The Research Stage

Once funding is secure, the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Failure to have the difficult conversations at the application stage can manifest during the research stage, as expectations and assumptions clash. Furthermore, the process of conducting the research often highlights challenges that are highly specific, context-dependent and outside what might have been covered in the formal ethical approval processes. During the research stage, it is important that conversations about ethical challenges are ongoing. Staff and students that are recruited onto the project after it starts should be included in discussions and undergo induction on any elements that were agreed at the application stage. While impossible to construct a definitive list, ongoing discussions should incorporate the following elements in addition to any others that the team identifies:

Local Context
This element should be considered from the very early stages of developing the research question(s). Is the research a solution looking for a problem in an international context or is it being driven by local needs? Is the relevant infrastructure in place to maintain sustainability of the research after the end date of the grant? What are the national/regional/local research priorities and how does the research fit into them? What local stakeholders are needed to fully realize the benefits of the research and how are they being included in the research development process? Beyond the local research context, understanding the language, social norms and cultural sensitivities are all important aspects of ethical working. Many of the elements in this section address the need for a clear understanding of the local context.

Cross-Cultural Communication
Ethical working requires ongoing communication and when working internationally, this means communicating effectively across divides of language and culture. Taking time to understand the local context is invaluable for effective communication as is learning the local language, engaging positively when invited to engage in new cultural experiences and learning about the local styles of communication such as whether small talk is expected or to be avoided. Additional aspects of cross-cultural communication that teams should be aware of include body language, tone, hierarchies, gift-giving practices and pathways of communication (e.g. whatsapp versus e-mail versus zoom).

Cross-Time Zone Communication
Team often set-up regular zoom or skype calls to facilitate project monitoring. Careful consideration should be given to what times of day meetings are scheduled as not all countries follow a 9am-5pm Monday-Friday working pattern. In Iraq, the weekend is Friday and Saturday while in some countries normal working times may be 7am-3pm. If the team is spread across several time zones, calls can be rotated so that everyone takes turns joining outside of working hours, but this should be carefully discussed in case team members don't have access to internet at home. Not all countries observe daylight savings time, so teams should also not assume that meeting times will move in accordance with British Summer Time as this may unfairly disrupt colleagues calendars and work planning.

Community Engagement – Local Experience with Research
When working with communities, you should consider their previous experience with researchers, or lack thereof. Is research fatigue a potential issue? Have other teams come in, made promises, conducted research and left without any benefits to the community? Have other research teams offered financial incentives for participation that you may not be in a position to offer? Understanding a community’s experience with research is not only necessary from an ethical perspective but may also directly impact the usefulness of your research (the risk of being “told what you want to hear”).

Community Engagement – Entry points
Communities may have expectations and norms for how to appropriately initiate engagement that all research teams should follow. Are there local governments that should be approached first? Are there community leaders that you would be expected to get permission from? What are the locally-accepted pathways for initiating contacts with community members? Identifying culturally-relevant gatekeepers is ethically responsible but may also be the difference between your project succeeding or not. What pressures and constraints might your participants be under that impact your ability to engage? This could be political pressures, peer pressures, safety concerns or general suspicion towards outsiders. Understanding these elements and working with your team to address them will help embed an ethical approach and ensure the relevance of your research findings for the local context.

Stakeholder Participation - Benefits to Participants
Research participants will rightfully want to know what benefits they gain from engaging with your work and teams should carefully consider what these benefits might realistically be. Research objectives are very different from the priorities of local populations. It is important for the researchers to understand why people would take time off their activities, especially for projects that are of limited or no direct benefit to them. Social participation is many times no more than that. Can that be changed? If so, how? If eligible, it might be financial incentives for participation. It might be an opportunity to receive medical care or a diagnosis. There might be a possible long-term benefit for the community or region. It might be nothing. You should be honest with participants, particularly if there are no direct benefits for them. As with partners, people have the right to not participate and you do not get to determine what constitutes a valid reason for their withdrawal, nor should you engage with them under false pretences.

Stakeholder Participation - Informed Consent
Ensuring research participants and stakeholders understand what is being asked of them, their protections, their right to decline participation, how their data will be used and by whom are all components of informed consent. While signed consent forms may be considered “normal”, be prepared to interrogate their suitability. Are your participants literate? Are you creating a situation where people must disclose illiteracy privately or in public (a community meeting) or possibly sign despite illiteracy to avoid revealing such information? Are the elements of the project being explained in locally relevant or age-appropriate terminology? Are the mechanisms to record consent locally appropriate? Have you carefully considered all of the potential uses for the data you are collecting (e.g. commercial) and making this clear to your participants? Your team should be prepared to develop an approach to informed consent that meets the obligations you have to funders and publishers but also to the people you are working with. This may include audio recordings of a verbal consent process, consent forms in a local language, etc.

Communication - Interpreters
When conducting research in a language you are not fluent in, the role of interpreters can vary from “neutral” translator to active co-producer of knowledge. Research is conducted with rather than through interpreters and teams should consider how interpreters are represented in the final write up, whether they also should go through the consent process, whether their involvement creates increased risk to them during and after data gathering, what is considered fair payment for time and work, what confidentiality agreements are needed (and how these are explained), how interpreters will be recruited and selected, and what impact interpreters will have on data collection (implications for rapport / relationship building, considering gender, ethnic group, age etc) given the local context. Teams should also be prepared for the role of an interpreter to shift over the course of a project – what starts as a straightforward translation role may shift as an interpreter learns more about the project and becomes more confident and comfortable with the objectives and their own ability to contribute to gathering the information the team is seeking.

