Whenever you plan to collect data, whether for a research study or for monitoring and evaluation purposes, you should always approach it with an ethical mindset. This means actively reflecting on the ethical issues that may arise throughout the whole process of data collection and thinking about whether your plans are appropriate and acceptable; starting from the initial design and planning of the work and continuing right through to the data analysis, reporting and dissemination phases.
To help ensure that planned data collection is ethical, many organisations produce their own guidelines. This may include checklists of dos and don’ts which set out the practical steps you should take to make sure that your work is ethical. If these guidelines are not available in your organisation or further guidance is needed there are also many tools available online to aid organisations in ethical data collection.
The primary purpose of all ethical guidelines relating to data collection is to protect the participants who are involved in the data collection from harm and to ensure that the data collected is credible and useful. It is also important, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, to protect data collectors from unnecessary risks.
Some things to take into consideration when carrying out any data collection include:
- Why is the work useful, necessary and feasible?
- To whom is the work useful, necessary and feasible?
- Why does the work need to be done now, here and with this community?
- Does the work need to be done by our organisation? If not how can we establish structures so that in future those who should be leading the work can do so?
- In what ways has the community been engaged about this project? How will this continue during the project?
- How can the design and conduct of the work be sensitive to the cultural, socioeconomic, environmental and political context?
- How can robust safeguarding policies and processes be put in place?
- How might the work put participants at additional risk? How can robust processes be put in place to manage and mitigate risks and maximise benefit?
- Can identity and data be protected and secure? This should include ensuring identity and confidentiality are protected across all data collection activities, from data collection, storage, analysis and reporting as well as when data is shared between collaborators.
- Is participation based on informed voluntary consent?
- Does the method and implementation respect people’s rights and dignity?
- Will the findings be maximised to improve programming and understanding?
- How will you share the findings of your study with the research participants?
Do I need to obtain formal ethical approval for my data collection?
If you are planning to collect operational data that will be used only internally as part of your organisation’s standard monitoring and evaluation activities to improve a specific practice or programme – i.e. you are not going to publish the data or the findings – then you do not need to obtain formal ethical approval from external review boards. However, you may still need to obtain permission to access certain places or populations and these applications should address any relevant ethical concerns. As outlined above, even if you do not need to obtain formal ethical approval, your project should still undergo a process of ethical reflection and planning.
If you are getting involved in a research project with the intention of gaining generalisable knowledge or publishable results then ethical approvals will need to be in place. In this instance, relevant protocols should be submitted for review. Research protocols can be submitted to the Institutional Review Boards (IRB) or RECs at universities or within government departments. Even if you are collaborating with a research institution based in another country that will be getting ethical clearance from their REC, it is important to also get ethical clearance in your country. You can find detailed ethical guidance for research, evaluation and monitoring activities from DFIDhere. If your organisation is not planning to submit for formal ethics approval it is still useful to think through the criteria set out in guidance like this. Seeking formal ethics approval is not the end of the ethics process - it is just the start. It is designed to encourage you to think through all the ethical aspects of your data collection so that you can put these principles in place throughout your work.
Want to learn more about ethics, consent, protection and risk for COVID-19 monitoring and evaluation?
- What tools are available to aid organisations in acting ethically while learning from communities?
- How can we ensure that participants are truly informed when they consent to take part in a remote data collection activity?