How to address a conflict of interest in a dissertation study?
May 22, 2010 6:14 AM   Subscribe

Seeking advice for an issue with my dissertation and how to address a problem in my research protocol.

My dissertation proposal is up for review with my university's institutional review board, which must approve my research and the protection of its human subjects before I can proceed with getting the proposal approved by my department, which all must come before I collect data at my research site. I am collecting data in a middle school for an ethnographic case study for an Ed.D.

Here's the rub: I am using the school in which I am an administrator as my research site, and the review board has already preliminarily indicated that this is an issue with risk to participants because of my dual role as administrator and principal researcher. For example, learning something through the study cannot be used in employee/student evaluations, but I simply can't "not know" something about a participant. This conflict of interest raises the level of risk for the human subjects.

The board met officially yesterday and I should be getting another letter this coming week asking for clarification/further information, and I want to prepare my response, knowing that they are going to require one (they sent a letter already just to let me know that upon initial review, this was a concern).

I'm having a difficult time locating anything in the literature on qualitative research that can help me address this, and the option of changing locations is not something I am willing to consider (yet). The entire dissertation is based on a specific cultural construct of this specific school.

I've already detailed the standard protections that minimize risk, and the issues really are about a conflict of interest. Here is what I am planning to implement as a response. Any help/suggestion and/or practical advice from similar experience will help immensely. At the moment I am unsure how to handle the issue of the students.
-- Our teacher evaluations are done by a committee of admins, so there is never a time when my decisions alone will result in someone losing employment. As an additional safeguard, I will abstain from the evaluations of the teachers who participate in the study.
-- I will keep detailed field notes of my participant observation and written transcripts of interviews so that there is a physical record of my interactions with the participants.

Thanks in advance for any help.
posted by archimago to Education (6 answers total)
My background is in Special Education and quantitative analysis, but here are my two cents:

1) I will abstain from the evaluations of the teachers who participate in the study.
This sounds like a good idea.

2) I don't know the details of your study, but would it be possible to have a research assistant collect the data for you, and you would be responsible for analyzing the data? The data could be kept anonymous, so that you wouldn't necessarily know which of your teachers you were examining at any given time. Easier said than done, obviously, especially because (a) qualitative data collection is a huge time commitment, (b) you probably don't have anyone that owes you THAT big of a favor, and (c) I'm guessing it is ideal for you to be the one collecting data when it comes time to analyze them.

3) Depending on your institution, your IRB will probably send back fairly specific questions regarding the conflict of interest, which will help guide your answers. If they are really nice, they will send you concrete recommendations on how to handle the situation. While it will probably ease your mind to start getting a response prepared now, you are probably better off waiting to see what they say. Besides, IRBs usually have a knack for coming back with some rather "interesting" questions from out of left field.

Best of luck!!
posted by puritycontrol at 8:15 AM on May 22, 2010

Thanks for the help. They actually sent a preliminary letter informing me that the study needed the full board quorum review because it deals with children, and they detailed their initial issues, two of which were minor and just require more information. I fully expect there to be some more issues when I get the results this week, but this one in particular is going to be a major hurdle with them. The chair of the IRB has been really helpful when I have had specific questions, so I may end up asking him for his advice. My sponsor is also wonderful but she is holding back because she wants me to figure this out myself, which I can appreciate for the way it is making me a better researcher, but at this point I am so fried with this study that I could really use her throwing me a life preserver just this once!

And I thought about the research assistant, but that is just not a reality for me.
posted by archimago at 8:36 AM on May 22, 2010

You might look into literatures on Participatory Action Research which would contextualize your dual roles differently than just simply "conflict of interest" frameworks and give your IRB some way to move forward. It worked for me (although my circumstances varied somewhat).
posted by kch at 10:22 AM on May 22, 2010

I don't really get all the details but it also seems like potential subjects might not be able to freely choose not to participate if they perceive that it would reflect badly on them. That is something that the IRB would correctly be wary of. You're in a position of authority and it's very difficult to disentangle that from your research plan.

I wonder if there is a way to collect data in a way that allows you to not know specifically who is cooperating or not, and also for the data to be sufficiently anonymous that you can't know what individual they refer to.

I'm sympathetic that you need to keep your job while completing your degree. On the other hand I also wonder if it's a great idea to tie your research program so closely to your job. If there's anything you can do to disentangle those two things, it would help not only from the perspective of getting the IRB on board, but it would also help your co-workers who might not feel comfortable with the situation, but who are also wary of telling you this outright.
posted by drmarcj at 11:36 AM on May 22, 2010

Can you give us more information about what kinds of information you're going to be collecting? The only way I can see this ever flying with an IRB is if it's relatively benign data. But knowledge that would impact your evaluation of teachers and students-who-are-minors? That's heavy stuff. Are you going to abstain from evaluating your participants for the entirety of their/your time at the school? If so, how does your supervisor feel about that?

When I envision the worst-case scenario of this study, it's very bad - but that may be a product of my lack of detailed information. I'd be happy to look over your protocol directly (my background is in the social sciences); just memail me if you're interested.
posted by McBearclaw at 12:55 PM on May 22, 2010

Thanks everyone, my protocol has been vetted by multiple professors in the department, so I am confident that it's something that I can find a way around. I am not the first person to do research in the school where I work. The data I am going to be collecting is teacher and student behaviors in the classroom and also thoughts and feelings of the participants about their experiences with the school. And the participants are opting in to the study, so they do not need to participate.
posted by archimago at 3:51 AM on May 23, 2010

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