Research Ethics in HCI: A Reflection on Institutions and Practice

My undergraduate dissertation project involved human participants. Before starting data collection, I was required to submit an application to the university ethics committee for approval. I found the formal process useful in identifying risks as element of research design. However, the process resembled a risk assessment with the objective of obtaining informed consent as a legalistic waiver for the university and the researcher. The process encouraged me to be paternalistic and transactional with research ethics and inhibited me from making adjustments to the project.

As a workaround, Munteanu et al. (2015) have suggested submitting multiple possible research scenarios for approval to allow adjustments to be pre-approved within existing institutional procedures. This would be followed up with an open dialogue around ethics where adjustments would be outside the existing approval. However, Brown et al. (2016) point out that HCI research involving iterative and collaborative co-design and co-creation processes in practice may look radically different from that originally envisaged. To open up a space for critique, openness and reflexivity, they suggest a pre-trial and pre-publication peer-review process with an ethical statement explaining the outcome and its relevance to be published alongside the research.

Brown et al. (2016) discuss anonymity as an ethical problem in HCI research. Anonymity is not necessarily achievable as search algorithms and the availability of data make identification achievable through non-traditional identifiers such as tweeting style, references to locations and image recognition. Nor is anonymity necessarily desirable. Imposing anonymity as a default position on the assumption that participants need to be protected and want to be anonymous may limit the value of participation where a community has a message to communicate. In a social media context, interactions such as sharing, liking, commenting and recognition are important motivators for participation. In my undergraduate project, I imposed anonymity on the participants within a private interaction forum because I thought it was something I ought to do. In doing so I may have undermined the drivers for the very interactions I was seeking to study. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to apply a dynamic, relational approach to HCI research ethics between researchers and participants.

This idea of imposing restrictions on research for ethical reasons is something Brown et al. (2016) also explore. They question the institution of informed consent as based on false assumptions that give a veneer of validity at the cost of censoring research. They question the institutional review board approach to ethics as a further censoring of research, particularly as the members apply their experience of working in their own paradigm to the unfamiliar context of HCI. They highlight the flaws in post-Milgram, post-Zimbardo research ethics by reframing the cost of bureaucracy in terms of human lives lost due to delays in medical research.

After reflecting on my own experience and our recent Research Ethics seminars, I agree with Brown et al. (2016) that the institutions and practice of research ethics in HCI requires a reflexive rethink.



Brown, B., Weilenmann, A., McMillan, D., & Lampinen, A. (2016). Five Provocations for Ethical HCI Research. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’16, 852–863.

Munteanu, C., Molyneaux, H., Moncur, W., Romero, M., O’Donnell, S., & Vines, J. (2015). Situational Ethics: Re-thinking Approaches to Formal Ethics Requirements for Human-Computer Interaction. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 105–114.

Author: Matthew Snape

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