Depending on your background and role at the University, the term ‘ethics’ may mean different things to you.
If you have research experience, you will be accustomed to research ethics and integrity processes appropriate to your discipline(s). If you’re a clinician, you may first think of medical ethics. If you have a private sector background, aspects of business ethics, such as corruption, may first come to mind. If you’re a moral philosopher, ethics may be your area of inquiry! And ‘ethical’ may be used in non-specialist, everyday conversation to mean what is “principled” or “just”.
Ethics and community engagement
The University does not have a single ethical approval process for community engagement. Where community engagement is integral to academic research, it should naturally be part of the research ethics approval for the project. Where community engagement activity is not obviously linked to research – for example, volunteering undertaken by professional services staff, or outreach to schools based on general subject knowledge – then there may not be an obvious formal process to follow. In practice, it may be a combination of processes (e.g. risk assessment, writing a safeguarding policy) and informal judgement.
Colleagues in the Central Public Engagement with Research and Community Teams are currently working together, with other colleagues, to develop an approach to community engagement ethics that meets needs with minimal additional administrative burden. Meanwhile, you may find the following reading useful:
- ‘Ethics and Community Engagement’ on Graeme Stuart’s Sustaining Communities blog
- ‘Ethics in community-based participatory research’ from the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University
- ‘Ethics in Participatory Research’ from the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement
- ‘Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research’ from the British Educational Research Association
- Guidance from the University of Edinburgh on rethinking the ethical considerations of research projects in light of Covid-19
Even if you are not undertaking the type of activity (such as research) being described above, you may find that the principles extrapolate or at least prompt you to reflect on aspects of your approach.
Questions to ask yourself and your team
However, if you are in a rush, then we would suggest asking yourself these questions:
- Who stands to benefit, and how much? Is this proportionate to what is being asked of them?
- Are any consents (such as having a photograph taken) freely given? Is there any reason (such as a sense of obligation) that people involved may find it hard to say ‘no’ to anything asked of them? If so, can you mitigate this? (For example, by building the relationship and encouraging open conversation?)
- Will you be able to follow the activity through to its conclusion, or is there a chance that people could be left hanging?
- Has someone else done similar work with these communities before? Have you done your background research? (‘Engagement fatigue’ is a real thing among some local community partners!)
- Will anyone be put at a disadvantage by taking part, no matter how willing they are? (For example, needing to pay for childcare or passing up on paid work.) If so, can you compensate them in an appropriate way, or remove the disadvantage altogether (by, for example, providing childcare)?
- Is what you’re doing accessible to everyone who could potentially benefit?
- Have people been fully involved in the making of decisions that affect them?