Facing Ethical Dilemmas – Lion Essays


Facing Ethical Dilemmas

The Qualitative Report 2018 Volume 23, Number 4, How To Article 1, 733-741

Dealing with Un(Expected) Ethical Dilemma:

Experience from the Field

Zaleha Othman and Fathilatul Zakimi Abdul Hamid Universiti Utara Malaysia, Sintok, Malaysia

Despite the growing interest in qualitative research and discussion of ethics,

there has been little focus in the literature on the specific ethical dilemmas faced

by researchers. In this paper, we share our fieldwork experiences regarding the

ethical dilemmas that we encountered while doing research on a sensitive topic.

Specifically, we share some of the ethical dilemmas, that is, concerning

confidentiality, anonymity, legitimacy, controversial data, interpretation and

off-the-record data, which emerged from the research. Most importantly, this

paper shares ideas concerning how researchers might deal with ethical issues

while preserving their integrity in the research process. Overall, this paper

suggests approaches that qualitative researchers can adopt when doing

research on sensitive topics. The paper contributes towards closing an existing

gap in the literature, making visible the challenges frequently faced by

qualitative researchers, that is, the vulnerability of researchers while

preserving research integrity. Finally, this paper concludes with the suggestion

that ethical dilemmas are part of the research process in doing qualitative

research. However, it is suggested that future research should focus on ethical

issues from the perspective of the researchers as well as the respondents.

Keywords: Ethical Dilemma, Research, Sensitive, Qualitative Research,

Confidential, Anonymity


It is the nature of qualitative researchers to build interaction with the respondents. As

such, we delve into social lives of the respondents as a main part of the process. This can be

ethically challenging as there are issues associated with the welfare of the respondents as

human beings that qualitative researchers often encounter. Ritchie (2003) asserts that it is

difficult to predict the subject of study as dealing with humans involves emotion. Clearly, when

one deals with emotions, there will be many ethical issues that one needs to consider and


There are both expected and unexpected issues that are frequently faced by qualitative

researchers, particularly when the research topic has sensitive elements. In this paper, we wish

to draw explicitly on the ethical dilemmas faced based on the experience of the researchers

undertaking study of a sensitive topic. We conducted our research in Malaysia. Twelve

respondents were interviewed. Our respondents were among the individuals who had

experience dealing with corruption cases, such as a forensic accountant, a criminologist,

officials from enforcement agencies, academics, senior government officials and a senior

manager from a “Big Four” audit firm. Their experiences and information matter and hence

obtaining their participation was crucial.

We believe that sharing our experiences of undertaking the research adds value to

existing knowledge as there is limited treatment in the literature of the vulnerability of the

researchers in studying a sensitive topic. Specifically, we found little discussion in the literature

on dealing with ethical dilemmas from the perspective of researchers, particularly with regard

to sensitive areas, indicating the area is understudied. Walsh, Hewson, and Shier (2008) also

734 The Qualitative Report 2018

noted the lack of attention given to ethical considerations in qualitative research. They pointed

that where these are addressed, the focus is on confidentiality and anonymity and respecting

and protecting the interests of respondents.

Thus, it is our intention to share some of the ethical dilemmas that we experienced in

conducting our research entitled “Fighting Corruption in Malaysia” and explaining how we

dealt with each of the dilemmas. This we hope will provide useful information to other

qualitative researchers, particularly those that are doing work on sensitive topics.

Situating Ourselves as the Researchers

We have been doing qualitative research for more than 15 years and have had wonderful

experiences. Our years of doing qualitative research have helped us enhance our skills and

knowledge in conducting the study discussed here, that is, the fight against corruption in

Malaysia, which we believe is a sensitive topic. We conducted this corruption study in 2012

and completed in 2014. We believe it is high time for us to share our experiences doing

sensitive topics such as this as we observed there are many taboo topics that are understudy.

Most important, corruption issues have become a global phenomenon and it is essential for

researchers to provide deep understanding of the issue and at the same time aware of the

challenges and ethical dilemma that comes with it.

Among the skills that helped develop strength and rigour in doing the research discussed

here were understanding how to build rapport, how to interact with respondents and how to

deal with sensitive issues. At the outset, we knew that conducting research on a sensitive topic

such as ours would be challenging. Nonetheless, motivated by the urge to understand the

phenomenon, that is, corruption in Malaysia, we attempted to explore the concept of corruption

from the perspective of social reality. Attaining the findings was a challenge for us as there

were many ethical dilemmas that we faced throughout the research. In this article, we share our

experiences in the field and how we made certain decisions, how we encountered ethical issues

and how we resolved them. Some were expected, while others were unexpected. The expected

issues, such as assuring confidentiality and anonymity, were easy to deal with as these were

anticipated and considered calculated risks. However, dealing with the unexpected ethical

issues was most challenging. These included respondents not attending interviews, refusing to

be recorded during interviews and dealing with controversial and off-the-record data. We noted

that the degree of ethical dilemmas differs when conducting research on a sensitive topic

compared with a non-sensitive topic.

