Ethical Considerations

Informed consent

In the From Boys to Men Project freely given, informed consent was sought in writing from every research participant. This process required the researcher to explain as fully as possible, and in terms easily understood by the young people, what the research was about, what being involved entailed, why the research was being undertaken, issues of confidentiality and what would be done with the research findings. Before giving consent to take part in the research, prospective participants were advised of the sensitive nature of the topics to be discussed so that they could make a fully informed decision about whether to participate.  Details about the research and participation were provided in an information sheet (the document used by the From Boys to Men researchers can be found in Research Materials and is free for you to use/adapt). The researcher also talked prospective participants through the information sheet and double-checked with them to ensure that they fully understood what they were agreeing to in signing the consent form. This provided an additional opportunity for them to clarify any issues that were of concern. The voluntary nature of participation was reiterated with participants so that no pressure was placed on young people by researchers to continue to participate in the research. This was considered particularly important for those recruited through criminal justice agencies who may have, by virtue of the requirements normally set down for them, felt coerced to take part. Those who did agree to take part were then shown how to use the recording device so they had some control over the process, thus able to stop the device if they did not want something they said to be recorded.

Ensuring confidentiality

In research of this kind, it is critical to be clear with participants regarding any limits to confidentiality. In order to get people who have been involved in crime or violence to talk about what they have done, it is necessary to provide a degree of confidentiality. For this reason only data that was academically important was collected, for example, the surnames of the people interviewed were not recorded neither were their dates of birth, phone numbers or addresses. Every effort was made to anonymize the data. To ensure anonymity, any information which could be used to identify the young person e.g. place names, their own names, names of family members and friends etc. were removed. It was decided that this would be done at the point of transcription so that no data remained with any identifying information within it. This does add time to the transcription process, as care needs to be taken to secure consistency in the attribution of pseudonyms, particularly when participants’ have described many relationships. It is important to be able to track the different points during interviews where participants refer to the same individuals. It clearly follows that such pseudonyms are then used in any written dissemination of the findings.

To ensure confidentiality, audio recordings, interview transcripts and all data were stored on a password protected computer and in a locked filing cabinet until deleted. Typically, participants were assured of confidentiality and advised that the information they share with the researcher would not be disclosed to other individuals. Nevertheless, there were limits to confidentiality. All participants were instructed that if they indicated that they or someone else was at significant risk of harm then the researchers would, at the very least, have to consider sharing that information with the service providers who had facilitated the interview. This may well have limited what participants were willing to disclose. From the start of the From Boys to Men project, a multi-agency steering group was established and arrangements made with key professionals who could be consulted should the research team need advice on how to handle sensitive information disclosed during the research. Practitioners attempting to undertake research of this kind may be well placed to handle these kinds of disclosures, but care should be taken perhaps to ensure that they do not expose themselves to conflicts of interest between maintaining integrity in the research, avoiding risk for their employers, and maintaining viable working relationships with participants. The From Boys to Men researchers benefited from being independent of any criminal justice or support organizations as they were able to meet with participants who did not expect to have contact with them again.

On one occasion, the researchers made one disclosure to probation staff regarding a participant who had not disclosed that he was a father, not wanting probation or social services to get involved, even though he claimed he had no contact with his child. Further information on how to manage disclosures in research has been provided by Williamson et al. (2005).

Payment to participants

A £10 gift voucher was offered to most participants to compensate for the time, inconvenience and any expenses they incurred. The use of such incentives is not uncontroversial and has been given some attention in the literature (Fry et al., 2006; Seddon, 2005; McKeganey, 2001). It is argued that offering incentives provides good value for money (Seddon, 2005: 107) and amounts to a suitable fee for a service in providing their knowledge (Noaks & Wincup, 2004: 150). Some also acknowledge that participants should be compensated for the time they could have spent getting paid in other ways as not to do so would be exploitative (Maher, 2000: 215). Arguments against paying research participants include that it may be seen as rewarding illegal behaviour or that it poses risks to organizations charged with managing offenders and protecting the public. In this study, it was not permissible to offer compensation to the majority of participants on probation as this was regarded as ethically problematic by probation management in terms of enabling offenders to profit from their criminal activity. In such instances, participants were offered travel expenses instead, and allowed to count the hour spent in interview as time spent under supervision.

Safety protocol

Finally, the concerns of ethics committees more recently have turned to minimising the harm posed to the researcher in research encounters, particularly where this involves going to potentially dangerous locations or meeting with potentially violent research participants. Where possible, the research team followed the following safety protocol.

  • All the interviewees will be referred to the research team by organisations working to support young people. Most, if not all, interviews will take place in these organisations’ premises. The research will follow the safety protocols set down by these organisations.
  • The time and place for interviews will be in locations where the researcher and the participant feel safe.
  • The researcher will carry a mobile phone at all times.
  • When conducting fieldwork the researcher will leave details of his/her whereabouts with another member of the research team.
  • The researcher will not carry expensive equipment and will leave a situation immediately if he/she feels unsafe.
  • Regular debriefing meetings will be held between members of the research team to discuss issues arising from the fieldwork with the aim of minimising the risk of emotional/psychological stress to researchers.