Researchers shouldn’t be quick to abandon long-held principles like respondent anonymity and informed consent even though it might be commercially tempting to do so, argues Brian Tarran.
An ethical dilemma
There are many divisions in market research: qual and quant, supplyside and buyside, data collection and insight, art and science. Pick a side and fight your corner. The latest split is ‘new’ versus ‘old’ research. Ray Poynter, who puts himself in the ‘new’ camp (and has organised a successful social network and campaign around the concept of NewMR), defines it as “those trying to hang on to the past and those embracing the new”.
Alarmingly, though, he warns that the two sides are dividing along ethical lines. “If market research companies abide by the old ethics, in particular anonymity and informed consent, they will not be able to compete for business in most areas where market research is growing,” Poynter writes.
These growth areas are things like brand communities and social media monitoring which challenge traditional assumptions of what research should be. This is clearly causing a headache for industry associations like Esomar and the Market Research Society (MRS), who have both recently published documents – one a set of guidelines, the other a discussion paper – that have come in for some criticism from advocates of the ‘new’. In the US, the Council of American Survey Research Organisations (Casro) this week published its own draft guidelines which are, in many respects, similar to Esomar’s, and can no doubt expect an equivalent response.
“When you’re pushing at boundaries it is easy to feel frustrated by rules that seem to hold you back. But hasty decisions are never the wisest”
The task facing these organisations is to balance traditional values with the new realities of what market researchers can feasibly do [at this point I should disclose that the MRS pays my salary and publishes this website, though we maintain editorial independence]. How does the requirement that respondents give informed consent square with a world in which they share their opinions publicly and these can be harvested and analysed without them knowing? Why do research participants have to be anonymous when many consumers use social media channels to talk directly to companies, join communities and help co-create new products?
As far as I can see, no one is saying they have to – but without anonymity or informed consent, or adherence to any of the other key principles of market research, standards-setting bodies are saying that such activities should not be portrayed as ‘market research’.
Poynter argues that this is “nonsense”, and that we could soon end up in a situation where the majority of work done by researchers is classified as “not market research”. But his suggestion – for commercial researchers to adopt a new set of ethics and leave the old ones to the social researchers and academics – seems rash.
Researchers shouldn’t be so quick to want to adandon a strong and widely-recognised self-regulatory regime. British journalism is currently in a quagmire because of weak self regulation, which allowed a rotten few to abuse the basic journalistic responsibility of finding and publishing information, to justify the unlawful hacking of people’s private voicemails. The result of the scandal is likely to be tougher regulation – or legislation – to control journalism.
There are research parallels here, though significantly less scandalous. Think back to the PatientsLikeMe incident, where a closed community of disease sufferers was unwittingly mined for comments. Outrage followed – but it was contained because the research industry could point to a long-held principle that people should give their informed consent to take part in research and should be told what companies are doing with their information.
“Market research might be changing, but so are consumer expectations of privacy and with it the laws that govern them”
Anonymising online commenters can also be achieved through masking techniques, according to Esomar. At its most basic, this would involve making alterations to republished comments so they cannot be found through search engines. So again, why is it necessary to abandon a long-held principle?
In his blog, Poynter suggests a set of NewMR ethics based around adherence to the law, not doing things likely to outrage the public, creating high standards and emphasising the need to be open and honest. It’s not clear how this really differs from what the ‘OldMR’ organisations set out to do.
It’s a perilous time for market research, when even a website has no right to monitor how its own visitors behave thanks to new rules from the European Union. When you’re pushing at boundaries it is easy to feel frustrated by rules that seem to hold you back. But hasty decisions are never the wisest.
Market research might be changing, but so are consumer expectations of privacy and with it the laws that govern them. Straying outside the bounds of what is accepted to be – and more importantly what legislators understand to be – market research might prove just as commercially risky in the long run as sticking with notions of ‘anonymity’ and ‘informed consent’.
‘Old ethics’ they may be, but they are exactly what consumers and legislators are arguing for in their dealings with online behavioural advertisers. Researchers should be proud of the fact that in this respect they are clearly ahead of the rest.
Brian Tarran is editor of Research Magazine and Research-Live.com