Glaser and Strauss (1967, as cited in Hoepfl, 1997) referred to the above challenges as

concerning the “theoretical sensitivity” of the researcher. This concept explains the ability of

the researcher to make decisions based on the researcher’s skill and readiness to attempt a

qualitative inquiry. Kakabadse, Kakabadse, and Kouzmin (2002) assert that ethical issues will

emerge when one deals with humans. In understanding the causes of ethical dilemmas in

research, Kakabadse et al. (2002) identify three categories of ethical dilemma: conflict of

values within an individual’s value system, conflict of values between two value systems and

dilemmas in terms of personal orientation (p. 118).

We faced such challenges; dealing with humans involves ethical concerns that arise due

to conflicts of values within and between individuals, organizational issues and personal

dilemmas. Frequently, we faced conflicts of values, that is, both personal conflicts and

instances of conflict linked to different individuals’ value systems. We concur that it is essential

for any qualitative researcher to be sensitive ethically to the three aforementioned categories

when doing qualitative research. In what follows, we share the ethical challenges that we faced

undertaking this sensitive research topic that is, the issue of corruption in Malaysia.

Zaleha Othman and Fathilatul Zakimi Abdul Hamid 735

Undertaking Research on Sensitive Topics

As mentioned above, we conducted our study on corruption and the fight against it in

Malaysia. We considered the topic to be sensitive as this fits with the descriptions given by

several researchers. Lee and Renzetti (1990), for example, addressed the issue of sensitive

research topics and the role of researchers in such situations. They identified the characteristics

of sensitive topics, which include research intrusion into personal life, topics related to deviant

and social control, impinging on the vested interests of a powerful person and dealing with

things sacred to those being studied which they do not wish to be profaned. Reflecting on our

topic, we identified similarities with the description given by Lee and Renzetti (1990), namely

that it involved respondents’ personal lives, the topic itself concerns deviant behaviour and it

is linked with powerful persons.

Researchers such as Lee and Renzetti (1990) note that researching sensitive topics

requires care. Our experience of researching corruption supports this: it requires care not only

with regard to the data, but also safeguarding both the respondents and the researchers. With

regard to the latter, namely researchers, we found that one aspect of undertaking sensitive

research was that it was physically and emotionally strenuous, particularly in terms of the

ethical dilemmas confronted, which we address below.

Facing Ethical Dilemmas

The first ethical dilemma we experienced was the withdrawal from the study by people

who had already volunteered to participate. The respondents had second thoughts and thus

declined to share their experiences. Qualitative researchers such as Dickson-Swift, James, and

Liamputtong (2008) have stated that this is normal when one is engaged in a sensitive topic

and that respecting the private rights of the respondents is essential. We noted this risk and

respected the private rights of the respondents. We agree with Dickson-Swift et al. (2008) that

data collection in sensitive research can be a difficult task.

How did we handle this? We employed the snowballing data collection technique and

found this useful in facing the issue presented above. The snowballing technique gave us a

route to finding the right person to answer our research questions. We referred to Ritchie,

Lewis, and Elam’s (2003) explanation of how to conduct data collection using the snowballing

technique, based on their view that it is suitable for research that requires a small sample and

in which the “selection criteria are characteristics which might not be widely disclosed by

individuals or which are too sensitive for a screening interview” (p. 94). We realized that our

research was of that nature and that we had to respect the rights of the individuals. With the

snowballing technique we managed to obtain 12 respondents who volunteered to participate.

The second issue concerned voluntary consent. Many qualitative researchers have

discussed this issue and have upheld the principle that voluntary consent to participation is

essential. Indeed, van Deventer (2009) emphasized that not only do researchers need to obtain

consent, by they should also explain the research process to the respondents and discuss with

them any alterations made to the research process. Researchers are expected to obtain informed

consent from all those who are directly involved in the research or in the vicinity of the

research. This principle relates to the broader issue of respect for the respondents, ensuring that

they are not coerced into participation and have access to relevant information prior to giving

consent. Usually consent is obtained through written consent forms and the necessary elements

of consent are identified by an ethical review committee. These usually include prior

information on key elements of the research, such as the purpose, procedures, time period, risks

736 The Qualitative Report 2018

and benefits and a clause stipulating that participation is voluntary and the respondents have

the right to withdraw from the study at any time.

