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Incorporating Ethics in Political Science 705: Introduction to Research Design—Alesha E. Doan

Overview

Using a combination of group presentations and individual written assignments, a political science professor finds ways to integrate nuanced discussions of ethical issues into her research methods course.

Background

Political Science 705 (Introduction to Research Design) is a graduate course that is required of all MA and PhD students in the political science graduate program. It is taught each fall to all new students and is followed with two other methods-oriented courses over the next few semesters. The first time I taught POLS 705, I included the obligatory “nod” to ethical issues in research design with limited readings and discussion of ethics the last seminar of the semester, but this did not effectively represent the ways ethical considerations are a central component of research design. For the fall 2008, I radically changed the ethics component so that ethics were an integral aspect of each weekly topic.

Implementation

Students were given multiple opportunities to learn about, identify, and address ethical considerations in social science research throughout the semester through readings, as well as group presentations and written assignments that engaged these readings. To prepare them, students completed a reaction paper on the reading each week. These assignments encouraged students to identify and assess ethical considerations in existing research. Finally, in their final research design paper, students practically applied theoretical concepts to the research they plan to conduct as graduate students.

Student Work

The ethical consideration component for each of the three major assignments in the course (group presentation, reflection paper, and research design paper) was similar to build the particular skills of ethical thinking. Overall, at the beginning of the course graduate students had a working knowledge of ethics but had not engaged ethics on a deeper level. As the semester unfolded, students saw the many shades of grey contained under the banner of professional ethics. The students’ work demonstrated consistent improvement and growth throughout the semester and a better understanding of the nuances involved in learning how to conduct ethical research in a practical rather than hypothetical manner.

Reflections

In the future, I will conduct this course in a similar manner. Making ethics a central component of each week’s readings and assignments was far more meaningful than including one lecture dedicated to discussing ethics. Over the course of the semester, students began to see ethics as an essential component of evaluating research.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No 0629443. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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Background

Political Science 705 (Introduction to Research Design) is a graduate course that is required of all MA and PhD students in the political science graduate program. It is taught each fall to all new students and is followed with two other methods-oriented courses over the next few semesters. Since POLS 705 includes MA and PhD students, the enrollment is typically larger than the norm for other graduate seminars, with 15-18 students on average, as compared to five to nine in other seminars. I taught POLS 705 during the fall semesters in 2006 and 2008. I also taught the course in fall 2009.

Social scientists confront ethical issues in several aspects of research design, yet as a discipline we spend very little time contemplating them. Ethical considerations often emerge during data collection, data analysis, and through the dissemination of research results. The first time I taught POLS 705, I included the obligatory “nod” to ethical issues in research design. Students were exposed to some limited readings and discussions of ethics the last seminar of the semester. This did not effectively represent the ways ethical considerations are a central component of research design.

For the fall 2008, I radically changed the ethics component so that ethics were an integral aspect of each weekly topic. Students were required to discuss ethical considerations as part of their weekly discussion groups and were required to write about it in their reaction papers. The course now provides an initial overview of research design and data collection in political science and explicitly explores the ethical considerations that underlie all research design choices.

The goal of the course is to provide students with a solid understanding of the fundamental logic of social science research and the ways in which ethical considerations are embedded in many different research designs. Students should acquire the skills needed to evaluate a broad range of social science research, critically assess the ethical costs involved in research, and meaningfully evaluate alternatives or ensure the ethical integrity of the research being conducted. Upon completion of this course, students should be better equipped to undertake their own research and evaluate the ethical implications involved with the particular design they choose.


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Implementation

Students were given multiple opportunities to learn about, identify, and address ethical considerations in social science research throughout the semester. Learning opportunities were structured through readings, as well as group presentations and written assignments that engaged these readings.

The initial readings about ethics, including KU information and the KU Human Subjects Committee Lawrence (HSCL) pertaining to ethics, are intended to expose students to an introductory and basic knowledge about ethical issues and considerations in the social sciences. The other two assignments (the group presentations and written assignments) are more challenging exercises designed to encourage students to identify and assess ethical considerations in existing research, as well as the research they are planning on conducting as graduate students.

I selected the readings and grouped the pieces around two issues. The first three readings provide students with an introduction to ethics (Peters, Johnson and Reynolds, and Bennett et al.). The last three readings (Rogers, Lupia, and Smith) raise more nuanced ethical issues that are directly relevant to the study of political science in terms of the ethical responsibilities researchers have to their research subjects, the discipline of political science, and finally, the ethical obligations researchers have (or should have) to society.

