Pursuing impact in research: towards an ethical approach

Bærøe, K., Kerasidou, A., Dunn, M. et al. Pursuing impact in research: towards an ethical approach. BMC Med Ethics 23, 37 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-022-00754-3


Background: Research proactively and deliberately aims to bring about specific changes to how societies function and individual lives fare. However, in the ever-expanding field of ethical regulations and guidance for researchers, one ethical consideration seems to have passed under the radar: How should researchers act when pursuing actual, societal changes based on their academic work?

Main text: When researchers engage in the process of bringing about societal impact to tackle local or global challenges important concerns arise: cultural, social and political values and institutions can be put at risk, transformed or even hampered if researchers lack awareness of how their ‘acting to impact’ influences the social world. With today’s strong focus on research impacts, addressing such ethical challenges has become urgent within in all fields of research involved in finding solutions to the challenges societies are facing. Due to the overall goal of doing something good that is often inherent in ethical approaches, boundaries to researchers’ impact of something good is neither obvious, nor easy to detect. We suggest that it is time for the field of bioethics to explore normative boundaries for researchers’ pursuit of impact and to consider, in detail, the ethical obligations that ought to shape this process, and we provide a four-step framework of fair conditions for such an approach. Our suggested approach within this field can be useful for other fields of research as well.

Conclusion: With this paper, we draw attention to how the transition from pursuing impact within the Academy to trying to initiate and achieve impact beyond the Academy ought to be configured, and the ethical challenges inherent in this transition. We suggest a stepwise strategy to identify, discuss and constitute consensus-based boundaries to this academic activity. This strategy calls for efforts from a multi-disciplinary team of researchers, advisors from the humanities and social sciences, as well as discussants from funding institutions, ethical committees, politics and the society in general. Such efforts should be able to offer new and useful assistance to researchers, as well as research funding agencies, in choosing ethically acceptable, impact-pursuing projects.

The ethical aspects of research impact are underdeveloped – in my opinion. Julie Bayley and I tabled ethics as a needed part of impact literacy, but we never explored it deeply. This article comes from a bioethics perspective and doesn’t look at the ethics (ie informed consent and ethics review boards) of conducting research on impact but the ethics of researchers extending their research into spaces where impact can occur.

The paper doesn’t tell us anything that experienced mobilizers know about “distribution of power at the intersection of producing and applying knowledge” when working with communities and in action research methods, but it is interesting hearing it from an ethics perspective. Maybe it always was from an ethics perspective but we just haven’t used that frame of analysis.

The paper discuses ethical approaches whether researchers are approaching impact from a co-production/action research approach or from a knowledge translation (=dissemination) approach. It is also “concerned with activities initiated by individual researchers, or research teams that aim at the specific and deliberative pursuit of real-world changes based on their own research and worldviews”. This is because researchers need to know the social, political and cultural contexts of the use of research. “Enforcing research-based interventions (e.g. introducing new technology or a new policy) runs the risk of clashing with cultural, social and political values endorsed by those for whom the impact is intended”.

Yes, of course, but have you framed this as an ethical perspective?

There is discussion of what constitutes an expert and who gets to make decisions about research and its use. And involving co-production partners up front in determining the research questions doesn’t just help with implementation to impact it may actually be a pre-requisite. Yes, of course we know this, but we usually frame it as good practice not ethical practice.

The authors suggest four steps of an ethical approach for pursuing impact in research.

  1. develop a conceptual framework of conditions for pursuing research-based impact
  2. Explore the structural opportunities available to researchers in translating their research into practice
  3. Investigate which ways of pursuing impact are acceptable and which are not, and to present the results as an ethical framework that reflects the scope and content of ethical challenges potentially encountered when pursuing impact
  4. Organise scientific and popular dissemination to enable debate, critical scrutiny and potentially conferred legitimacy among stakeholders

All good advice and something to consider when planning your research, dissemination and implementation activities. Again, nothing new just something familiar seen through a new lens.

Questions for brokers:

  1. Will you do anything different as you consider planning for impact using an ethical lens?
  2. How are you helping to distribute power at the intersection of producing and applying knowledge?
  3. Co-production and participatory action research: compare and contrast.

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create online discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read this open access article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.