Now that we have our research questions in hand, our class has come to the part of the study design process where we need to seek Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. Leah Stoiber, an administrator from UWM’s IRB, joined us for the first half of class last week to help us navigate the application process. While our small groups have already begun drafting materials for our IRB protocol form, Leah offered many helpful hints. She reminded us to keep our language simple and to submit all study materials for review.
As we’ve already discovered, human-subject research can be messy. While it’s the IRB’s ultimate goal to protect participants, we saw in this week’s reading and discussion that IRB approval is not always synonymous with ethical research practices. While IRB standards are an important place to begin, it is important to remember they are not the pinnacle of moral excellence (Edwell 166). To perform truly ethical research, researchers often need to exceed the expectations of the IRB.
Before our first official class meeting, we all completed mandatory IRB ethics and compliance training, so the Belmont Principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice are fresh in our minds. These principles are a great place to start when discussing ethical research practices.
Respect for Persons: One of the most important ways to show respect for persons is to show respect for personal decisions. This is why informed consent is imperative to any ethical study. As Leah pointed out, consent is more than just a form participants sign at the beginning; consent is a process that takes place throughout the entire study. As researchers, we need to be constantly re-evaluating our participants’ consent through rhetorical listening. One thing to be on the lookout for is what Kristin Marie Bivens calls microwithdrawals of consent. Bivens defines a microwithdrawal of consent as “the implied or partial halt of a person’s willingness to participate in one or more aspects of the research process and the researcher’s awareness of the withdrawal” (138-139). Microwithdrawals can often be subtle, such as a participant’s sudden lack of engagement. As researchers, we must honor our participants’ decisions to renegotiate their consent.
Beneficence: As we proceed, we need to design our study in a way that minimizes risk and protects our participants. We must also show our study to be beneficial, whether that be through immediate benefit to the students, potential for future benefit to the college, or simply the benefit of filling gaps of knowledge in our field. As Leah put it, the risks of a study must correlate with the benefits—high-risk studies need to exhibit greater benefits whereas low-risk studies, such as ours, can get by with fewer benefits. As researchers, we have a responsibility for making the risks and benefits clear to our participants. In this week’s reading, Laura Maria Pigozzi warned of the danger of therapeutic misconception, which occurs when a participant overestimates the benefits and misinterprets the degree to which the study will meet their individual needs. To combat this, we will need to be clear about the intent of our study.
Justice: When recruiting participants, individuals must receive fair treatment. We should not base recruitment only on factors of convenience; we must take care to allow fair access. We need to be aware of the multiple roles we hold as researchers, teachers, and students and recognize how these roles play into the power dynamic with our participants. It is also important for us not to impose unnecessary labels on participants and to avoid classifications that are irrelevant to the study. While our reading from Kelly E. Happe discussed this idea in regard to racial identity, I believe we can apply it more broadly to any kind of polarizing categorization. As we move forward in our research, we must ensure the selection and treatment of our participants is equitable.
While the goal of the IRB is to help us, as researchers, think through some of the ethical considerations of our study, our class agreed that it is also important to go beyond the minimum requirements. As Dawn S. Opel states, “IRB approval does not mean that a researcher has always acted ethically” (183). As we proceed, we must continually evaluate our research process to identify relevant ethical issues that might otherwise be overlooked. As one student put it, we must be ready to make ethical decisions “in the moment.”
Narrative. People who participate in research projects want their words and interactions to be seen as meaningful narratives that represent their experiences in the world. How can we create interviews that allow for authentic conversation, and through that conversation, mutual meaning-making? One classmate suggested focusing on less formal structure in our interview practices. We all agreed that we wanted to create interview environments that allowed for participants to genuinely share.
Everyday Literacies. We decided to include in our research the everyday literacies of UWM students. Haas, Takayoshi, and Carr (Ch. 4) argue for the importance of this in our readings for this week. They write that “understanding everyday literacy practices can, in turn, suggest ways that academic practices and writing instruction could be modified in order to better teach students the composition and communicative skills needed in an increasingly digital world” (p.53). Sheridan (Ch. 6) echoes this when she writes that “writing mediates the lives of everyday people” (p.75).
Ethics. McKnee and Porter (Ch. 19) give a heuristic for staying ethical in internet research by reflexively reviewing the rhetorical situation of the research, especially where the participants are considered. This should include the participants’ perspectives, expectations, and assumptions.
We discussed how this ethical guide translates to our own research. There is no one clear process (online or offline), but we can strive to have clear guidelines to maintain our ethical integrity, which is one of our group goals.
One ethical question that came up was if we could include ourselves as participants. There were hesitations about how objective we could be in analyzing ourselves. Triangulating data gathering and analysis is one way to complicate our findings and gain a fuller perspective of the people we will be trying to represent, especially if some of us will also be participants.
I think we all felt relieved to narrow down our research questions:
1. What experiences and literacies do UWM students utilize for communicating across contexts?
2. How might mapping the landscape of students’ linguistic, rhetorical, and composing practices inform and shape community engagement at UWM?
3. How do UWM students rhetorically navigate academic and nonacademic spaces?
Check in next week for new questions, considerations, and complexities as we learn what it means to do collaborative research and to engage with the community here at UWM!