Ethics of care for the DVSA researcher
Updated: Mar 8, 2020
For researchers in the DVSA fields it is standard practice that your research will need to be first approved by Human Research Ethics Committees (also known by other names internationally, such as Institutional Review Boards in the US). Interviews with victim-survivors of DVSA are usually considered high-risk, whereas a survey with DVSA practitioners might be considered low-risk. However, both of these applications still consider the potential risks to your participants. In order to get approval for your project you will need to demonstrate that you have considered, as well as put procedures in place, that will:
Clearly explain your project, the aims, benefits and outcomes for participants;
Explore the potential risks and harms of your project to participants. This could include the potential for upset due to questions asked. You will usually have to detail how you will minimise these risks, and then what you will do to offer support;
Confidentiality and privacy of your participants;
Safety protocols during the research. Such as how you will contact participants and where you will conduct the research;
The questions you will ask;
Any follow-up with the participant, such as providing transcripts to be reviewed.
However, there is usually limited inclusion in these risks for the actual researchers themselves. There are sometimes questions in ethics applications related to the physical safety of researchers, such as ensuring that researchers carry mobile phones and check in with supervisors and co-researchers while doing field work. But what about the risk of vicarious trauma to the researcher? Should human research ethics committees be including researchers in their ethical standards?
We are not the first to be asking these questions. Coles, Astbury, Dartnell and Limjerwala (2014) note that research ethics guidelines are focused on the protection and wellbeing of the research participants, with a belief that this has increased participant safety from research related harm. However, they argue that this selective focus has resulted in a neglect of the safety and protection of researchers. In their study on the impact of sensitive research on transcribers, Kiyimba and O’Reilly (2015) argue that ethics committees should play a role in protecting both the research team and research participants. While they do not believe that researcher safety should be the primary concern of ethics committees, they suggest that there should at least be prompts for the researchers to reflect and consider the impact of the research on those conducting the study. Similarly, Dominey-Howes (2015) in their reflection on the emotional trauma of conducting post-disaster research, suggests that the ethics application process should include questions on the potential emotional impacts of the study on researchers, and to identify steps they will take to look after themselves and their teams.
It is difficult to know exactly what the right pathway is here. Ethics applications as they are, are quite time-consuming and arduous. Adding researcher care to ethics application could just become another bureaucratic hurdle to jump. However, there could be several benefits, for example:
It may prompt institutions and research supervisors to the potential risks to researchers;
It could encourage more conversation around how we care for researchers and their mental wellbeing, as well as putting in place systems and procedures that are standard. This may ensure that researchers don’t feel uncomfortable asking for assistance, such as external supervision, as it is routine practice for those doing research in potentially traumatising fields, such as DVSA;
It could take some of the pressure off individual researchers who often have to juggle multiple aspects of their jobs, such as supervising students and teaching, while conducting their own research to know that they won’t be judged for needing to take a break from their research as this is an option outlined in the ethics application;
It could create awareness for PhD students and early career researchers about support that is available to them, and about how they can sustain their work in the DVSA fields.
Even if ethics applications do not cover the risks to researchers, those leading research in the DVSA field could include care practices as standard in their teams. This may include:
Discussing the potential impacts of DVSA research on mental health and wellbeing (for example exploring the mental and physical aspects of vicarious trauma but also vicarious resilience);
Ensuring that there are people available for researchers to debrief with immediately after interviews/field work. As well as providing the option for external clinical supervision sessions for all of the research team;
Being flexible with timelines if researchers need breaks. Ensure that researchers know going into the project that you are willing and open to them contacting you about timelines;
Informing those doing the transcribing that they may be hearing distressing material. Offering support if need be;
Acknowledging that the impacts of the research could continue past the project timeline. Presenting papers, writing up different aspects of the research, can also be potentially traumatising;
Creating space in the research timeline for your research team to discuss issues and support one another. This could be monthly meetings, where you can meet and talk about the research itself, but also check in with how everyone is going;
Model a willingness to be open about the impacts of this research work with your team. This can be both the good, and the bad of how it has impacted your life. You don’t have to reveal all the ins and outs of your life, but if you allow yourself to show your team that you are human, and that this research impacts you, it can give them permission to also be honest about how the work is impacting them;
Encourage self-care as a standard practice for all of those in your team, as well as yourself. This means that your team should see that you take care of yourself, and that you support them in their own self-care practices too.
Research into DVSA will always leave an impact on the researchers. This can be short-term or long-lasting, and can include vicarious trauma as well as vicarious resilience. Acknowledging this as part of the ethics process, whether formally, or informally, is an important step in creating awareness of the impacts of DVSA research, as well as creating a supportive structure for researchers in the DVSA field.
Coles, J., Astbury, J., Dartnall, E., & Limjerwala, S. (2014). A qualitative exploration of researcher trauma and researchers’ responses to investigating sexual violence. Violence against women, 20(1), 95-117.
Dominey-Howes, D. (2015). Seeing ‘the dark passenger’–reflections on the emotional trauma of conducting post-disaster research. Emotion, Space and Society, 17, 55-62.
Kiyimba, N., & O’Reilly, M. (2015). The risk of secondary traumatic stress in the qualitative transcription process: a research note. Qualitative Research, 16(4), 468–476. http://doi.org/10.1177/1468794115577013