I think it’s fair to say that by and large, qualitative researchers are a bloody nice bunch. Well aren’t we? But can we stay ‘ethical’ (or even call ourselves ‘researchers’) in an increasingly digital future?

Perhaps it’s our refined ability to empathise that makes us so considerate (cue mass hug and high fives). Or maybe it’s a fundamental interest in human nature that attracts nice sorts to the profession.

Interesting challenges

However nice and considerate we may be, the demands of new digital methods — for example, listening to what people say in social media or using client products as incentives in online communities — are posing some interesting challenges to traditional notions of what ‘ethical qualitative research’ means.

As a 35-year-old celebrating 35 years of the AQR, I thought it fitting to explore what ‘ethical qualitative research’ means in a digital world, by asking the MRS and some big-thinking qualitative researchers on both sides of the 35-year-old divide. It’s proved to be an interesting and even philosophically and legally complex journey.

My reason for focusing on social media research and online communities is that, according to the 2015 GRIT report, these methods represent two of the three most relevant and progressive methods (along with mobile surveys). So clearly they are important to us as an industry.

Social media opens a window to what people say and share in public. In the words of Jack Wilson, 27, digital research manager at 2CV: “Accessing these unsolicited thoughts and opinions provides us with a rich layer of social context, allowing us to reveal insights for our clients sourced from naturally occurring online discourses.”

In a similar way, online communities also provide a more open path to insight. They give the speed and flexibility that traditional research struggles to deliver. Participants are pre-recruited, engaged and ready to respond. This means more questions can be asked at relatively lower cost and higher speed than in traditional research. However, they pose the additional challenge of how to afford high participation levels. The traditional cash incentive model can become too expensive given the high volume and frequency of dialogue.

So how do these methods challenge traditional notions of ethical qualitative research? And why might qualitative researchers require a name change? Before answering this, let’s consider what ‘ethical’ qualitative research might mean. Peter Totman, 49, head of qualitative at Jigsaw and long-time AQR Board member feels an ethical researcher is one who is ever-conscious of where the power lies in the different research scenarios and contexts. He thinks research participation means the participant “enters a world controlled by the researcher and this creates vulnerability”. However, he is at pains to emphasise “the subtleties of the relationship” and warns against black and white assumptions “that portray adult participants as mere children”.

The MRS has long played a vital role in setting a high standard of ethics for the industry. As Debrah Harding, managing director of the MRS puts it, its purpose is “to preserve the social contract between participants and researchers in order to protect the reputation of the industry and the rights of people taking part”.

It’s understandable that it takes a strict line on ethics. In the example of researching Twitter, the MRS only considers it ethical to quote someone verbatim if you first get that person’s consent. Or failing that, the comment has to be anonymised and paraphrased. This stance relates to concerns of breaching copyright (both of the person being quoted and potentially Twitter itself) and to avoid a situation in which a client could search for the comment online and then try and market to the individual who made it.

An alternative perspective comes from Peter Dann, 52, founding partner of The Nursery. He agrees with anonymising tweets in reports but takes a more pragmatic view: “quoting something someone has knowingly stated in public on Twitter is not unethical, as long as it is not inconveniencing them. Consent is implicit. In fact we conducted a survey asking people if they minded it, and the majority said they actively want to be heard by brands; that’s the whole point of Twitter.” Clearly the question of ethics — like the law — is open to interpretation, which makes it a complicated issue in our dynamic digital world.

What about the use of online communities for research? More and more companies want to use their products as incentives because it is more affordable and allows companies who can’t necessarily afford cash incentives to still do ‘research’. This, however, is considered unethical and not strictly research according to the MRS code (which is obliged to take this stance at the information commission’s insistance) because it is seen as promoting the aims of the company and so legally qualifies as direct marketing. This raises the question of whether qualitative consultants can even call themselves ‘researchers’ if participants are receiving incentives from the brand.

Research and marketing converge

Digital methods are contributing to a convergence between research and marketing. As Ray Poynter, 58, industry thought leader at The Future Place explains: “Online communities that generate insight but use the client’s products as incentives are by definition an act of marketing. So if they are used for insight purposes, they are likely to be called something like ‘customer intelligence’ rather than ‘research’. Although this might mean losing some exemptions to do with how long data can be held, companies’ need for agile insight that is more affordable and regular will often outweigh that particular cost.”

The ethics of research in a digital future is complicated. Since most codes of ethics were born in an analogue era, they are not necessarily tuned into the idiosynchracies of the digital age. In my view, as an industry, qualitative researchers need to secure their relevance to the future, without compromising the ethical spirit of the past. Like the MRS, I want to preserve the reputation of the industry by being fair to the people we research and by maintaining a high standard of insight.

I worry, however, that if we are too over-protective and cautious (by refusing, for example, to repeat what people say in social media or ignoring clients’ need for more affordable product incentives in online community research) then it could be to our detriment. The risk is that other non-trained consultants who apply less rigour (and indeed lower ethical standards) to qualitative research will fill the void left in these spaces. Ironically, as result of trying to protect our reputation, in the long term it could affect it negatively.

In my view representing what people say in open platforms like Twitter is in the interests of clients, researchers and the very people who — for the most part — I believe would rather their views are listened to and acted upon. I see them as empowered by Twitter and wanting to be heard rather than naïve and in need of protection. For me, the benefits of listening to and representing what people say outweigh the risk that these people are being exploited or that a client might use the information to market to them.

Pragmatism will ensure relevance

I think we need to be pragmatic to stay relevant. To get the most out of the online community model, this might mean describing what we do as a form of marketing rather than research, even if the main benefit to the client is insight. With regard to social media research, I think there is a need for more public consultation (whether that be via online community, social media reseach or good old fashioned group discussions and surveys!) to really understand how people feel about being listened to. It is ultimately their feelings and rights that we need to respect.

If we can balance the risks associated with progress with the needs of clients and our ethical duty to people, then we will have a better future, whatever we end up calling ourselves.