Developing a temporal ethical sensibility for preserving and curating research data

This blog focuses on ethical strategies and sensibilities that comprise an ethical compass for working with research data archived in research repositories that have in place gold standard protocols for deposit and access.

Dr Anna Tarrant and Dr Kahryn Hughes | 01 July 2020


This blog focuses on ethical strategies and sensibilities that comprise an ethical compass (Garthwaite et al. 2020) for working with research data archived in research repositories that have in place gold standard protocols for deposit and access. We describe how a temporal ethical sensibility towards such research data can inform on and enhance approaches to digital curation, data preservation and sharing, re-use and qualitative secondary analysis (or QSA) (Tarrant and Hughes, 2019; Hughes and Tarrant, 2020a; Hughes et al., 2020; Tarrant and Hughes, 2020). By an temporal ethical sensibility, we refer to a shift from a sole focus on the ‘duties’ which concern participant-facing ethics within the research process, to one which also recognises researcher–researcher relationships that extend beyond the original contexts of research (Hughes and Tarrant, 2020b). These are established and ongoing debates, but they have been brought into even sharper relief in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beyond ethical ‘risk’ 

Debates on the ethics of QSA have been informed by growing public unease around the risks associated with the datafication of everyday life, the possibilities for data linkage, and  related concerns around personal privacy (Dencik et al. 2018; Hughes and Tarrant, 2020b). Paradoxically, such concerns have been accompanied by a simultaneous emphasis on the need to preserve social data, whereby researchers are increasingly required to archive and re-use data, especially by UK and European research funding councils.

Early debate about the ethical possibilities for data re-use and QSA was largely framed around whether we should re-use data, and demonstrated the inseparability of epistemological and ethical reflexivity (e.g. Mauthner et al. 1998; see also Hughes and Tarrant, 2020b). Today, such debates appear to be largely resolved, underscored by global development and innovation in infrastructures for storing data and linked protocols for its curation and preservation. However, contemporary considerations reflect familiar ethical concerns around consent, representation and confidentiality, many of which we elaborate and engage with critically in our recent edited collection with Sage, Qualitative Secondary Analysis. Here, however, we focus on the affordances of particular ethical sensibilities that might be fostered by social researchers in the context of preserving research data and associated opportunities for data-sharing, re-use and QSA.

Fostering a temporal ethical sensibility

Moving away from an emphasis on risk, we foreground a temporal ethical sensibility (Neale, 2020; Hughes and Tarrant, 2020b) in approaching the re-use of qualitative research data. This shift in orientation enables us to attend to ongoing ethical concerns involved in processes of data management, digital curation and data preservation, with which researchers increasingly engage throughout research processes, rather than as an add-on at either the beginning or end of a study (Neale, forthcoming). Attention to these processes within the contexts of research studies, has also become an ethical imperative not least because it requires the participation and involvement of a wide range of stakeholders including researchers, archivists, librarians, and future data users. Such a sensibility therefore allows us to keep in focus the long chains and complex networks of human relationships involved in research processes. This includes those at play in the formative contexts of data production, as well as those in the subsequent contexts through which data are managed, revisited, reworked, repurposed and re-used (Tarrant and Hughes, 2020).

Also enabled are proactive and reactive ethical strategies, especially when data are archived (Neale, 2013). Archiving data builds in time as a resource, not only within a research study, but across the lifetimes of data, to develop, rework and revisit ethical strategies and best practice in changing legislative and technological contexts. 

Building temporal ethics into how we archive and re-use research data also orientates us towards ‘stakeholder ethics’ (Neale, 2013), in which data owners are re-framed as data stewards. In the context of our work, we refer specifically to those who generate data with participants and then archive their data. However, such data stewardship also involves those who manage and curate data collections and resources, introducing new and more complicated sets of relations around research data which were absent previously when research data were simply deleted at the conclusion of a study.

A key limitation of an ethical focus which prioritises data generators is that it obscures and mutes the interests of others, neglects how different interests emerge at various stages of the research process, and risks the loss of research data to posterity (Hughes and Tarrant, 2020b; Neale, forthcoming). In contrast, conceiving of the broad constituency of those involved in using, storing, curating and reusing data as data stewards in place and over time has key advantages including:

  • shedding light on how variously constituted relationships intersect and impact on the research process as it unfolds;
  • enabling a recognition, and facilitating reconciliation of, the various needs implicated in such relationships; and,
  • avoiding an over-focus on the priorities of particular individuals or groups,
  • ensuring the continuing ethical availability of research data through changing technological and legislative contexts.

These new ways of describing relationships and claims to data have engendered a necessary shift in language concerning data generators. In particular, this shift from data owners to data stewards moves us away from individualising ethical responsibility and instead necessitates a recognition of the relational complexities around responsibility for data management, preservation and reuse.

Foregrounding the multiple forms of stewardship involved in the management of research data archives thus acknowledges the long term formalised protections of, and attention to, the interests of both data generators and future researchers who may seek to access or analyse data at a later point (Hughes and Tarrant, 2020b; see also Neale, forthcoming).

Research ethics in the pandemic

More broadly, in any crisis context, a central tenet of researchers’ ethical responsibility to participants, especially those who are vulnerable and/or marginalised, should be to preserve rather than silence their voices. Here the digital preservation and curation of research data becomes even more pertinent. Researching in real time enables us to capture the cumulative effects of the micro-impacts of crises on vulnerable participants over time.  An ethics of data stewardship, as we formulate it here, therefore facilitates a view of data preservation and  curation as part of a broader commitment to ensuring the social histories of those with least access to digital participation are nevertheless available long into the future (see also Dencik et al., 2018).

We are both scholars with research expertise in the longitudinal dynamics of poverty and marginalisation in the context of family life.  Our research has demonstrated how everyday life for families in such circumstances is characterised by vulnerability to external shocks that can tip them into crisis. However, having notable parallels with early QSA debate, much recent discussion around the ethics of pandemic research has questioned whether we should do research at times of emergency, particularly with vulnerable populations. In response, current debate concerning the impacts of COVID-19 on low-income families focuses on the value of interdisciplinary and collaborative working. Working together now aids us in reducing burden on the communities with which we research, and enhances the quality and strength of the evidence needed so that policy makers can respond. We would suggest that a temporal ethical sensibility may therefore additionally facilitate discussion on how we research the impacts of the pandemic ethically (Patrick et al. 2020), as well as ensuring the longer-term preservation of particular social histories most vulnerable to being lost.

About the authors:

Anna Tarrant

Dr Anna Tarrant is Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Lincoln and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow leading a four-year, qualitative longitudinal, participatory study examining the parenting journeys and support needs of young fathers, called Following Young Fathers Further.

Kahryn Hughes

Kahryn Hughes is an internationally recognised scholar in the field of qualitative secondary analysis, she is lead editor of the forthcoming publication 'Qualitative Secondary Analysis'. She is also a Senior Fellow of the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM), Responsible for Qualitative Longitudinal and Qualitative Secondary Analysis research methods training for all UK social scientists, Director of the Timescapes Archive and Editor in Chief of the BSA/SAGE Journal: Sociological Research Online.