Research ethics exist to ensure that the principles of justice, respect and avoiding harm are upheld, by using agreed standards. The Young Lives team take a positive view of research ethics as enabling high-quality research, while at the same time being conscious of the ethical questions our work raises, particularly the power relations between our research teams and the children and families who participate in the study.
Our approach to ethics has been developed collaboratively across the research teams, following fieldworker training, piloting and reports from fieldworkers after each round of visits to our study sites. In this process, ethics have been discussed with the survey, qualitative, and policy staff, with the aim of developing a shared understanding of research ethics across the whole study, which is captured in our Memorandum of Understanding for Fieldworkers. This is a complex task, involving differing academic traditions and disciplines (economists, educationalists, social anthropologists, developmental psychologists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, social workers, sociologists and political scientists), and differing power dynamics within and between research teams and study communities.
Ethics in practice
There are several key elements to our approach:
Young Lives works on the principle that researchers must obtain informed consent from parents or caregivers and from children themselves. Each time they visit a community our fieldworkers ensure that the purpose of the research is clearly explained and that participants understand what they are agreeing to. This includes consent to public archiving of the data (in anonymised form). Children are not required to participate even if their parents consent. We also try to ensure that participants understand that this is a research study, not a development project that can change their lives, and that individual and community expectations of the research are not unrealistic.
The Young Lives children and their families share a great deal of personal information with us and we have a responsibility to ensure that their confidentiality and identities remain protected. Names (of people, places or communities) are removed from the Young Lives data before archiving, and a set of pseudonyms has been developed for use in publications and other communications materials. We have developed guidelines on the use of photographs (to ensure respect and dignity of the children pictured) and a series of photographs of children living in similar circumstances and communities has been commissioned so that we do not have to use photographs of the Young Lives children or their families in our communications work.
Rewards and compensation
The research teams in our study countries each take a different approach towards compensating research participants for their participation, reflecting differing understandings of the value of people’s time, their willingness to undertake research activities ‘for the common good’, and the reality of having to miss a day’s work to spend time talking with researchers. Some countries are paying respondents, including children, for their participation in recognition that they might have lost a day’s paid labour; others are giving small gifts of appreciation such as sets of coloured pens or t-shirts.
Reporting back to communities
With each study round we are developing new ways to try to give something back to the communities in/with which we work. We try to provide relevant information about Young Lives research findings to respondents and their wider communities in order to maintain trust and enable the respectful implementation of the study. Preliminary findings are presented at meetings in a way that is intended to be relevant and accessible to the community, and that highlights the usefulness of the data they are providing. Country teams have developed their own locally appropriate approaches to doing this.
We follow the code of conduct established by Save the Children (2003) which covers awareness of child abuse, minimizing risks to children, reporting and responding where concerns arise about possible abuse. Young Lives requires fieldworkers to discuss their concerns with the lead researchers locally and with the research team in Oxford who can provide guidance and support. We are also conscious of the need to maintain a gender balance within our teams of fieldworkers, particularly as the children enter adolescence.
Further reading on research ethics
Priscilla Alderson and Virginia Morrow (2010) The Ethics of Research with Children and Young People: A Practical Handbook, second edition, London: Sage
Virginia Morrow (2009) The Ethics of Social Research with Children and Families in Young Lives: Practical Experiences, Young Lives Working Paper 53
Katie Schenk and Jan Williamson (2005) Ethical Approaches to Gathering Information from Children and Adolescents in International Settings: Guidelines and Resources, Washington DC: Population Council