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  Ethical Issues in TEL

Anu Tammeleht, University of Tartu
Yagmur Cisem Yilmaz, Tallinn University
Luis P. Prieto, Tallinn University

Abstract: Although the concept of ethics in science and research may bring to mind the rights of involved living (animal or human) participants in natural sciences studies, it also encompasses everyday TEL research issues, regardless of your topic: the privacy of personal data you may collect during your research, determining where beneficial support ends and neglect begins, etc. Ethics are therefore a critical part of any research effort (including your doctoral dissertation!), with an increasing number of ramifications, formal and informal. For instance, many scientific journals will not allow you to publish unless you provide information of where and how you obtained ethical clearance for your work from a local ethics committee.


With the revision of the European Code of Conduct and simultaneous work to create or update national codes in many EU member states, research ethics and integrity have been high on the agenda of the European research community in the past years. Moreover, existing initiatives for institutional assessment and the attention gathered by recent controversial cases (e.g., Stapel, Macchiarini, ETH Zürich) signal a lot of concern about academic ethics and integrity. From the previous research we can identify various problems, for example, breaches of beneficence and autonomy-related ethical issues in a dyadic model of supervision (missing reference), cases of cheating and fabrication (missing reference), misconduct as a systemic issue (Gallant, 2011), etc. Research practices are deeply rooted and embedded in academia, and in order to more explicitly strengthen these practices, doctoral students/early-career researchers (ECR) need to be supported. ECRs are both learners of academic conventions and practices (including ethics and integrity), at the same time they are learning to teach and acquire role model capacities (including ethical conduct). Early-career researchers are in the transitioning phase between student and academic, and they may struggle to navigate the norms of academia, including those related to ethics and integrity (missing reference),(missing reference) – ECRs adopt existing norms, but they can also change norms, and the vital question becomes that of preparing these individuals to build a culture of integrity. The underlying premise is that a culture of integrity is facilitated through training ECRs to develop qualities and competencies of ethics.

Research ethics: Where do I start?

As we set on the journey to become independent researchers who can understand the complexity of integrity-related issues, and to be able to address and propose solutions accordingly, it’s important to develop skills related to qualities and competencies of ethics. But you might ask yourself, what is so difficult about doing so? The challenge is usually not in knowing about the broader ethical topic/issue. Instead, it is about recognizing them in the particular, individual cases that we may face in our everyday life as novice researchers, where those issues might surface in a variety of forms.

A number of ethical issues might arise during the course of your doctoral research in different stages. The image below provides an overview of some of these issues at different stages of your doctoral research:

Ethical issues at the different phases of your research (Image courtesy of Anu Tammeleht, https://en.researchethicscompass.net/ )

If we were to thematically talk about the purpose of each stage, for the planning stage, we foresee certain challenges, and try to avoid or eliminate them as much as possible for our data collection and the rest of the research process. Therefore, we first need to make ourselves familiar with research ethics. Understanding the institutional and publishing requirements can follow the training, which can help us identify what awaits us for completing our doctoral research. By doing so, we can rest assured that we are ready to start conducting research and address and overcome ethical issues throughout this journey.

The second stage, conducting research, maybe the most important stage, as we need to ensure that we are tackling ethical violations for the duration of our research. Our goal during this stage is to follow the regulations and to maintain the integrity of our research. That involves protecting the data, and adhering to the confidentiality and anonymity of it, especially if the data contains any personal data. This stage is also where we can seek assistance when there are conflicts about maintaining integrity or multiple issues faced all at once.

The data collection stage also entails the use, accessibility, and also dissemination of data alongside the collection of it. We establish a protocol for collecting data, making sure that we keep our approach welcoming and just. It’s desirable to have open access both for the collected data, and also for our publication. This way, the reader can access the source, and run the same tests for reproducibility purposes.