Our own experiences taught us that researchers should not take the participation of

respondents lightly, although voluntary consent may have been granted. We suggest that

qualitative researchers should gain written consent to participation in order to avoid ethical

issues. For example, there were instances during our corruption study when we encountered

the retraction of consent from a respondent who had expressed willingness to participate in the

initial stage and had given verbal consent. However, soon after the interview, we were asked

to delete all recorded conversations with the respondent. We were taken aback by this incident

as it was unexpected. Moreover, the respondent’s data were very important, and the insights

shared were very useful for our corruption research. This was a difficult and very challenging

moment for us. There was a conflict in which we were thinking of the data on the one hand and

our concern was with our integrity as researchers on the other. Although the respondent had

previously given consent, with due respect, we had to abide by his request. In spite of repeated

assurances that his information would be kept confidential, he refused, and our final decision

was to delete all information given during the interview and not to include him as a respondent.

Such unexpected incidents require researchers’ judgment and our decision to delete the data

and exclude the respondent was based on our integrity as researchers: adhering to the principle

of caring for the respondents vs the data, we had to consider the respondent’s rights.

Ballamingie and Johnson (2011) shared their experience and concluded that “conducting case

study research in a decidedly non-marginalized community provided research findings that

challenged existing orthodoxies in some of the research literature upon which [they] drew” (p.


The third issue is related to the legitimacy of the data. Many qualitative researchers

have discussed the essential use of a medium or tool. Frequently, qualitative researchers use

tape recorders, or similar tools, during interviews. According to some, using digital data brings

the researcher closer to the data (e.g., Pearce, Arnold, Philips, & Dwan, 2010). We adopt a

similar view that using such a medium not only eases the process of gathering data, but also

brings the researcher closer to the data. Using audio and visual data is common in qualitative


In our case, we employed a recorder to audiotape the interviews. We used the recording

device to facilitate the interview, enabling us to focus on the topics discussed, as well as to ease

our transcription. Audio is an effective way of ensuring effective transcription and thus

increasing reliability of the data. We adopted Patton’s (2002) suggestion that a tape recorder is

indispensable. Working with the data in their original form is a priority based on considerations

of the authenticity, originality and completeness of the data gathered. Qualitative researchers

broadly concur that embracing this technology provides accurate, efficient and trustworthy data

collection (Markle, West, Richard, & Rich, 2011). As mentioned by Markle et al. (2011), audio

recording technology has become the staple for qualitative researchers. Using audio recording

give researchers more time to focus on the respondents and transcription becomes practical.

Patton (2002) stated the use of technology is added advantage to qualitative researchers as it

increases the quality of field observations.

Generally, we had no issue with obtaining consent from the respondents concerning the

use of a tape recorder as tool for the purpose of recording and processing (i.e., transcribing) the

data, although there were situations in which the respondent refused to be taped and requested

only note taking. Naturally, we requested permission from the respondents prior to tape

recording the conversations. Taking ethical considerations into account, we tape recorded only

when clear permission was given. We regard respect in caring for the data very highly. In our

research, we found getting connected to the data to be essential and transcribing the data

ourselves gave us closeness to the data. We know that the accuracy of data is essential. We had

Zaleha Othman and Fathilatul Zakimi Abdul Hamid 737

little problem with transcribing the data. Almost all respondents had no issue with us using

recording tools, mainly because we managed to build rapport and gain their trust prior to the

interviews. In addition, the reassurance that their identity would not be exposed was key in

being given the privilege to use tools such as a tape recorder. When transcribing the data, it is

most important to know the person conducting the transcription is a trustworthy individual. It

is crucial to have some written agreement between the person hired and the researchers if the

researchers decide to hire a person to transcribe.

In addition, we conducted the transcription ourselves. Our common practice to conduct

verbatim transcription on our own and avoid hiring any other individual to perform the task.

Although this was costly in terms of time consumption and we were pressed for time, we

conformed to this rule. In so doing, we had the assurance that all data were safeguarded as there

were no third parties involved in the process of transcribing the data. Another ethical step taken

was that soon after the transcription, we deleted the conversations gathered from the

respondents and destroyed the tapes.

Fourth is the dilemma of confidentiality. A question that is frequently asked in such

research is “How do I know you will not mention my name?” Our respondents expressed their

concern over the use of their names and we realized that they were conscious of protecting their

identities. There were many occasions on which the respondents refused to be named. In

Malaysia, it is the norm for respondents not to wish to reveal their names. One of the reasons

is that Malaysians are not comfortable with giving comments openly and disclosing their

identity. During our research exploring the corruption phenomenon, we encountered instances

that involved confidentiality. During our data collection, most of the respondents were careful

about what they said, hence limiting the process of obtaining a rich and thick description in the

data. We provided assurances that we would use pseudonyms, but our experience taught us that

the perception that carelessness in qualitative research could result in disclosing the identity of

the respondents may lead to mistrust. Hence, assurances and confidence that trust will be

maintained are essential. We concur with Johnson (2014), who stated that confidentiality is

closely linked with informed consent.

