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Session and Workshop Abstracts

Session 3C (S3C) - Abstracts

'Ethically Charged' Research: Researcher responsibility when conducting sensitive research

Paper 1: Sex trafficking, ethics and empowerment: Reflections on data collection (during COVID-19 pandemic) with survivors of sex trafficking

Speaker(s): Ileana-Maria Turda

Keywords:  sex trafficking research, ethics, gatekeepers, empowerment, oppression,


Abstract: Research on sex trafficking is confronted with various ethical considerations and dilemmas when victims and survivors are involved as participants. Sex trafficking raises questions of justice and human rights violations and the multifaceted-long-term effects of the exploitation. In addressing trafficking and informing effective policies, scholars recommend micro-scale in-depth empirical research as it addresses cases and their particularities (Cockbain & Kleemans, 2019; Weitzer, 2014). Although there is considerable research in this area, victim and survivor participation is limited (Broad & Turnbull, 2019; Richardson et al., 2016). Nevertheless, survivors are experts concerning their experiences and can provide authentic and accurate accounts, highlighting the complexity of their experiences. Access to victims and survivors is a significant challenge in research (Cwikel & Hoban, 2005; Vearey et al., 2017), which brings further concerns. T


he need to include vulnerable and marginalised communities in research aims to avoid further marginalisation and exclusion, reduce the risk of limited understanding of their contexts, and further construct the social world without their input (Melrose, 2011 in Pearce et al., 2013). Hence, their participation is crucial and highly valuable. Additionally, scholars recognise the therapeutical and healing potential of sharing ones’ story if handled with care and attention (Pascual-Leone, Kim & Morrison, 2017). While these arguments are strong, women’s participation poses ethical questions as their previous experiences are often traumatic, and therefore the possibility of harm remains. This paper is inspired by an ongoing doctoral study in the UK and Romania, which explores Romanian women's post-trafficking trajectories. It provides a critical overview of challenges encountered in research planning and online data collection, the roles of gatekeeps, and ‘the question of ethics’ as being used both as a tool for empowerment or further oppression.


At the core of the research, agency, strengths and resilience of survivors aim to create space for empowerment and highlight their resources. While access to participants represented an obstacle, it also created an opportunity for reflection on ethics and the balance between empowerment and further oppression. In this equation, gatekeepers' role is highly acknowledged (Brunovskis & Surtees, 2010), and it navigates between good practices in working with trafficked women or reinforcing predominant narratives of victimhood (Cojocaru, 2015; 2016; Kempadoo, 2015). Additionally, gatekeepers find themselves in difficult positions due to research saturation and the quality and impact sought. Hence, creating dialogue, building trust, ensuring high-quality research represent a few elements that need a mutual agreement in this process. "

Paper 2: Creating ethics support systems for social research on gender-based violence

Speaker(s): Katarzyna Struzińska

Keywords: social research ethics; ethics helpdesk

Abstract: Social research with human participants is always connected with ethical concerns and potential risks which should be mitigated. These aspects become more challenging when the research topic is ethically charged and a studied sample comprises vulnerable groups. A good example of such sensitive and ethically complex research is the study of gender-based violence (GBV). Development of knowledge on GBV in the specific context of research performing organisations is a focus of the international project ‘Gender-based violence and institutional responses: Building a knowledge base and operational tools to make universities and research organisations safe’ (UniSAFE) funded by EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020. UniSAFE research design combines desk-based research on legal and policy framework (in 30 countries), a quantitative survey on prevalence and consequences of GBV (to be implemented in 45 research organisations in 15 countries) and qualitative research (case studies and interviews) on organisational responses to GBV. Regarding the importance of ethics in such comprehensive research, the UniSAFE consortium decided to make it a topic of its own. Consequently, a separate work package dedicated to ethics and research integrity was established. 

The presentation will discuss selected measures introduced by this work package to address different ethical aspects of the multilevel research on GBV and ensure that the project’s implementation follows critical ethical principles of non-malfeasance, beneficence, respect for individuals and justice. Particular attention will be given to creating the project’s Ethics Helpdesk – an advisory body available for both research team members and research participants – that, together with Ethics Guidance Package, provides the ethical framework of the UniSAFE studies. To illustrate the variety of factors to consider while establishing a sound ethics support for a social research project, such issues as an adapted model of the Ethics Helpdesk, its roles and tasks, principles guiding its functioning and communication about its existence will be presented in detail. 


Paper 3: Where does the buck stop? Being a Responsible Researcher with vulnerable populations and sensitive topics When Running Qualitative Psychological Research.

Speaker(s): Lindsay Lenton-Maughan

Keywords: Dynamic Ethics, Student Research, Qualitative Enquiry


Abstract: I have 10 years’ experience as a youth support worker, working with adolescents aged 12-19, before embarking on my studies as a mature Psychology student. I am now in my final year of PhD studies that investigate adolescent anti-social behaviour. During my experience of running qualitative studies, I have noted several issues that, at worst, could cause harm to vulnerable participants and at best cause ethical dilemmas for unskilled student researchers and further their supervisors. Academia can be toxically data driven and competitive, particularly in the sciences, psychology included. In part due to this, ethical considerations may sometimes be overlooked. 

Purpose: This talk aims to discuss the issues that could arise when inexperienced researchers run research on sensitive topics and with vulnerable populations. I will address some key factors which could lead to harm for vulnerable participants.


These include, the power dynamic in the room and during recruitment, dealing with disclosure which can be a very real issue for unskilled student psychology researchers who may be unaware of the procedure to follow or whether they can break confidence, and managing endings. Just like in a therapeutic relationship, the ending of a qualitative study/interview/focus group can be experienced as a therapeutic process and should be managed as such. Handling these issue well requires training that student researchers and, quite often, their supervisors do not have. 

Conclusions: Issues identified can be counteracted by viewing ethics as a dynamic process and by taking personal responsibility for ensuring ethically sound practice. Ways in which this can be achieved will be discussed alongside how Psychology researchers can learn from collaborative and cross discipline approaches to the ethical process. 

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