Conducting the Research Support Material
Relationship between researcher, participants and fellow researchers
The glossary for good science suggests using the term “participant” in stead of “subject”, as the former is a broader term that also implies personal autonomy and the right to decide whether to participate in the study at all. In addition to humans, participants in a study may include groups, animals and/or cultural, biological, environmental, or material objects. All participants must be treated with respect and care, and in accordance with legal and ethical principles when conducting the research.
In the case of human studies, informed consent is sought from those involved in the study. Consent to participate in the study may be obtained in written form, stating clearly defined data for which processing is authorized, the purpose of the processing and the persons authorized to transfer the data, as well as the conditions for transfer to third parties and the data subject's rights in case of further processing. You can read the relevant Estonian Data Protection Inspectorate guidelines here (link in Estonian).
Informed consent may be sought in both written and oral form. Although standardization of the process into written form has several advantages, the procedure of the Tallinn University Ethics Committee for the processing of applications of evaluating (link in Estonian, translated text on the bottom) also points out that asking for written consent may not always be appropriate. Firstly, the written and standardized consent process presupposes that the researcher is already able to predict future risks in the planning phase and inform the participants accordingly. Secondly, research shows that the oral and dialogue-based consent format often has a more reliable effect for individuals. Finally, it is important that the consent format is dialogical and procedural, i.e., that the researcher reaffirms consent at the various stages of the study and always gives the opportunity to withdraw from the study.
One should also bear in mind that there are special cases in which a two-step consent process is required. If the research is carried out in an institution (eg school, company, prison), it may be necessary to seek informed consent from both the person(s) and institution(s) involved in the study.
Consensus regarding the principles of cooperation and the division of responsibilities should be formed when conducting the study together with others. It is prudent to be specific. When statements about the activities of the project are too general, then responsibilities are dispersed, which may later lead to difficulties and disagreements. The time of publication may also be agreed upon (providing information about the project, disseminating the results).
Different parties may have different perceptions of when, for example, the press should be informed of research results - some may want to disseminate information as soon as the first results are available, others may want to wait until all the data is available, thoroughly analysed and validated. This can lead to conflicts between researchers and present ethical challenges, especially in cases where preliminary results are not confirmed in subsequent analyses. It is therefore recommended to formulate a written agreement on liability, ownership, dissemination, and rules for data management and sharing.
Implementation of data collection methodology
Research is carried out in accordance with current research regulations. Data collection, sampling and data analysis help achieve the aims of the study. The research uses ethical and expedient methodology most appropriate for achieving those aims. Data collection is carried out in a planned manner. It shall be ensured that the choice of methods, their application in data collection and analysis, and the description of procedures are transparent, clear, precise, and justified, so that the process can be checked and repeated if necessary. It is also important that the researcher is competent in the methodology and able to apply it appropriately.
The free will of the persons involved in the study is respected and their autonomy, human dignity, privacy, and well-being are protected and any harm is prevented. The researcher fairly presents several perspectives and is unbiased, ie remains in a value-neutral position. Data collection can also be carried out covertly if the purpose of the study necessitates it, but these are relatively few cases where this is allowed and considered ethical.
It is important that participation in the study is consensual and informed and, if necessary, the confidentiality of a returning participant should be guaranteed. It should also be considered that a research participant may want to be publicly involved and may not want anonymity.
Informed consent to participate in a study means that the participant is aware their role in the study, an agreement is reached on the necessity of anonymity and how it will be ensured, the risks of participating in the study are made clear and transparent, and finally, the participant confirms whether they consent to participate in the study. As future risks are difficult to predict and circumstances may change, consent should be reaffirmed if necessary, and it should be considered that the subject has the right to withdraw their consent at any time. If necessary, the participants will be given the opportunity to check the data (member check) to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the data and, if necessary, to supplement ideas or withdraw data.
The process of requesting and obtaining the consent of the research participants is described in the research report (article, master's thesis, etc.).
The researcher does not always collect the original data themselves. Instead, already existing data sets (secondary data) can be used to answer the research question. The data can be anonymous or personalized, and online data is treated in a similar way. The researcher needs to be clear about the limitations of this data, and mindful about any harm they may cause. It is good practice to ask permission to use the data.
The data shall not be falsified, supplemented, or deleted arbitrarily, nor shall the results of the study be altered or omitted without cause.
