Why researchers need to be open

Why researchers need to be open about ethical uneasiness, doubts and uncertainties.
In recent years, I have conducted highly intimate research with a possible impact on life and death,

interviewing older people about their struggle with life and deep old age, and their strong and persistent wish for a self-chosen death. After submitting a paper in which we presented our key findings, I received the review reports. One anonymous reviewer raised the following concern:

It appears that no formal ethical breach is evident in that proper human subjects protections and approvals were in place, however, I still have an ethical concern: Did you have any obligation to intervene?

Due to this experience – which happened three times in a similar way – I became engaged in constructive dialogues with my colleagues as well as with the reviewers. The reviewers’ concerns about the safety of the participants substantively resembled previous deliberations I had had with my colleagues. But after these reports, once again and even more profoundly, we had to reflect on the choices we had made.

The suggested duty to intervene, for example, led to reflection on the moral question of whether or not we had disregard our responsibility. And I found myself pondering on questions like: Could it be that joining this research project unintentionally strengthened participants’ intentions to end their lives at a self-directed moment? Did we take sufficient caring responsibility? Besides, I asked myself if we should have compromised the autonomy of the participants by insisting on treatment options, while they considered themselves as competent citizens, fully capable to handle their lives by themselves? Did we indeed have a duty to intervene knowing that they were seriously ideating on a self-directed death?

Given that the exchanges with several reviewers were very fruitful, I felt encouraged to publish a specific paper about these experiences in The International Journal of Social Research Methodology. Not only to share some self-disclosures and scrutinize my own ethical behaviour. Mainly, it is about making plea for being honest and open about ethical uneasiness, doubts and uncertainties, as I became keenly aware that in cases of a grey area, there are only balanced and open-ended answers needing an enquiring mind, rather than clear and fixed ideas and solutions.

In line with Kim Etherington among others, I think researchers should more frequently share these vulnerable reflections with other colleagues in order to contribute to an ongoing and learning dialogue about research ethics. Therefore, with my paper, I hope to encourage researchers to explicitly reflect on their efforts to enhance morally good research practice. Just like methodological reflections on strengths and limitations, in my view, detailed ethical reflections should be a basic part of research articles. By discussing ethical issues and thoroughly recapping on how these issues were addressed, researchers contribute to the course of research ethics. It might not only increase the researcher’s awareness of risks and cautions during the whole process, but also build a learning dialogue between researchers, providing guidance for other colleagues in dealing with complex ethical issues.

When practicing open-ended reflexivity, researchers might become vulnerable researchers, but only by means of transparency can we invite others to join us in our ongoing learning process of becoming ethically competent researchers. To become thoughtful and thoroughly reflective researchers, we have to put ourselves ‘at risk’ and acknowledge the unknown and uncertain. In my view, room for lasting ethical uneasiness and open-ended reflexivity is indispensable to constitute accountable and morally good research practice.

Wijngaarden, E.J. van, Leget, C.J.W., Goossensen, A. (2017) Ethical uneasiness and the need for open-ended reflexivity: The case of research into older people with a wish to die. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, p.1-15.

About the author: Els Van Wijngaarden

Els Van Wijngaarden

Els van Wijngaarden (1976) works as a lecture and postdoc researcher at the University for Humanistic Studies and the research institute Tao of Care. Her research concerns the following topics: old age, living with dementia, finitude, death and dying, and death wishes. In 2016, she completed her PhD on the lived experiences of older people who consider their lives to be completed and no longer worth living (funded by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research). Formerly she graduated cum laude in Religious Studies at VU University Amsterdam with specialisation in existential counselling in organisations.

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