Morals and ethics and IRBs with autoethnography

The general consensus from the literature is that there is no agreed definition of morals nor ethics.

“The best short definition I’ve heard, courtesy of my friend Stirling, is that morals are how you treat people you know. Ethics are how you treat people you don’t know.” (Walsh, 2015)

I really like this very simple definition. It helps to differentiate the realm of ethics versus the realm of morals. When I think of ethics, I think this of the practical obligations of my profession. These related to the need to receive approval for research from the research ethics board. This is a stamp of approval which dictates how I interact with research participants. This also takes an objectivist worldview, where the researcher is seen an an objective observer, and research participants are not seen to be in relationship with the researcher.

Morals on the other hand guide what we consider right and wrong. In my circumstance, they affect how I have learned to behave in the context of the community I am in (the community of illness bloggers). In this sense, I am working with people that I know, and my morals dictate how I interact with them.

“Morals are the beliefs of the individual or group as to what is right or wrong. Ethics are the guiding principles which help the individual decide what is good or bad” (Surbhi S, 2015).

Here we have morals as beliefs and ethics as guiding principles. One definitely affects the other, such that the definitions are often intertwined – with codes of ethics being actual ‘rules’ based upon moral beliefs of what is right and wrong.

“ethics: a system of moral principles, the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.” (dictionary.com), where “morals: of, relating to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical” (dictionary.com).

In this discussion I will use the term “moral imperative” to refer to what I feel are the ‘right’ behaviors and actions for myself as a member of the community under study (that is, as an illness blogger myself). I will use the term “ethical imperative” to refer to the guiding principles and regulations associated with my role as a researcher. My ethical imperatives are governed by the University of Ottawa Research Ethics Board, where my moral imperatives are governed by my personal values as well as the values espoused by the wider illness blogging community.

The moral imperative that I think about when I consider my behaviour within the community is something that Bochner and Ellis (2016) refer to as ‘relational-ethics’ where they highlight that “Doing ethical research requires that we honor our relationships with participants and make wise decisions about fulfilling our responsibilities toward them, especially when we engage in research about intimate and/or traumatic events that might engender strong emotions (see Ellis, 2007)” (Bochner & Ellis, 2016, p.139).

For me, the moral imperatives are easy. The sense of right and wrong is based upon my personal values. They require reflexivity – in that I need to consider why I am making the decisions I am making. But in the end, it boils down to my personal values. The challenge I’m having is when the ethical imperatives set out by my university in some ways ‘get in the way’ of me doing my research. What I mean is not that I’m looking to do unethical research, just that sometimes the processes in place at the university encourage behaviors that I would deem morally unethical.

For example, I am an illness blogger doing auto ethnographic research within the illness blogger community. The first phase of my research involves me writing stories based upon my own personal experience with breast cancer. These stories are influenced not just by my individual experience, but also by the blogs that I read. There are times within my stories where I may wish to refer to other blogs. But also, an auto ethnographic story needs to be specific but also general. It looks both inward and outward. Part of that looking outward involves looking at how others have blogged about their experiences, and finding parallels between their experiences and my experiences.

Since the blogs that I will be used as “data” in my research consist of texts that are shared on the public internet, they are considered publications (albeit self-publications). These publications are freely available to anyone who wishes to read them. That is part of the point of blogging. As a result, they can be considered equivalent to other publications such as newspaper articles. There is no ethical requirement for researchers to contact the authors of newspaper articles to inform them that they wish to use the article as data in a research study (this is clarified in Article 2.2 of TCPS 2 which states that Research that relies exclusively on publicly available information does not require REB review when … (b) the information is publicly accessible and there is no reasonable expectation of privacy” (p.17)). That being said, my research will not exclusively rely on public data, it will just use a lot of it. From an ethics process standpoint, as long as I do not contact the blog author, I am not doing ‘human subjects research’ rather I’m interpreting a written text. Where things get complicated is if I wish to contact the authors.