In data analysis, it is important to ensure reliability, through which it becomes clear to the reader that the results can be trusted. Another important aspect of building credibility is transparency, clarity and reasonableness in the implementation and presentation of data analysis methodologies.
Verifiability is also important - the researcher provides evidence that shows how the data was obtained and that the research results are not the result of the researcher's subjective imagination. Verifiability is ensured through an accurate description of the course of the analysis as well as a peer review.
In the process of data analysis, the researcher reflects on how their own insights which they brought into their research may have influenced the results. This self-reflection creates a transparent narrative that resonates with the reader. It also shows the change in one's perceptions as a researcher that took place during data analysis.
Possible problematic research practices that distort research results are:
Biased presentation of the results (for instance, omission of negative results, eg policies, drugs, interventions, etc. that did not outperform any other alternative when tested);
Affirmative bias (inconsistencies in the results are excluded);
Financial bias (tendency to meet financier expectations).
Prevention and handling of infringements
Adherence to good research practices and research ethics is paramount to the prevention of ethical violations. This means that ethical research requires ethical sensitivity and knowledge of good practices. However, the acquisition of the appropriate knowledge, skills and sensitivities requires time and practice. It is therefore important that inexperienced researchers participate in ethical training, use the help of a supervisor or mentor, and interact with other researchers. As research ethics is situational or context-sensitive and perfect and universal solutions are rare, communication and sharing of experiences within the research community are particularly important. It is also important that researchers value honesty, confidentiality, competence, and professionalism in their practice and evaluate their own and others' actions in the light of these values.
Misconduct is not clearly defined in scientific ethics, but according to ALLEA and the Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, this definition primarily covers the most serious ethical violations, such as plagiarism, data fabrication and falsification. In addition to these three, it is also important to ensure that there is no misrepresentation or disregard of the will of those involved in the study, no cruel treatment of experimental animals and no falsification of research permits. Researchers are obliged to ensure the independence of the research process, not to obstruct the work of other researchers, and to always inform the research organization in case of alleged violations by other researchers.
In addition to behaviour, infringements can also be defined by the degree of intent. For example, a distinction can be made between intentional misconduct, gross negligence, and unintentional misconduct. Minor types of unintentional infringements are generally considered to be fair errors, but depending on the degree of infringement, they may be followed by either retraction (of the article) or correction. More serious intentional infringements may be accompanied by more severe sanctions in addition to the withdrawal of the publication, such as dismissal, withdrawal of funding or expulsion in the case of a student. In case of corruption, the researcher can also be punished under criminal procedure. Violations endanger the public reputation of the researcher, their institution and, more broadly, the scientific community, and may affect public funding in the future.
Good research practice stipulates that research institutions must ensure that researchers could report any breaches of research ethics in confidence. In doing so, it must be specified who should be contacted in case of doubts and questions. At Tallinn University, violations of academic practices, violations of ethical norms and other issues are assessed by the Ethics Committee of Tallinn University, which may be addressed by a member of the university's governing body, a person belonging to the university or the head of the unit. As a first step, it makes the most sense for a young researcher to talk to either their supervisor or the head of the unit.
Conflict of interests
According to Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity glossary, a conflict of interest “is a situation where the reliability of a researcher or their work or decisions becomes questionable due to their personal and professional interests that are competing with one another.” A conflict of interest arises when the choices made, or the results of the research are causally related to the private or financial interests of the researcher, institution, funder, or publisher. A conflict of interest is, for example, a situation in which an expert has been hired to carry out an environmental impact assessment of a project to make a financial profit if the project is successful; or a situation where a researcher decides to hire a person close to them as a laboratory assistant.
Conflicts of interest can also arise from a conflict of roles, ie a situation where the researcher's decisions may be influenced by the conflicting demands of different roles. A researcher does not do science in isolation from the rest of their life but performs other roles in addition to their role as a researcher, such as being a supervisor, lecturer, leader, science populariser, parent, or a member of a non-governmental organization. Therefore, a conflict of interest is not always bad in itself, but in the interests of openness and honesty, the researcher is expected to either disclose the conflict of interest (i.e. inform all parties) or withdraw from a decisive position. Disclosure does not eliminate a conflict of interest, but it does allow other parties to assess whether a particular conflict of interest may affect the credibility of the researcher's decisions.