Research integrity and the qualitative researcher

Kathryn Roulston

Trust is a crucial component of the enterprise of scientific research. That is because scholars trust others to

  • conduct research ethically with human subjects,
  • accurately report the methods that they used in research project,
  • fairly review manuscripts for publication, and
  • represent findings honestly.

Nevertheless, researchers do not always behave in honest and trustworthy ways.

For example, just this week, there have been reports in The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education that Carlos Croce, a prolific researcher at Ohio State University is being investigated for possible research misconduct. In the US, researchers found guilty of misconduct are listed by the Office of Research Integrity, along with case descriptions and administrative actions.  This website also provides training materials on research integrity.

Responsible Conduct of Research

In an effort to prepare researchers to conduct research of integrity, in the US, training in Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) is now a required component of continuing professional development for federal funding. RCR deals with much more than ethical treatment of human subjects – which is a topic that has been much written about in methodological literature on qualitative research. The four areas covered by RCR include (Macrina, 2014, p. 18):

  1. subject protection
  2. research integrity
  3. environmental and safety issues
  4. fiscal accountability.

The history of ethical problems in scientific research

Science has a long and shameful history of doing research that harmed human subjects (Beecher, 2001; Reverby, 2009). In the Nuremburg Trials after World War II when Nazi doctors were being tried for experimenting on human subjects, one of the defenses used was that the very same thing was being done in the United States (Reverby, 2009, p. 66). What was referred to here were experimental studies on prisoners (Hornblum, 1999). Thus, historical agreements, including

have been crucial to the development of ethical oversight of biomedical research. This also extends into social research that uses qualitative methods.

IRBs and Ethical review

Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) (also known as ethical review boards in some countries) have oversight of research protocols that involve human subjects. Within qualitative methodological literature much has been written on the ethical oversight of research, and the ways in which IRB regulations, which are based on biomedical research, do not fit with the ways in which qualitative research is conducted (e.g., Bosk & de Vries, 2004; Gunsalus et al., 2007; Johnson, 2008). This is particularly so for action and participatory forms of research, ethnography, and autoethnography and self-studies. Some of the main critiques emanating from qualitative scholars have focused on the role of the Institutional Review Board, and “mission creep” – that is, arguments are made that IRBs interfere with the academic freedom of researchers to design and conduct qualitative studies of merit. Another issue is that many times new technologies are used by researchers in ways that outstrip current regulations. Further, the ways in which institutional IRBs implement federal regulations differ; so it is possible for some research protocols to be approved in one institution, and denied in another. For example, I was surprised to read about some of the problems students had with gaining IRB approval in another setting (Janesick, 2010), as I don’t think these would have been encountered at my own institution.

Ethical research

Among qualitative researchers, there is not always agreement as to the best ethical course of action. As an example, Tisdale (2004) shows in her chapter how different philosophical approaches to ethical decision-making might result in different courses of actions. Yet, moral philosophies (Birsch, 2014; Rachels & Rachels, 2012), which are many and varied, are helpful to think about the following issues when faced with an ethical dilemma:

  • What are the conflicting issues?
  • Who are the stakeholders, and what are their interests?
  • What professional codes of conduct apply?
  • What are guiding regulations that might pertain to the dilemma?
  • What are the consequences of potential courses of actions for involved parties?

There is no question that qualitative researchers need to be aware of the ethical implications of their decision making throughout the research process – from designing and conducting a study, to writing up and representing findings. More broadly, qualitative researchers need to conduct themselves with integrity as part of the broader scientific community – this includes the ways in which researchers collaborate with others, and the ways in which they deal with others’ work as reviewers and editors for conferences and publications.

Research Misconduct

Researchers are human, and do make mistakes. When researchers take actions that involve lying, this is researcher misconduct. From an institutional viewpoint, researcher misconduct is defined as involving:

  • Falsification of data
  • Fabrication of data
  • Plagiarism

To avoid these types of researcher misconduct, it is important for qualitative researchers to provide mentorship and guidance to new scholars. There is a rich body of literature to help with this, including the following texts (Macrina, 2014; Sieber & Tolich, 2013; Tolich, 2016).

I hope that these resources are helpful as you consider what it means to be a qualitative researcher conducting research of integrity. As always, all the best with your research.


Beecher, H. K. (2001). Ethics and clinical research. Bulletin Of The World Health Organization, 79(4), 367-372.

Birsch, D. (2014). Introduction to ethical theories: A procedural approach. Long Grove, Il: Waveland Press.

Bosk, C. L., & de Vries, R. G. (2004). Bureaucracies of mass deception: Institutional Review Boards and the ethics of ethnographic research. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 595, 249-263.

Gunsalus, C. K., Bruner, E. M., Burbules, N. C., Dash, L., Finkin, M., Goldberg, J. P., . . . Aronson, D. (2007). The Illinois White Paper: Improving the system for protecting human subjects: Counteracting IRB “Mission Creep”. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(5), 617-649. doi:10.1177/1077800407300785

Hornblum, A. M. (1999). Acres of skin: human experiments at Holmesburg prison. A true story of abuse and exploitation in the name of medical science. New York: Routledge.

Janesick, V. J. (2010). Oral history for the qualitative researcher: Choreographing the story. New York & London: The Guilford Press.

Johnson, T. S. (2008). Qualitative research in question: A narrative of disciplinary power with/in the IRB. Qualitative Inquiry, 14(2), 212-232.

Macrina, F. L. (Ed.) (2014). Scientific integrity: Text and cases in responsible conduct of research (4th ed.). Washington, DC: ASM Press.

Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2012). The elements of moral philosophy (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Reverby, S. (2009). Examining Tuskegee : The infamous syphilis study and its legacy. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill.

Sieber, J. E., & Tolich, M. B. (2013). Planning ethically responsible research (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Tisdale, K. (2004). Being vulnerable and being ethical with/in research. In K. B. DeMarrais & S. D. Lapan (Eds.), Foundations of research: Methods of inquiry in education and the social sciences (pp. 13-30). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Tolich, M. (2016). Qualitative ethics in practice. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.


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