Perhaps my challenge is that I do not see blog text as strictly text, I see it as a representation of the person behind the text. As a blogger, I feel morally obligated to inform any bloggers that I wish to use their blogs as data in my research. Further, I feel morally obligated to ask their permission for such use. There are no organizational ethical requirements for me to seek this permission, so long as my interaction is limited to using what is publicly available on the internet. Does demonstrating the ‘courtesy’ of asking for permission mean that I suddenly require some form of research ethics approval for my study? Where if I do not seek this permission I do not need that approval?

When I look to the literature on what others have done, I find the practices very inconsistent. The general practice seems to be that if the researcher does not interact with the blogger, then the blog can be used as data without needing ethics approval. As a result, blogs are used as a convenient dataset in various fields of study (this is especially true in communication studies, and illness blogs specifically are often used in nursing and counseling studies). In the cases of the studies that I’ve read so far (more than 50 such studies), the researcher is not a member of the community under study, rather the researcher is an external observer to the text/phenomenon being studied.

My study, however, is of a community in which I am a part. From that perspective, it looks a little more like participant-observation, which clearly falls under the area of participant-observation and is considered ‘human subjects research’. However, my study is also autoethnography, where the study is a narrative inquiry into my experience. It is a form of narrative research where I am the subject of the study – that is, as researcher I am what is being researched, and as such research ethics approval is not required. Interviews associated with this type of writing are also not considered ‘human subjects search’ because what is being studied is the researcher, not the person being interviewed.

However, in order for me to situate my research in the context of the culture of illness blogging, I will want to ask other bloggers and those who read blogs about their reactions to my narratives. I will want to know what they think of the narratives, what resonates and what does not resonate. The ‘thing’ being studied is still the narrative itself (my narrative representation of my experience). The reactions of other bloggers and readers of blogs to my narratives are a form of ‘data’ that goes into the re-writing and refinement of the narrative. It is a form of peer-review for autoethnographic texts. Does that make it human subjects research?

In some US universities, the answer to this question is no, it is not human subjects research. The ‘thing’ being studied is still the researcher. However, the Tri-Council Policy Statement (TCPS2) which governs the Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans in Canada (see http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/pdf/eng/tcps2/TCPS_2_FINAL_Web.pdf), defines human participants in research as “those individuals whose data, or responses to interventions, stimuli or questions by the researcher, are relevant to answering the research question” (p.16). Based upon that, asking other bloggers and readers of blogs to comment on / react to text that I have written about my experience would qualify as ‘human subjects research’. More specifically in the TCPS2 document, Article 2.6 says “Creative practice activities, in and of themselves, do not require REB review. However, research that employs creative practice to obtain responses from participants that will be analyzed to answer a research question is subject to REB review” (p.20).

So with that I’ve talked myself into a circle, and I’m back to the need for research ethics approval for my research – but that of defining what my research looks like is a challenge. What exactly are they approving?

Surbhi S (March 25, 2015). Difference between morals and ethics [weblog]. Retrieved from: http://keydifferences.com/difference-between-morals-and-ethics.html
Walsh, I. (March 6, 2015). Ethics 101: The difference between ethics and morals [weblog]. Retrieved from: http://www.ianwelsh.net/ethics-101-the-difference-between-ethics-and-morals/

Feature image CC0 by Pixabay.

1 Comment on Morals and ethics and IRBs with autoethnography

  1. Not that I think the answer is straightforward but I have 3 suggestions
    A. Send a mass email to all bloggers u have ever read or plan to cite and ask if anyone has objections to you using their blog for research. Of course it’s different because you’re a member of the community but it’s mostly ex-post-facto research, right?
    B. Seek IRB approval and possibly get an exemption
    C. If IRB don’t care about something YOU care about, do what your moral compass tells you and write all this into your dissertation.

1 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Shifting my research question – Rebecca J. Hogue

Leave a Reply