Group presentations

Discussion groups I and II:
Each student was assigned to a group and worked together with the group throughout the semester. Each group was responsible for leading two seminars. This involved providing a five- to ten-minute summary presentation of the readings for the week, as well as guiding much of the discussion. The group leading the seminar each week focused class discussion on common themes and topics across the readings (when applicable), assessment of the readings, and interesting questions to be discussed among the entire class. Groups were directed to focus on the underlying ethical issues in the specific readings and to incorporate ethical considerations into the class discussion. Groups were also asked to focus on making links between the theoretical application of the assigned reading and its practical application in conducting research. In other words, the students were asked to be prepared to demonstrate how the reading and the ethical topics related to the reading were relevant to conducting their own research. For more information, see the group presentation rubric.

Written assignments

Reaction papers I and II:
Students were required to write a reaction paper in tandem with each week their group was leading discussion. Reaction papers were to be critical appraisals (although not necessarily negative) of all the readings for the week and were designed to help focus the student’s role as a “seminar leader” for that class and direct his or her attention to the ethical concerns that may limit the particular research method under consideration. The reaction papers were not to exceed two single-spaced pages. Within this limit, not every aspect of the reading could be addressed, so students were asked to find common themes or inconsistencies among the readings. For more information, see the reaction paper rubric.

Research design paper
Students were expected to hand in a well-developed and feasible research design on a topic of their choice, including a section on the theoretical, practical, and ethical considerations or limitations inherent in their particular research design. A final rough draft was due in class on November 17. This final rough draft was given to a student who critiqued his or her peer’s work and provided that person with suggestions for improvement. The final research design was due in class on December 8. Students presented their research design orally in class on either December 1 or 8. for more information, see the research design paper rubric.

Readings

Peters, Guy B. 2007. “Ethical Analysis of Public Policy.” American Public Policy: Promise and Performance, seventh edition. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Johnson, Janet Buttolph, and H.T. Reynolds. “Studying Politics Scientifically.” Political Science Research Methods, sixth edition.

Bennett, Andrew, Aharon Barth, and Kenneth R. Rutherford. “Do We Preach What We Practice? A Survey of Methods in Political Science Journals and Curricula.” PS: Political Science & Politics, Vol. 36, No. 3 (July 2003): 373-378.

Rogers, M. Smith. “Should We Make Political Science More of a Science or More About Politics?” PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 35, No. 2. (June 2002): 199-201.

Lupia, Arthur. “The Public Value of Political Research: Evaluating Political Science Research: Information for Buyers and Sellers.” PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 33, No. 1. (March 2000): 7-13.

Smith, Kevin. “Data Don’t Matter? Academic Research and School Choice.” Perspectives on Politics, 3 (2) (June 2005): 285-299.


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Student Work

For both the group presentation and reaction papers, students were evaluated in terms of the criteria detailed in the assignment rubrics. Each rubric contains an explicit ethical consideration component, and this component in each of the three rubrics is similar. In this way, each sequential assignment aims to build students’ abilities in these particular qualities of ethical consideration. Students’ understanding was assessed by their ability to identify, discuss, and apply ethical thinking in social science research design.

Ethical considerations rubric components

Reaction paper:

  1. With respect to ethical considerations, does your analysis provide a link between the theoretical application of the topic and the practical application of your research?
  2. What, if any, ethical issues stem from the research question under consideration?
  3. Do you address ethical issues in the readings as they specifically relate to research subjects and research techniques?
  4. What, if any, ethical conflicts exist in the readings but are ignored by the researchers?

Group presentation:

  1. Did the group consider and discuss any ethical issues that are relevant to the topic at hand?
  2. Did the group offer safeguards or solutions to any ethical concerns raised?

Research design paper:

  1. With respect to ethical considerations, does the research design have a link between the theoretical applications of the topic and the practical application of your research?
  2. What, if any, ethical issues stem from the research question under consideration?
  3. What ethical issues stem specifically from your research design?
  4. What are the ethical implications of the potential findings from this research (expected and unexpected findings)?

Overall, graduate students had a working knowledge of ethics at the beginning of the course; however, it was apparent that they were never required to engage in ethics on a deeper level in their other courses. As the semester unfolded, ethics became a central component of the curriculum of this course, and students quickly saw the many shades of grey contained under the banner of professional ethics. Students’ work demonstrated consistent improvement and growth throughout the semester, as well as a better understanding of the nuances involved in learning how to conduct ethical research in a practical rather than hypothetical manner.

See check the links below (pdfs) for examples of graded student work.


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Professor Doan

Alesha E. Doan

Reflections

In the future, I will conduct this course in a similar manner. Making ethics a central component of each week’s readings and assignments was far more meaningful than including one lecture dedicated to discussing ethics. Over the course of the semester, students began to see ethics as an essential component of evaluating research. I have not experienced this level of success in teaching ethics in any of the previous POLS 705 courses I have taught. I will structure the course in a similar fashion (with some tweaks here and there to the readings) in future semesters.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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