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Research Ethics & Compliance: FAQs Work Setting

Frequently asked questions for doctoral students conducting research in their own work settings

These FAQs are designed to help students in doctoral programs consider the ethical issues relevant to conducting doctoral research in one’s own work setting (e.g., in the researcher’s own organization or classroom). These FAQs will be most helpful to students early in the research planning process when they are considering potential research questions and designs.

Please note that there is a separate education research ethics guide that might be more specifically applicable to doctoral students who are educators. There are also research ethics guides that are specific to international and clinical research. Questions may be directed to any time.

I would like my research to help inform best practices in my own organization but I am concerned about what is approvable. Would it help if I conduct my study at a different office/branch/school where I do not work?

Yes. While it is possible to have data collection approved in your own daily work setting, it would likely be less complicated, biased, and time-consuming for you to collect data at a sister site that is similar to your own. Collecting data from the colleagues/students/clients with whom you interact on a regular basis is likely to be fraught with the following methodological and ethical challenges:

  • social desirability of responses due to friendships/loyalty (participants telling you what they think you want to hear; this does not help inform best practices meaningfully)
  • social desirability of responses due to lack of anonymity (participants opting to not to share negative information because it might make them appear to be a negative person or because they fear the negativity might turn out to hurt them somehow in the future, i.e., if you were to become their supervisor or a key decision-maker in the future)
  • biased responses due to cognitive priming (people in your workplace are more likely to have heard about the hypotheses/angle of your study in advance, which can bias their responses and threaten the study’s internal validity)
  • biased responses due to personal agendas (participants’ responses might be biased by their own personal agendas and tainted by their perception of you as either an ally or an opponent on some issue)
  • perceived coercion to participate (even if an invitee does not feel that participation would be in his/her best interest, that person may feel like s/he cannot decline without disrupting your professional relationship; this is particularly problematic when you are an authority figure in the organization and would go against the Belmont Report principle of respect for persons)
  • confidentiality breaches (these are more common when boundaries between the study and the organization’s regular functioning are unclear and can result in harmful violations of research confidentiality; this also goes against the Belmont Report principles of respect for persons as well as the principle of beneficence (i.e.,  “do no harm.”)

If I am a leader/manager within my organization, will this impact data collection?

Yes. If you wield any authority (i.e., responsibilities regarding task assignments, performance reviews, promotions, bonuses, salaries, grades, or other type of evaluation), then you must take extra measures to ensure that your authority does not pressure invitees to participate in your study or pressure them to give certain types of responses that they might believe you are seeking.

You will need to design your study to prevent the following:

  • that an invitee might be concerned about retaliation or “falling out of favor” due to declining to be part of the study
  • that a respondent to be concerned about retaliation or “falling out of favor” due to responses she or he provides during data collection

The best solution to neutralizing authority dynamics is to make recruitment, informed consent, and data collection truly anonymous, which means:

  • recruitment, informed consent, and data collection occurs in such a way that no one, not even you, knows who participated and who didn’t (e.g., you could use an online survey without tracking who responded, have them return completed surveys to a discreet location, and/or obtain implied consent (“click here to consent” or “return of the completed survey will indicate your consent”) rather than a consent signature or emailed consent
  • there is no way to trace responses back to the determine the identity of the respondents by deductively examining demographics (i.e., triangulating an individual’s identity by looking at the reported gender, age, training, number of years with the organization, or other demographic variables associated with a particular response)

What if I want to interview my subordinates? (or my students? My patients?)

This is a common question. Doctoral researchers may not interview their own subordinates for their doctoral study. Not only would the validity of the data be suspect, but such a research invitation is likely to unethically strain the leader/subordinate relationship due to the fact that the leader will earn a doctoral degree (and a higher salary in many cases) as a result of the research. A subordinate will feel pressured to agree to the interview even if it is not in that person’s own best interest, and that goes against the fundamental research ethics principles of respect for persons. Further, subordinates interviewed by an authority figure are likely to feel conflict between responding honestly and responding in a manner that would enhance the authority figure’s professional perception of them. And even if the subordinate declines participation, the relationship has now been altered in a manner that is potentially harmful to the subordinate professionally and economically. These outcomes would conflict with the ethical principle of beneficence. The principles also apply to other professionals who have a trust/authority relationship with vulnerable individuals who are subordinate to the professional due to their dependence on the professional (i.e., teacher-student relationships, care provider-patient relationships).  

For the same reasons, subordinates may not be asked to provide focus group, observational, or survey data (unless the survey data can be collected 100% anonymously). And since a doctoral researcher is required to perform all data collection personally, it is not an option to employ a research assistant to collect data.

What options do I have for studying my own subordinates? (Or my students? My patients?)