Communication – Languages
Despite the existence of many non-English academic journals, English remains the main language used for publishing academic research. This fact often underpins the dual assumptions that English is the working language for research and the destination language for findings. Researchers should carefully consider not only how a default of English as the operating language for research impacts “field work”, but also the fact that team members may be collaborating in their second or third languages. Having to communicate in a non-native language can limit confidence and involvement, let alone cohesive understanding across a team. Throughout the research stage, teams should also be considering the non-English destinations for their findings (see The Dissemination Stage).

Parachute Research
“Parachute research” or “extractive methodologies” refers to researchers collecting data or samples from somewhere, then analysing and publishing the data without input from local collaborators or actively considering the benefit to local communities. It may also mean that some degree of local collaboration occurs, but it is not conducted in the true spirit of equitable partnership and may only be done to facilitate extracting data or samples. Parachute research can undermine local research initiatives, erode trust, and result in research outcomes devoid of context and of negligible benefit to the geographies for which they are relevant. This approach can often follow on from thinking of international research in the context of “field sites” being distinct or disconnected from the places where data is analysed, interpreted, and transformed into outputs. Researchers should be prepared to ask themselves how they can avoid parachute research practices in the context of their work either through meaningful local partnerships, engagement sessions with communities, efforts to understand the local context and the seeking of permission (including informal permissions) to conduct research however it is locally appropriate. Researchers working with research materials in archives or records but who are not physically visiting the location of interest may wish to engage with local organizations and experts to discuss ethical frameworks and approaches.

Relying on Partners
COVID-19 has shifted the way international research teams work. Travel to research locations is now limited, which can either increase the likelihood of extractive research practices or open the door to increased empowerment of partners. Teams should have frank discussions about capacity, leadership, communications, expectations and training needs that do not rely on travel. If the research is led by the University of Glasgow, ethics approvals are still required from the University and partners conducting the research would need to follow the ethical guidance and processes so discussions should take place about what this might involve.

Partner Practice and Process
Institutions are subject to different national laws, are embedded in different working cultures and have their own processes and policies in place. When multiple partners are involved, it is useful to consider how these different approaches will intersect. Are project staff at different institutions paid different amounts? Will different project staff have different health and safety coverage (e.g. evacuation insurance) when travelling together? How do the various partner policies and processes line up with funder terms and conditions? Project teams may wish to co-develop project policies for Gender Equality, Health and Safety, Risk Assessment, Safeguarding, and Modern Slavery.

Local Research Environment
The local research environment refers to the local environment beyond national approval processes for research, partner policies and process, and local logistics. Instead, this element refers to the environment created by other research teams operating in the region that can mediate many aspects of ethical research practice. Research projects led by different institutions and supported by different funders may have different protocols in place for everything from salary scales to eligibility of per diems to participant consent processes. These differences may create institutional, stakeholder, participant, community and staff expectations that impact your project. Research fatigue can impact both your capacity to effectively engage and the validity of your research findings. People may respond with information they think researchers want to hear rather than discussions on topics that are more complex. Local research assistants may have expectations about pay and recognition. Project teams should try to understand how the local research environment may impact their project and how to address any possible challenges.

The Climate Crisis
The climate crisis has prompted more scrutiny of who is responsible for CO2 emissions and how research travel habits have exacerbated climate change. Who travels and how often are ethical questions that projects should consider, particularly in light of the greater role the global north plays in research travel-related emissions. With an overall emphasis on reduced air travel, project teams should consider which team members would benefit the most from travel opportunities for training, conferences, team meetings, research trips and stakeholder meetings. The allocation of travel opportunities to early career team members, team members from low- or middle-income countries or team members without previous international experience should be considered. Overall, teams should endeavour to minimize the environmental footprint of their activity and identify sustainable options to deliver research objectives.

COVID-19 has highlighted many inequalities that should be taken into consideration from an ethical perspective (and that intersect extensively with Health & Safety and Safeguarding considerations). Teams should consider whether they are increasing risk to members of communities by continuing research visits, what protection is available to team members themselves, and what socio-cultural practices may be underpinning local, regional and national responses to the pandemic. Completing a Document - Fieldwork and Project Risk Assessment can help identify some of these issues and relevant risk mitigations strategies.

Personal/Professional Boundaries
This element intersects with other factors in this section, especially inter-cultural communication and community expectations. In some places and cultures, using personal phones to conduct work via whatsapp messaging is standard practice, while in others it represents a potential disruption to work-life balance. When working with disadvantaged communities for extended timeframes, researchers can find themselves subject to requests for financial support. Research teams should consider what potential there is for questions or concerns to arise with respect to personal and professional boundaries. Individual team members should consider what boundaries they may wish to put in place for themselves and how they could respond if those boundaries are crossed.

Different Knowledges
Working in international research contexts often involves an underlying assumption that a northern/western research approach to knowledge is the default. Methodologies, approaches to allocating credit for “discoveries”, mechanisms for disseminating research outcomes and assigning validity to knowledge are all rooted in assumptions about what knowledge “counts”. To conduct ethical research, research teams must be ready to question their own assumptions about knowledge generation and consider how to ensure different knowledges are valued in their work.

Decolonising Research
Several elements outlined in this section are linked to the concept of decolonising research. In order to operate in a truly ethical manner, teams must be prepared to question their own complicity in maintaining colonial power structures, explore opportunities to disrupt those structures and sometimes relinquish their own power in the research ecosystem. Teams should also consider how colonial practices impact their positionality, such the reality that a female researcher from the Global North may be listened to/offered respect where local female researchers may not. Pretending these elements do not exist can be as bad as being ignorant of them.