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Code pluses and minuses

The MRS Code of Conduct has now been brought bang up to date and, warns Oliver Murphy, researchers may need to reassess how they conduct their work and organise their contractual terms and conditions

Back in October 2004, the AQR received a letter from the MRS about revisions to the Code of Conduct document and asking for any comments during the Consultation period.

Anyone who was an MRS member at that time should have received their very own copy of the consultation request and, of course, will by now have received the end result, namely the freshly revised MRS Code of Conduct 2005.

The whole process was handled by the PSC (Professional Standards Committee), now known as the MRSB (Market Research Standards Board), who have had to juggle competing demands from various UK market research trade bodies as well as the views of Esomar.

The consultation exercise apparently attracted a huge number of responses, not just from trade organisations but most importantly from individual MRS members. Democracy is obviously alive and kicking in the ranks of us researchers!

The Code of Conduct is something very easy to tuck away on a shelf (and in the back of our minds) but it is a very important document. It regulates not only how qualitative researchers (should) do their jobs — from recruiting to moderating through to reporting — but also how clients may use the output materials and results.

The interrelationship between field researcher and client is becoming ever more important and we should be reading this Code from the point of view of whether we now need to tighten up and formalise not only how we conduct research but also how we organise our contractual terms and conditions.

How different is the new Code?

At heart, this is a thorough clean-up operation. Many elements of the old Code have been nicely rewritten for clarification, some bits have been removed and a few rules added. Perhaps the most important issues lie with the Data Protection Act 1998 and its impact on qualitative practice and usage. On this theme, key issues are:

  • Understanding what is meant by the respondent’s ‘Identity’ and what is thought to reveal or protect it.
  • What sort of data needs to be anonymised and when.
  • How respondents’ rights should be respected (even when they give permission to be quoted).
  • What the duties of MRS members are during the process.

Respondent Identity

One of the key tenets of market research activity is that those who participate have a right to expect that their identity is kept confidential — unless otherwise agreed. Personal Identity is defined in the Data protection Act 1998 and summarised in the Code of Conduct as follows:


The identity of a respondent includes, as well as his/her name and/or address, any other information which offers a reasonable chance that he/she can be identified by anyone who has access to the information.

In qualitative terms, this ‘other information’ will be all the output such as drawings, bubble pictures, collages and other projective or enabling materials. The Rule is that all this material must be anonymised (Rule B42) unless prior, and explicit, permission has been obtained from the respondents to allow identification.

This means removing all names and other identity marks (e.g. work origin, face, distinctive turn of phrase, distinctive clothing) from transcripts, audio and video tapes and projective/completion materials. This latter stringent approach is suggested by the current Draft Qualitative Guidelines 2003, but I believe that the DPA does not unequivocally classify all these support materials as Personal Data per se. According to the Act, Personal data means “data which relates to a living individual who can be identified from the data”.

Thus, it is not the precise form of data that counts but only their ability to allow someone else to identify a respondent’s identity from them. Clearly a name and address will allow identification but projective material may not enable personal identification at all. Indeed, in my view this makes them only potentially classifiable as personal data.

This view may be tested during the forthcoming Consultation on the revised Qualitative Guidelines that will take place early in 2006.

This aim and right of anonymity is sometimes somewhat stressed by the fact that the interviewing process is often witnessed by clients (viewing theatres, accompanied shops, in home work, etc.,) and researchers make much more use of illustrative materials (photos, drawings, stories, scrap books) when delivering findings.

As qualitative research relies, ever increasingly, on the depth and completeness of the stories we tell about our research participants — illustrating these stories through whole personal identities is becoming more the rule and less the exception. This means that we must be very careful about

  • Getting prior permission from our respondents for open identification and
  • Defining (with clients) how the research output will be used.

‘Permission for What?’

The Code is again specific in its requirement that if a respondent does give permission for their identity to be revealed (directly or via data) then members must:

  • Demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that it will only be used for the purpose for which it was collected, and
  • Fully inform Respondents as to what will be revealed, to whom and for what purpose. (B9)

This is not new in itself, but the DPA 1998 gives it extra bite. It also sounds fine in principle but it is very difficult to know, in advance, how data will be used. That fabulous collage board that the researcher produced for the debrief contains pictures, quotes and analysis ideas.

It makes a great way of briefing the advertising agency but who thought of that when starting the work, so it needs to be anonymised without losing its true flavour. Equally, it is hard for client researchers to control their own inner clients if they want to make use of illustrative materials in their next workshop session.

Promoting the Rules

It is up to members to ensure that everyone in the process knows what is expected by the Code of Conduct. In practice this means that, if observers are to be present, the member informs them “fully about their legal and ethical responsibilities” (B36). Hopefully, either the MRS or AQR will help out by producing something we can all send/hand out to observers, as a lengthy discussion on the issue is just what researchers do not need just before the group starts.

Some of the (original) Rules and Guidelines may not be easy to ‘enforce’ on observers. For example, did you know that as observers you are not meant to note down respondents’ personal data (name, lifestage, employer, home area) and if you recognise any respondent you must immediately leave the observation session?

What about the way observers are introduced in B2B or employee research? The Guidelines suggest that “if guarantees (about anonymity and recognition) cannot be given then the researcher must ensure that observers are fully introduced before the group/interview begins and respondents given a chance to withdraw”.

Much of the new Code of Conduct suggests that we all ought to get much more formal and deliberate about the way we conduct our business. The Code expects there to be written contracts between all parties and sorting out in advance how any research output data might be used or publicised will save a lot of headaches and embarrassment. These expectations are even more important when working for overseas clients who might be surprised about the very concept of client anonymity and expect all the data to be automatically available.

Guideline Documents

The MRS Code of Conduct is meant to be read in conjunction with certain sector-specific Guideline documents. Most of these contain non-binding Best Practice Guidelines but they do usefully try to interpret the general Code of Conduct for particular activities.

I have referred to the Qualitative Research Guidelines but there are others such as ‘Children and Young Persons’, ‘Business to Business’, ‘Mystery Shopping’, ‘Employee research’ and Internet research. Many of these are currently being re-written so if you do work in these areas I would advise you to have a look at what they say and contact the MRSB with any comments (before they become binding).

There is also a document on what are called ‘Mixed Purpose Projects’, i.e. (market research plus one other activity such as marketing or sales). There seems to be more of this about and it calls for its own caveats regarding how respondents are treated but the same rules govern the market research element.

The Ins and the Outs

On the plus side, the MRS has kindly dropped the requirement that “Marketing research must always be carried out objectively and in accordance with established scientific principles”. While I am confident of the robust basis for qualitative practice, I was never quite sure about what was meant by those important sounding ‘established scientific principles’.

Another thing that has also been dropped from the Code is the old requirement for commissioners of research to invite only up to four agencies to tender (or to let them know if it’s above this number). One can only speculate as to whether this means that research commissioners are now naturally more reasonable with their agencies or agencies have just given up hoping.

So while most of the new Code of Conduct is an update and not entirely new, it’s useful to remind ourselves of our obligations under it as our MRS membership is conditional on us honouring its terms.

 

Oliver Murphy
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2006