The dissemination stage involves considerations about authorship, the credibility of the publishing journal, reporting the findings, and acknowledging the conflict of interest in case of its existence. One of the most uncertain aspects is the reporting of negative results, which could be also impactful for the research itself, yet also could be contradicting our initial ideas and theories. It could be ultimately useful and beneficial to the research community and the progress of the field; therefore, reporting the negative results which are relevant to your work can also provide a different perspective or lead to a different path in your research. One of the core purposes of disseminating your findings is to complete your doctoral dissertation, so you should check whether there are any regulations, requirements, or rules about its publication and formatting.

Further Research Ethics learning resources

If you would like to learn more about research integrity and ethics, you can take a look at the following resources we have compiled for you. These resources address and invite you to exercise on ethical issues you may face at different stages of your research.

Training about research ethics in general, by Anu Tammeleht

Specific ethical issues

Subjectivity statement and Self-declaration approach

A subjectivity statement helps you reflect upon and display to others how your characteristics and experiences may influence your research work. This is a question often asked during thesis defence sessions or pointed out by reviewers. It is a way to inform the reader about yourself in light of your research and your perspective towards any emerging challenges. As mentioned by Judith Preissle in the Sage Encyclopaedia of Qualitative Research (2008, p.844):

“The purpose of a subjectivity statement is (1) to help researchers identify how their personal features, experiences, beliefs, feelings, cultural standpoints, and professional predispositions may affect their research and (2) to convey this material to other scholars for their consideration of the study’s credibility, authenticity, and overall quality or validity.” (Given, 2008)

Although we often expect the research to be entirely objective, our inherent nature as humans makes this approach unattainable. The next best option, then, is acknowledging our subjectivity and marking in what ways our perspective may be influential towards our research, our relations to other team members (if existent), and how we see the findings to come together forming a meaningful result.

Subjectivity statements explore the relationship between the researcher and the research - for example, how may your roles and activities influence your research and objectivity? Are you aware of those connections and how do you alleviate the bias? Some examples:

  • You research the group you belong to;
  • You research your subordinates;
  • You research an illness someone in your family suffers from;
  • You feel very passionate about your topic;
  • You have very strong opinions about the topic (e.g. religion, moral);
  • You learn something during data collection that may upset you;
  • Etc.

Upon noticing these biases, we need to somehow put our awareness into words to reflect upon them, and to acknowledge the reader/audience. By doing that, we can give them the benefit of understanding where our ideas come from, and what conditions or circumstances are influential on them.

There are different ways to write subjectivity statements. They can be stories of the research timespan, where the relationship is described from the start to finish of the project. Subjectivity statements can also be autobiographical in nature, describing the person and their history and how these relate to the research topic. Subjectivity statements will include basic data of the researcher, such as their:

  • age
  • race
  • gender/sex
  • socioeconomic status
  • obtained characteristics like education or occupation

Including the demographic information will give an estimated idea of who you are as a person, your background, privileges, hindrances, and the ways you make connections that are quite relevant to your education and work. However, such information will not be expressive of your ideas, how you make those connections, your opinion and emotions about a topic. To make your subjectivity statement more complete, it would be useful to also reflect on:

  • personal experiences
  • beliefs
  • feelings
  • cultural standpoints and
  • professional predispositions.

It is important to become aware of how one’s characteristics may bias, influence, or limit the inquiry and what steps have been taken to limit their influence. The statement can also assist others in contextualizing your research as well as give you credibility to study the topic you have chosen.

Exercise: self-declaration approach

To start shaping your subjectivity statement, you can start with outlining your self-declaration approach, which involves, first, reflecting on goodness in research and then positioning ourselves in the research continuum and contemplating different dimensions of goodness in research.

  1. Fill in the self-declaration form. Here is a template of the form: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TSqjrzFricTVImkTAEJVIjedik1UyHx7SV2Jm28tWUg/edit?usp=sharing
  2. Go over the slides exemplifying the various dimensions of goodness in life and in research. Please see the slides here: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FkbWwUl9Rrc3MlC8yAY-SPEnugER-pEbM3xv3rOEIjk/edit?usp=sharing
  3. Finally, it is important to return to the self-declaration form and modify it from various aspects of goodness.