There was a potential source of disagreement over the use of the term ‘research subjects’ in the statement on values and virtues. The problem is over the application of an appropriate generic term for ‘the people being studied’. Some researchers, particularly those engaging in qualitative data collection and analysis, are uncomfortable with referring to the groups or individuals they study as ‘subjects’. They regard this as an ethical concern in that the term suggests the kind of objectification of people one finds in more experimental or quantitative forms of research. This is more than a semantic concern and it is worth considering whether the people being studied are referred to as ‘participants’, ‘respondents’ or ‘subjects’ according to the precise nature of their engagement with the research project (Birch and Miller 2002). An additional complexity arises when some ethics reviewers refer to the researchers conducting the study as ‘participants’ – which they clearly are but this can confuse those ‘doing the study’ with those who are primarily being studied. If the people being studied are participating in a jointly conceived and disseminated project they are clearly ‘participants’. If they are simply answering survey questions delivered on the street they are ‘respondents’. When the precise research engagement of those being studied is not known and/or is not central to the discussion the appropriate generic term to use is ‘subject’. It is difficult to find a terminologically accurate generic alternative to ‘subjects’. The ‘people being studied’ can be an individual or a group – the term ‘subject’ encompasses both. Not all people being studied are genuinely ‘participating’. Some research designs aim to be truly inclusive (e.g. participative action research) in which case the subjects can be regarded as much as ‘participants’ as the researchers. In the same way, not all people under study are ‘respondents’ – giving answers in reply to questions in surveys, interviews, focus groups or questionnaires. Often they are simply being observed and their actions only then regarded as ‘responsive’ if the researcher’s intervention is intended to induce a change (experimentally or quasi experimentally) in their behaviour, thoughts and/or feelings (Iphofen 2011).
One of the reasons the term ‘subject’ is avoided is to challenge the notion that people need to be ‘objectified’ when being researched. In fact, it would be inaccurate not to see them as the ‘subject’ of study – hopefully they are deliberately chosen as the subject or as a route to the subject, they are certainly being ‘subjected’ to a research intervention and it remains an ethical responsibility of the researcher to ensure they are not ‘objectified’ in a way that denies their humanity. All things considered, retaining the term ‘subject’ appears more accurate and does less injustice to those under study than if we were to imagine them as participating when they are not, when they might not see it that way and, in any case, we may be only interested in certain aspects of their life in how it relates to participation in the concerns of our study.
This seems an unduly ‘heavy’ discussion of what might seem a minor concern. However there are strong feelings and views about this which we cannot ignore. There are fuller discussions of the problem which can be found, for example, in Oliver (2003: 3–9) and in Corrigan and Tutton (2006).
More importantly, it has long been recognised that many values exist in tension if not in direct conflict with each other. Thus ‘honesty’ and/or ‘transparency’ could offer a challenge to recognition of the dignity and diversity of participants. Equally one person’s freedom to act might curtail another’s freedom to act differently. Thus there is no intention in the above values/vices statement to put an inappropriate block on research conducted in public places where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Similarly individuals seeking the freedom to opt out from administrative datasets should be reminded of their accountability to civil society; that is, those receiving some benefit from their membership in a society should not expect to opt out of being accountable for what they do with that benefit. The same principle may also apply to early beneficiaries from an innovation whose risks and benefits will only be fully defined in use. Evidently not all administrative datasets are voluntary, there may be legal requirements for inclusion in some datasets. In countries, for example, where it is not illegal not to register as a voter, some people decide not to do so – either as a form of protest or through simple neglect. A simpler example might be when a transport authority is conducting a survey of passengers and people refuse to take part although knowledge of their use of public transport would be of benefit to themselves as well as to others. (Benefit here has a much broader sense than a financial transfer. It might also apply to the benefits of public order, a stable and predictable legal framework, investments in public health, etc.)
In referring to the “freedom to conduct scientific research”, it is important not to understand this as implying that research is an indulgence or privilege. Research is also a moral obligation to establish whether the benefits of an innovation exceed the risks in use or to determine whether apparently emerging risks are causally related to an innovation that has been widely adopted. The absence of research may be as morally challenging as its conduct.
Through the initial discussion, it became clear that a formalised distinction between ‘research ethics’ and ‘research integrity’ has taken hold. Our considered view is that ‘research ethics’ stands as the umbrella term for ‘ethical practices in research’ such that ‘research integrity’ ought to be subsumed within that. Further we wished to avoid what has become a narrow convention in linking the lack of integrity to specific forms of research misconduct: fabrication, falsification and plagiarism. Instead we formulated a broader notion for a ‘lack of integrity’which is in direct opposition to the values and virtues that we see as fairly established – these are termed research ‘vices’.