was important to be impartial when responding to this situation, but noted that their response would very much depend on the context. They questioned what constitutes “dirt” and whether they are being asked to judge this in this situation, citing the issue of defamation. The group also noted that they have a duty to provide a balanced search as professionals, but observed that they would need to consider what the consequences would be if they did not deliver what the boss requested in this circumstance. A more balanced survey may actually be more helpful to the employer, as it would enable them to construct counter arguments, but it is not necessarily the place of the library professional to redefine the terms of the search based on their own stance.

3. You are invited to a free event by a consultancy organisation that is bidding for a major research contract with your employer. You have the decisive voice in who the contract goes to. Do you accept the invitation? Who do you tell, if anyone? If it is mid-week, do you take a day’s leave to attend? Would it in any way affect your attitude to placing the contract?

The responding group discussed the issue of perception and whether by attending the event you are, in fact entering, into a contract with the consultancy organisation. They highlighted that whilst transparency may be the ideal, you can only manage perception within your current context: future events may change the way your behaviour is perceived in a negative way, even if you have been totally transparent. The group also made the point that there may be a difference between industry norms and personal ethics, which could affect the way you respond to the situation.

4. You are aware that a researcher colleague is incompetent. What do you do about it? What if the incompetent person is your immediate line manager?

The group considering this question began by discussing what “being incompetent” means and what factors would influence how they would deal with the situation – focussing in particular on incompetence within the context of a research project, where incompetence could be more easily defined by comparing performance against the project’s stated design. They recommended consulting institutional documentation to find out how you should be dealing with the situation, and emphasised the importance of recording the details of specific instances as evidence, should the matter need to be escalated through HR or other appropriate channels.

5. You are doing a survey that involves face-to-face interviews. Do you give the same time and attention to every interviewee? What if the person is unpleasant, has body odour, is argumentative or makes you feel scared? What if it is someone who you find attractive?

This group noted that the biggest issue in this scenario is the safety of the interviewer, and that in non-safety critical situations they should try to maintain neutrality. They suggested that it would be worth planning, where possible, how to deal with any likely problems and role playing interviews in advance to get an idea of how to respond to certain issues before they occur. Oppenheim agreed with this and added that it is important to record the reasons why you have cut a particular interview short, so you have an opportunity to reflect on this in your research.

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