The fifth issue concerns the provision of off-the-record information. Off-the-record data

relates to information given by respondents, but which they request is not disclosed in the

report. On a few occasions, there were times when the respondents shared their stories, which

were essential to our data, but mentioned that the data were not to be disclosed anywhere,

commonly phrased as “please do not include this in your work, this is off the record.” Very

often we faced this “off-the-record” condition. Our conflict was whether to include the

information or not. No doubt, the information would have been useful and would have

enhanced the findings and there were times that we faced the temptation to include the data.

Although the data carried weight, we respected our respondents and decided the ethical

consideration towards our respondents were higher; hence we either switched off the tape

recorder or eliminated the information from the tape recording when doing the transcription.


Facing ethical dilemmas is one of the essential aspects of doing qualitative research.

Reflection on our own experience, studying a sensitive topic as mentioned above, clearly

denotes its importance. Scholars have argued that facing ethical dilemmas in doing qualitative

research is normal and the most important consideration is how to deal with such dilemmas.

Some have pointed out that ethical dilemmas appear even before the fieldwork, although it

continues during and after the research. Qualitative researchers such as van Deventer (2009)

consider that each stage of the research process (design, implementation, analysis,

dissemination) has a specific set of ethical issues associated with it.

738 The Qualitative Report 2018

Also, there are calculated and uncalculated ethical dilemmas. Refusal to participate on

the part of the respondents is one of the ethical issues commonly faced even before the

fieldwork. Hence researchers should be prepared for this. In our case, rejection occurred at the

onset of the research, although some withdrew during the research project. We have shared our

experience of how we dealt with the dilemmas encountered. We find that there are ways that

researchers can minimize the dilemmas in the pursuit of getting data.

McCosker, Barnard, and Gerber (2001) wrote that researching sensitive topics creates

methodological and technical issues: what is most important is how researchers confront these

issues. They pointed out that solving ethical dilemmas depends on the context and cultural

norms and values. For example, in our case to confront the issue, we obtained consent from the

12 respondents, noting their voluntary consent as part of the research. Even then, we faced

some ethical dilemmas when some of the respondents withdrew.

According to Halai (2006), “Researchers are expected to obtain informed consent from

all those who are directly involved in research or in the vicinity of research” (p. 5). This

principle applies to the broader issue of respect for the respondents, so that they are not coerced

into participation and have access to relevant information prior to giving consent. Usually,

consent is obtained through written consent forms and the necessary elements of consent are

identified by review committees. These generally include prior information on the key elements

of research, such as the purpose, procedures, time period, risks and benefits and a clause

stipulating that participation is voluntary and the respondents have the right to withdraw. We

would suggest that researchers obtain written consent as the lesson we learned was that the risk

of withdrawal from participating in research is higher when one obtains verbal voluntary


Previous studies have indicated that voluntary consent from respondents is essential.

For example, the studies previously cited (Halai, 2006; van Deventer, 2009) explained that it

is crucial to obtain consent from the respondents. Our findings are congruent with those of

previous studies. Our study finds that voluntary consent from respondents is essential.

However, it is even more essential to know that written consent is preferred. Although Halai

(2006) addressed the issue of respondents having the right to withdraw from the study, we find

that written consent is evidence that there was agreement between the researched and the

researcher prior to the study. Walsh et al. (2008), in their participatory action research project

with youth in Calgary, Canada, explained that in participatory research there are many ethical

issues that emerge during the process of the research and that research involving youth requires

consent not only from the respondents, but also those connected with the youth, e.g., parents

or guardians.

In Malaysia, the culture of being committed to research is lower and hence there is the

possibility of withdrawal from participation, even more so without written consent. The lesson

learned was that verbal consent exposed us to a high risk of withdrawal as there was a high

likelihood that the identity of the respondents might retrieved from the research (deductive

disclosure). It is important to know that in Malaysia the risk in terms of getting respondents to

participate is even higher than in other contexts. Through our experience of undertaking this

sensitive research, we found that Malaysians are concerned about sharing their stories.

Although there are many who speak out, there is also scepticism about sharing sensitive stories.

The dominant culture of not speaking out and avoiding sensitive issues shaped the respondents’

behaviours in shying away from participating. Another aspect we noticed was that there was

always the concern that “this is off-the-record,” giving rise to the dilemma of whether or not to

use the data. We noticed that this was a cultural aspect as it is a norm in Malaysian not to

disclose or be too transparent about their feeling particular on issues that are sensitive. Din and

Haron (2012) conducted a study on the culture of sharing knowledge using online, that is,

through Facebook and they found similar situation where they assert that “Malaysians tend to

Zaleha Othman and Fathilatul Zakimi Abdul Hamid 739

share anything that is common or having compatible interest however still [] reserved on issues

that touch on personal or sensitive issues” (p. 1049). This is typical, unlike in studies in the

Western world, where people

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