This post was written by Jim McDermott for the VFR Hub.

The post is written as a conversation between a researcher and potential participant, exploring the reasons why people should consider participating in research.

Potential Participant (PP): “Why should I contribute to your research?”

Researcher:  “You are just the sort of person I need for my study.”

PP: “Yes, I suppose I am rather special but what good will it do me?”

Researcher: “Well, I will ask you some questions and your answers, along with those of other participants, will contribute to my study.  You will be helping me add to knowledge about my area of research.”

PP: “But that doesn’t answer my question; what good will it do me?  Who wants to know what I think”

Researcher:  “Let’s start at the beginning.”

PP: “I’m sitting comfortably.”

Researcher: “Across all walks of life there are questions needing answers, problems to be solved and issues to contemplate. Organisations of all sorts conduct research across a wide spectrum of topics and the findings are published as reports or in specialist publications known as journals. For example, a piece of research could be for a high level report to inform a government department and help them make decisions.”

PP: “So, it’s like consumer feedback?”

Researcher:  “Well that is an example of one kind of research. Sociological academic research is about examining aspects of life in detail, asking questions, collecting data, putting it all together and perhaps coming up with answers.”

PP: “Okay, tell me more.”

Researcher: “Researchers collect and analyse the data, looking for patterns, commonalities or trends, perhaps comparing the data with what others have looked at and written about before, and drawing conclusions or findings from what has been observed and what participants have said.”

PP: “So you’re poking around in my business, digging up the dirt and telling tales?”

Researcher: “No, not at all.  I would not ask you any questions until you had fully understood what the research was about.  What you tell me is entirely up to you.  I would be interested in your honest and frank opinion, how you feel about certain things, what your experiences have been, how they affected you for example.  Anything you tell me would be treated in the strictest confidence.”

PP: “You say in confidence but everyone will be able to read your report or whatever it is and know all about me.”

Researcher: “Okay, let’s be clear.  Before I even start thinking about who I want to question I have to carefully write a research proposal and get it approved.  I have to set out what my research is about, why I think it is important and why I think it needs to be done, including details of any similar research that has already been completed on my topic.  I have to explain my theoretical approach but I won’t bore you with the technicalities of that.”

PP: “Fine, but why chose me?”

Researcher: “A research proposal (often to a university ethics committee) has to explain who will be the participant group and why they are the most suitable people to be the participants.”

PP: “Oh, so you don’t just ask anybody.”

Researcher: “Certainly not, everyone taking part has to fit my participant profile.”

PP: “See, I knew I was special.”

Researcher: “Yes, indeed, what you have experienced and what you know could be invaluable to my research.”

PP: “But you’ll still be poking around in my business and I repeat my concern that everyone will read your writing and know it is me.”

Researcher: “As far as possible I anonymise the data I collect. Back to the research proposal I would need to submit to the university ethics committee, I have to explain to them in detail how I am going to collect my data.  I might just observe people and what they do and say but often data is collected by asking people questions and recording the answers.  So I also need to explain how such conversations are going to be recorded – written down, or audio taped, or video recorded for example.  Then, again in detail how I will handle the recorded data and keep it secure and what I will do with it when my research is finished.

PP: “So, what would you do with data, when it’s finished with?”

Researcher: “It will all be destroyed.  But back to your concern.  I have to demonstrate that the way I conduct interviews or surveys will not in any way cause harm to the participants and let them know, as well, that they can withdraw at any point.

PP:  “So no one will know if I say something rude.”

Researcher: “Well, if you say something rude which is relevant to my study and I chose to include it as a quote, then no, only you will know it is you that said it.”

PP: “So you are like a journalist?”

Researcher:  “Not exactly.  Identifying who I might want to speak to is only part of the process.  I would first work on clearly defining the problem, issue or question I want to investigate or find an answer to. I will spend quite a bit of time searching for and reading the work others have produced in the subject area and see what they found and what they think.  I would also have to locate or situate my planned research within an appropriate theoretical framework and also decide if I was going to adopt a number crunching, or quantitative approach, or a qualitative approach, interpreting what people say or do or a mix of both.  This will also help me decide, for example, if I will use a survey or conduct face to face interviews to collect my data.”

PP: “Okay, that’s all fine and dandy but when you’ve done all your clever thinking and reading and collecting and coding and shuffling or whatever it is and quoted me being rude, who is going to read it anyway?”

Researcher: “That is a great question. I would probably then consult with colleagues, spend time thinking about the findings and then produce a final written version.  The results of my academic research are written up and sent off to be peer reviewed.”

PP: “Peer reviewed?  I once looked at the pier in Great Yarmouth and then one in Blackpool, is that a pier review?”

Researcher: “Er, no. The final draft of the written up research paper is closely looked at by other, independent researchers with knowledge of the topic researched.  This is called peer review.  They examine the content, the underpinning theoretical approach, the ethical approach used to protect the participants and ensure confidentiality and the methods used to collect and interpret the data.  They also check on any other sources used to support the discussion and findings, these are called references.

PP: “And then I can see my rude remarks in the papers.”

Researcher: “Well to start with, not in the newspapers.  It’s a good question but it depends on the report and who it is for.”

PP: “I thought it is your research and it is for you.”

Researcher:  “Very generally and without going it to too much detail -”

PP: “No go on, this is interesting.”

Researcher: “Okay, so research might be commissioned by an organisation to be carried out by an individual researcher or a team of academics to look closely at a particular topic, for example, to find out the extent and reasons for homelessness among armed forces veterans.”

PP: “So who might want to know that, who would commission that research?”

Researcher:  “It might be a government department or an armed forces charity, even a local council.  On the other hand, research can be conducted by university students working towards a graduate qualification.  The research will contribute to their degree but will also serve the important purpose of adding to knowledge.”

PP: “So clever clogs academics do the research; write it up, it gets peer reviewed and then what?”

Researcher: “Well it depends who initiated the research but in one form or other, in a printed report or an academic journal, even online, the findings of the research are published.”

PP: “And then?”

Researcher: “And then, you’ll like this bit, the contents of say published journal articles are publicised and items of interest are seized on by journalists who tease out stories for their newspapers.”

PP: “Great and everyone gets shocked at my rude words?”

Researcher: “If you like but more importantly, the academic community and the public in general are made aware, for example, that something new has been added to knowledge, or a theory contradicted, a trend identified or a solution found to a serious issue.  To use my previous example, civil servants tasked to advise government ministers will draw on such sources as journal articles or commissioned reports as they deliberate on the formation of policy which may affect the lives and well-being of citizens. They will do this in the knowledge that what is contained in published academic writings is valid, the data has been obtained following strict ethical guidelines and is accurate and soundly based in established theories and methodologies.”

PP: “So what you are saying, in a somewhat long winded way, if you don’t mind me saying so, is that academic research is important, it could influence policy, you need real live people like me to answer your questions and that is why I should participate?”

Researcher: “Precisely.”

PP:  “So why didn’t you say so in the first place!”