This guide is designed to help students consider the ethical issues relevant to doctoral research occurring in educational settings. These tips will be most helpful to students early in the research planning process when they are considering potential research designs, sites, and samples.
All doctoral students are required to obtain ethical approval from the university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) before recruiting research participants or collecting data. The IRB’s ethical approval can only be given when the researcher demonstrates that potential benefits of the study are likely to outweigh the risks and burdens placed on participants, in accordance with the university's ethical standards as well as U.S. federal regulations.
Students may complete Form A to obtain preliminary feedback once they have submitted their proposal to the URR. However, final IRB approval cannot be provided until after the defended proposal has been approved by the full committee. Research ethics questions may be posed to the IRB at any time by emailing IRB@mail.waldenu.edu.
Teachers may analyze data from their own students only when the data is generated as a byproduct of normal educational practices and no student names are recorded in the research documents.
Approvable categories include:
Data collection from former students or other teachers’ students could be ethically acceptable, but teachers may not collect interview or survey data from their own (current) students. Not only would the validity of the data be suspect, but such a research invitation is likely to strain the teacher-student and teacher-parent relationships in a manner that is not ethically acceptable. Despite any assurances that the teacher may make on a consent form, a student (and parent) will feel pressured to agree to the teacher’s study even if they do not believe it is in their own best interest. For a teacher (or any other trusted authority figure such as a principal or school counselor) to leverage or strain that relationship for personal gain (earning a doctoral degree and a higher salary) would go against fundamental research ethics principles.
An evaluation is generally stronger when the evaluator is not the instructor. With that said, it is not always an option to completely separate the instructor and evaluator roles.
A doctoral student may only provide the instruction that is the focus of the doctoral project when all of the following conditions are met:
At Walden, doctoral education researchers must stay within the domain of education (i.e., topics that the program coursework covers) and not cross over into psychology or other fields UNLESS the researcher’s coursework, training, and committee configuration support an interdisciplinary approach.
If at all possible, researchers must use non-academic time for data collection such as homeroom, lunch, or before/after school. In order for data collection to be approved during academic periods, the researcher would need to assure the IRB of the following:
A researcher must consider the following dimensions of this issue:
With that said, it might make sense for the researcher to empirically explore whether the Hispanic students do, in fact, show different patterns from the non-Hispanic students. In other words, it would be ethically appropriate for the researcher to conduct analyses that focus on only the Hispanic student, if she wishes (once she has collected data from students of all ethnic backgrounds). She can determine with her committee whether it might make sense to run the analyses both with and without the minority (non-Hispanic) students (in order to make an empirically-supported decision about the patterns are different or similar for the non-Hispanic students who are in the minority at this school).
Depending on the results of the analyses, the researcher would then be able to make a well-informed decision about whether it is best to frame the dissertation as a “study of Hispanic students” or as a “study of students who attend a predominantly Hispanic school” or as a “study of Hispanic students who attend a predominantly Hispanic school.” Any of those framings would be fine, but we try to help researchers avoid premature elimination of particular demographic groups to be consistent with the ethical ideal/principle that all can be helped if all have equal opportunity to be included in the research.
While it is natural and commendable to want to support positive developments in one’s own workplace, conducting research in one’s own workplace is ethically complicated and will limit the research design possibilities. Conducting research at one’s own workplace creates a conflict of interest that can easily result in biases toward selecting participants and/or collecting data that are likely to reflect favorably on the workplace (or the researcher, or the researcher’s colleagues, or the researcher’s viewpoints).
More importantly, risks to participants are greater when the researcher personally knows them. Breaches of confidentiality are more likely and can result in serious damage to professional reputations, employability, relationships with particular students/colleagues, and even student learning outcomes. Further, the university is committed to the basic principle that research participants should volunteer with the motive of helping to generate new knowledge (i.e., not because they want to give a favor to a colleague or a teacher).
If you decide to conduct “in-house” research for your doctoral study, you are obligated to select a research design that provides maximum protections to the research participants:
During the IRB’s ethics review, you will be asked why you chose your proposed site. It would not be an adequate rationale to simply respond that your own workplace seems like a convenient research site or that you knew the site leader would agree to it. You need to be prepared to justify why your proposed site is the most appropriate site to address the research question, in consideration of all ethical issues.
Comparison of two instructional approaches via pre-post testing of both groups is possible but is generally not the best choice for a doctoral study. Why? Because quantitative comparison studies are only meaningful when confounding/demographic/situational variables are controlled for, which requires implementation on a large scale (many classrooms at multiple schools) over a long period of time. Such a vast project is simply not feasible for most doctoral students’ program timeline. Comparison on a small scale (say, just 2 classes) provides such weak data that sacrificing instructional time to do pre-post testing would not be ethically justifiable.
However, note that it would be ethically acceptable to compare classes that received different types of instruction by analyzing data from normal tests or student projects, using either an ex post facto (causal comparative) design or descriptive longitudinal design.
Doctoral students wishing to compare instructional approaches are advised that this research design is much more ethically and pragmatically complex than it may appear on the surface and these complexities can create delays in the completion of the doctoral study.
While experimental designs (comparing intervention/control groups) are the “gold standard” for understanding cause-effect relationships, such experimental designs are not typical for a doctoral study (due to the many months/years and classrooms required to collect meaningful data). Further, experimental designs can be ethically problematic in schools because they ask the control group to volunteer their time and energies for data collection without getting any direct benefits.
Therefore, data collection from control groups can only be approved when:
Certain types of data collection are clearly conducted for research purposes only and therefore always require parent consent (e.g., interviewing students) but analyzing other types of data that are created as part of “normal educational practices” (such as student projects, test scores) might not require parental consent.
Parent consent must be obtained if the researcher answers “no” to any of the following questions.
If the researcher answers yes to all of the questions above, then parental consent and child assent may not be necessary (which must be confirmed by the IRB). If the researcher answers no to any of the questions above, then parental consent and student assent do need to be obtained and those steps must be addressed within the IRB application.
Below are the solutions to the most frequently occurring ethical challenges in doctoral research:
This is the simplest way to avoid pressuring subordinates, students, or other vulnerable individuals to participate in your doctoral research.
The IRB can only approve those specific components of data collection that show promise of effectively addressing the research question(s). Misalignment will cause approval delays.
Secondary data analysis (aka archival data analysis) is the most ethical way to study your own subordinates, students, clients, or any other vulnerable group because it does not ask them to do anything out of the ordinary for research purposes. Risks to these vulnerable individuals are managed by removing all identifiers from the dataset.
Unless the specific purpose of the doctoral research is the validation of a new measure, creating a new instrument is typically beyond the scope of a doctoral study.
The IRB does not review the entire proposal and can only approve the procedures that are listed in the IRB application itself. Thus, all participant recruitment and data collection procedures MUST be described in the IRB application. If an audit reveals that a student deviated from that specific list of IRB-approved procedures, then the data can be invalidated and the final doctoral study rejected.