Instead of interviews and focus groups, researchers in authority positions are encouraged to either conduct fully anonymous surveys or to perform secondary analysis of operations data that their subordinates generate* such as work output or other information maintained in an organization’s records.

Advantages of secondary analysis include the following:

  • Since secondary analysis doesn’t involve asking each person to opt into extra tasks that solely serve research purposes, a secondary analysis approach often results in the researcher having a more complete and less biased dataset than an opt-in approach.
  • Secondary analysis is often a more sustainable model for the organization to use/replicate in the future. In other words, it’s more feasible for an organization to repeat an analysis of operational records in subsequent years than to repeat a time-consuming interview or survey process.
  • Students usually find that a secondary analysis of records is less time-consuming than using an opt-in approach to collect original data collection for research purposes only.
  • Secondary analysis makes retrospective analyses possible whereas opt-in collection of original data limits the researcher to prospective analyses.

What kinds of data from my own subordinates may I incorporate into my doctoral research as a secondary analysis?

Researchers may analyze the following types of data from their OWN subordinates:

  • work products/output
  • operations data that the organization maintains (e.g., time/resources used for particular tasks, escalations)
  • staff variables maintained in records (training, years experience)
  • performance indicators (e.g., monthly sales, clients retained, outcomes)
  • scores on assessments that are regularly administered by the organization for non-research purposes
  • any type of data this is collected by the organization primarily for non-research purposes (with research being a secondary purpose)
  • any other data that is generated as a byproduct of regular organization operations

Note that the appropriate gatekeeper at the organization must release such data to be released specifically for research purposes, via a Data Use Agreement of some sort (using our template or the organization’s own standard template).

What if I want to analyze data from a survey (or other dataset) that my organization utilizes beyond the scope of my doctoral study?

While it would not be ethical for a doctoral student to leverage his/her authority in the organization to coerce employees into providing data in order to achieve the personal goal of completing a doctoral degree, there are many situations in which it is ethically appropriate for a researcher’s doctoral study to consist of a secondary analysis of data that was primarily collected for the organization’s needs (for example continuous improvement, staff development, funding requests, etc.). A secondary data analysis of an organization-wide assessment might be possible if ALL of the following questions can be answered with a “yes.”

  1. Aside from your study, would the data be directly used by the organization in some way that will directly benefit the organization? (for example: as part of continuous improvement, staff development, funding requests, etc.?)
  2. Is the organization comfortable overseeing this type of data collection under its own policies and procedures (including the organization’s own consent form, if applicable)?
  3. Is it possible for you to conduct your study without recording any names or other identifiers of individuals in your research records?
  4. Is the organization’s research gatekeeper (i.e., C.E.O. or designee) comfortable signing a data use agreement releasing the de-identified survey data to you for research purposes?
  5. (If applicable) This question only applies to those studies in which the researcher proposes to adjust some aspect of the organization’s standard data collection practices in order to make the data more amenable to research (for example atypical timing of data collection, use of alternative or additional data collection tools, adding a reflective component, etc.):

Has the organization’s research gatekeeper explicitly approved any adjustments you propose to data collection that would depart from regular practices? Note that this explicit approval must be indicated in the organization’s letter of cooperation.

  1. (If applicable) This final question only applies to those studies examining the outcomes of an intervention (i.e., any system or program implemented to obtain desired outcomes):

Is the organization agreeing to fully sponsor and supervise the target intervention within the scope of its standard operations? Note that this explicit approval must be indicated in the organization’s letter of cooperation.

Tips for avoiding delays and problems in the research approval process

Below are the solutions to the most frequently occurring ethical challenges in doctoral research:

  1. Use anonymous methods if possible.

This is the simplest way to avoid pressuring subordinates, students, or any other vulnerable individuals to participate in your doctoral research.

  1. Qualitative researchers should consider collecting data at a site other than their own organization.

While not impossible, it is particularly difficult to adjust qualitative data collection and analysis to address socially desirable responses, bias, conflict of interest, and undue pressure to participate due to the fact that anonymity is not easily provided with qualitative approaches. However, studying a site unfamiliar (or less familiar) to the researcher is one way of addressing these ethical dynamics.

  1. Pay very close attention to alignment among the research question, planned analyses, and types of data collection proposed.

The IRB can only approve those specific components of data collection that show promise of effectively addressing the research question(s).

  1. Use existing data whenever possible.

This avoids burdening others with risky or time-consuming tasks just for the sake of research. When the collection of new data poses substantial time demands or privacy/safety risks to participants, the research design will be closely examined so that the potential benefits can be weighed against potential risks. 

  1. Use existing measures whenever possible.

Unless the dissertation is being conducted specifically to validate a new measure, creating a new instrument is typically beyond the scope of a dissertation.