Racially diverse students reading together in a classroom setting

How not to do a research project

I hope I do not sound too immodest when I claim that I have some experience in school-based research. My PhD research was embedded in a language school, I’ve supervised BA and M-level research projects which involved working with schools, students and their parents, and I was for some time responsible for school-based research in a primary school affiliated to the University of Ioannina, in Greece.

But the post that follows does not draw on any of this expertise; rather, it’s told from my perspective as a parent. A few weeks ago, I was asked to consent to my daughter’s participation in a research project that would take place in her primary school, and I have since become a witness to what appears to be one of the most badly-conducted MA dissertation studies I have ever come across. What follows, therefore, serves the dual aim of venting some of my frustration, and offering some recommendations which may be of use in designing school-based research interventions.

Things to avoid

1. Don’t alienate participants

My first contact with the research team was by means of a letter outlining the research project, and a consent form which my 6-year old daughter said that I had to sign. It was, I am afraid to say, a very poorly written letter, especially with regard to how the practical aspects of the project and the ethical safeguards were described (NB: I intend to post a guide to eliciting informed consent in the near future). However, taking into account that the project team was inexperienced and probably had been let down by their University in terms of training, I decided to resist the urge to bin the consent form, and responded with a letter asking for further details. This was never answered, and I was left with the impression that the project had been shelved. While this was not the end of the story, the bottom line is that you can’t expect to do research by stepping on potential participants’ toes.

2. Don’t ever assume consent

On the following week, my daughter told me that one of the regular sessions had been cancelled, and that all the children in her class, including her, were introduced to “teachers-who-are-not-school-teachers-but-work-at-the-university-just-like-Daddy”, who asked them all sorts of questions about their attitudes towards school, and about their feelings. Upon questioning, she told me that she had been left unsupervised, while other children were being interviewed, but eventually they did a number of role-playing activities with the “new teachers”. She also brought home a questionnaire about the role-plays, which I was expected to administer to my daughter and return to the research team. By talking to other parents, I found out that some had assumed that the questionnaire had been sent by the teacher or the administration, and many were not aware that they had the option to refuse co-operation.

Never, ever, take short-cuts on ethics procedures.

At this point, I felt that I had two options: I could either request that the school terminated the project, and report these ethical violations to the competent University committee; or I could go along in order to minimise the disruption to my daughter’s school life. I resolved this dilemma by asking my daughter if she had enjoyed the role-playing. When I was told that this was the case,  I decided against escalating, but if you do not want to risk a sudden death to your project, never, ever, take short-cuts on ethics procedures.

3. Don’t have others do your work for you

At this point, I had to deal with interviewing my daughter and “recording her responses (in writing) on [the questionnaire] as faithfully as possible”. Not only had this procedure never been mentioned in the consent documentation, I was also surprised to read that seven more such questionnaires would follow (one for every week). In the one-page instruction document that accompanied the questionnaire, I was also requested to anonymise responses by indicating my daughter’s initials on each page (!)

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As a participant, I felt insulted that the research team presumed to give me instructions for a procedure to which I had never consented. As a researcher, I struggled to grasp the rationale of such instructions. As an academic, I thought it was very poor research practice to delegate data generation to people who had not been trained for the task; plus, there were questions of malpractice to be asked if those MA students claimed to do work which had, in fact, been delegated.

I did not want my daughter to be stigmatised as a non-cooperative child, and I was conscious that she was too diligent to return to school without the sealed envelope that had been provided; to that end, I conducted the interview but replaced the questionnaire with blank A4 pages in the envelope. I understand that several parents are doing the same, and there is a lesson there for anyone who is too lazy to do their own fieldwork.

Why this is important

One way to relate to this post is to see it as a clash between a well-meaning but poorly-trained research team and an inflexible, obstinate grump, which is fine. However, I do think that there are some more important take-away points, which I want to now outline.

I believe that, regardless of where we all are in our respective careers, we have two kinds of responsibilities as researchers. One is the responsibility towards the participants whose cooperation is what makes our research possible. Ideally, this means that our work should have a direct and tangible benefit for the participants. Sadly this is not always possible, and in those cases where participants show their good will and invest time and effort into a project that will most evidently benefit the researchers, it is even more requisite that said participants are treated with respect and consideration. Our second responsibility relates to the discipline. Poor research practices that alienate the participants can only make it harder for other researchers to do fieldwork in the future. It is selfish and unprofessional, and everybody stands to lose from it.


Image Credit: The LEAF Project @ Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

3 thoughts on “How not to do a research project”

  1. Hi Achilleas, thank you for an interesting post. Have you thought of getting in touch with the researchers? Due to poor training and other factors, some researchers can be unaware of the basic principles of research practice. Maybe if you express interest in their work, and offer assistance, this will open up a channel of communication and pave the way for a more detailed discussion about their processes of conducting research.

  2. Thanks, Achilleas. You are very kind. I just wanted to remind you that the time and energy you have invested in writing this long reflective entry on ‘How not to do research’ is in itself evidence of your ability to ‘see opportunities to help’.

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