Section 3: Protecting Research Participants, Clients, and Ourselves

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the Applying Best Practices section
  1. Protect human subjects in research projects.  Many of us engage in some form of research, whether foundational, exploratory, experimental, or evaluative.  A lynchpin of protection, informed consent obtained from research participants, typically covers issues such as the voluntary nature of the project, potential risks and benefits, data protection and privacy, utilization of findings, and incentives.  Some work environments include individuals considered “vulnerable” (e.g., those in schools, nursing homes, hospitals).  Informed consent is an especially critical issue with children and youth, the elderly, undocumented immigrants, persons who are homeless, and others who may be in a position to be coerced.  This issue is covered in human subjects training. Samples of informed consent forms can be found online, but they will always need to be adapted for the specific circumstances.

  2. Obtain human subjects training.  Online courses help to keep us current with key ethical issues of human subjects’ research along with the appropriate level of coursework and experience that provide grounding in how to protect subjects. They can create awareness about potential legal exposure regarding consent and taking needed steps up front to mitigate possible infringements on informed consent.  Relevant training is offered through the National Institutes of Health course, “Human Subjects Protections Training” (https://humansubjects.nih.gov/resources).  The Collaborative Institutional Training Institute (CITI) training also offers a program (https://about.citiprogram.org/en/homepage/).  Employers of research anthropologists (e.g., federal government, sector-specific organizations) will typically require such training.  Some employers may provide their own related training.

  3. Explore IRB compliance.  Most anthropologists understand the value of and generally support the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process available through an institution of higher learning (university) or other source.  The IRB process often poses a challenge to project timelines and activities, but the extra measure of protection for research participants can be worthwhile for both them and the researchers.  International IRB standards vary widely and must be assessed through this lens; thus, it is important to factor in sufficient time to ensure compliance.  However, compliance is not mandated or supported by many employers/clients.  In-house researchers would not necessarily be allowed by their employers to submit a research protocol through a university IRB process—particularly for research considered proprietary.  Anthropologists without a primary university affiliation would be unable to submit a research project as the lead researcher.  Consequently, the IRB process presents complexities that must be considered during research planning.  At the very least, however, we should do our best to adhere to best practices in conducting research with study participants.

  4.   Secure data protection, privacy, and preservation.  The informed consent process typically specifies data use and protections, as well as dissemination of findings.  All data should be protected equally.  In studies involving drug use, trauma, neglect, criminal behavior, undocumented immigrant status, and other sensitive areas, special care is required—particularly in conversations and presentations—so that individuals and groups, or the affiliations of those whose privacy has been assured are not inadvertently identified.  Before conducting research, consider whether there is a need for long-term preservation of any documents created by the research and, if so, how to preserve them. Most organizations have a policy to address data storage.

  5. Establish ownership of intellectual property.  Contracts between employees and organizations, like those between consultants and clients, typically outline ownership of intellectual property.  In employer/employee scenarios, or within team activities, negotiation of data ownership may be prohibited.  Alternately, the fine lines may become blurred, such as what counts as proprietary information; who has access to the findings, analyses, and insights and for what purposes; and who benefits financially from a patent.  Consultants often have greater flexibility in negotiating data ownership compared with full-time employees.  As a consultant, always negotiate data ownership clearly in writing—including analyses and results—with the client at the outset of a project or activity.

  6. Consider compensating research respondents and/or participants.  In the U.S., public willingness to complete questionnaires or participate in focus groups has been declining for years.  During the unprecedented 2020-21 pandemic shutdown, when many people stayed at home as much as possible, public willingness to participate in focus groups may have increased.  However, the downward trend is likely to resume when the pandemic recedes. Many survey companies and federal agencies offer financial incentives or honoraria to compensate respondents for their contributions; organizations are sometimes motivated to improve data quality by increasing, or at least maintaining, response rates through incentives. Incentives also acknowledge the time and feedback that respondents provide. In any case, compensation may be especially welcomed by those who are low-income or somehow disadvantaged, or those who are distrustful of authority or unknown figures.  For accounting and records, respondents should complete and sign voucher sheets to document incentive receipt (e.g., cash, gift card).  However, be aware that in some public contexts, such as some universities, there are often constraints on such compensation.

  7. Uphold the integrity of the ethnographic process when clients and other stakeholders observe research activities.  Clients and stakeholders may wish to observe individual and group interviews. This opportunity enables them to learn directly from participants and experience open-ended questions and other features of the ethnographic process.  However, it is important to provide clients and stakeholders with a brief introduction to ethnographic methods prior to any data gathering.  Ask them to remain silent while you work with study participants, and reserve their questions until you have finished.  This kind of observational experience for them can lead to fruitful discussion among researchers, clients, and stakeholders.

  8. Represent research participants carefully.  Project analyses of participants or groups of participants may carry significant weight in how decision makers proceed.  It is important to think through and assess all conclusions carefully.  Do not be rushed or arbitrary, particularly when working with specialized groups with no access to the findings and conclusions, and who may be unable to present alternative perspectives.  Offset this potential issue by validating the results and recommendations with study participants and/or knowledgeable specialists.  Validation enables us to have confidence in project findings, conclusions, recommendations, tools, interventions, and other deliverables.

  9. Understand how to protect yourself and negotiate protections with clients. Be aware of and learn how to keep safe from potential physical, emotional, and mental harm.  We deal with many types of people, not always in the best of circumstances.  Think through all possible things that could go wrong:  respondent violence, random street theft, flat tires in remote areas, being isolated on unfriendly turf, not to mention emotional and mental duress from hearing heart-breaking stories of others, having verbal abuse aimed at you, or learning about harm done to others.  Anticipate as possible, and do not undertake risks without adequate planning and preparation.  If you find yourself going into a situation that makes you feel under threat, consider seeking help through the following potential sources, depending on the specifics of your situation:  your current boss, an HR process, grant program managers, consular or embassy officials, nearby colleagues, and/or powerful local leaders or groups.  If you can find no way to resolve the situation, you may choose to exit the project before matters escalate further.

  10. Be firm with client payments.  Applied anthropologists working as consultants may occasionally come across a client who delays, disputes, or refuses payment for work done.   Along with your contract, a paper trail as noted above gives you a record of what was agreed to when, and what was done. Always try to clarify expectations from the start and be aware of changes in client responses and attitudes.  If you find yourself in such a situation, put messaging out to colleagues (while keeping client names private) to see how others have handled situations like yours.  Try to go up the chain of command as possible but know that leadership will usually side with their employees and not an outsider.  If matters cannot be resolved cordially or through compromise, consider the pros and cons of taking legal action.
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