Participant Focused Research

 

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What do we owe our research participants? I know we often pay participants, but doesn’t justice require more? A few bucks and a thank you do not seem sufficient. Participants don’t participate for the Benjamins. Part of the problem is research result are locked away behind pay walls. A point well made by the remarkable documentary The Internet’s Own Boy. But I mean more than this. Even when research is free, isn’t it a problem that most research is hidden within an impenetrable fog of flabby prose, timid hedging, and needless abstractions? Shouldn’t the research we produce be participant focused? Shouldn’t it exist to serve the people we survey? Don’t we owe people more?

What do we owe our research participants? I know we often pay participants, but doesn’t justice require more? A few bucks and a thank you do not seem sufficient. Participants don’t participate for the Benjamins. Part of the problem is research result are locked away behind pay walls. A point well made by the remarkable documentary The Internet’s Own Boy. But I mean more than this. Even when research is free, isn’t it a problem that most research is hidden within an impenetrable fog of flabby prose, timid hedging, and needless abstractions? Shouldn’t the research we produce be participant focused? Shouldn’t it exist to serve the people we survey? Don’t we owe people more?

Participant centered research

I believe the answer to these questions is participant centered research. Participant centered research builds on the way healthcare has been made more compassionate through patient centered care. In healthcare, patient centered care treats patients as persons. Each person has inherent dignity and deserves respect. This means patients should be informed, listened to, be treated as a whole person rather than a disease, and be treated as a partner in their own care. Patient centered care is not just about the right to be treated with dignity by your doctor but to also be treated as a person by the healthcare system itself.

The following are the areas I think need to be improved within social sciences in order to provide participant centered care.

Giving Participants a Voice

It goes almost without saying that our research should be in the public domain. But I am more and more convinced that most research should also be put on pre-print servers before publications. I think this for a few reasons. First, publication is a glacial process and thus participants may have to waiting years before being able to read the fruits of their labor. Second, while publicly accessible research is nice, it is a finished product. The participants have no avenue for input over how their contributions to the research project are being used. Pre-prints provide an avenue for participants to have their say. This does not mean participants should be able to veto research they don’t like. But it does mean that we can give participants a meaningful avenue to contribute to the process. I believe well-advertised pre-prints that provide participants with a clear channel to be heard provide on such avenue.

Justice Demands Plain English

Social science writing is notoriously bad. So much so that bad writing may be a job requirement; see the brilliant book Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences. It is a problem that so much social science writing is so impenetrable that even some reviewers and editors cannot tell the difference between densely written nonsense and actual science. I believe that such impenetrable writing is unjust to the participants who have given their time to take part in our research. It is unfair that such poor writing excludes most of the participants we seek to serve.

The argument against plain English is that social science is complex and simple writing would miss the nuances required to do the subject matter justice. I agree. People are complex. And even more so when there are many of them, interacting with each other, as well as with banks, schools, churches, colleges, and cultures. But I do not agree that this requires overly complex writing.

Of course, who am I to speak? My writing is far from perfect and in the past I have often written in the same impenetrable manner as I am criticizing here. Which is I am working on it. I have read about half a dozen books on the topic in the last 12 months—do yourself a favor and read everything Helen Sword has ever written. I also attend a weekly writing circle. I will never write with as much impact as Matthew Desmond or with the clarity of Richard Dawkins, but I think justice demands that I try.

People Must be at the Center of People Science

A good case can be made, and in fact has been made by Michael Billig and John Goldthorpe, that our bad writing—and in particular our love affair with abstract nouns—leads to woolly thinking. John Goldthorpe, in his fantastic book On Sociology makes a simple point; “variables don’t do things, people do”. Meaning that social science must translate theory into how human actually act, think, and behave. Likewise, Michael Billig laments that ‘elevated’ social science prose is almost unpopulated by people doing things. The argument in favor of the impenetrable social science writing is that this is what technical science requires. I do not believe this is true. In fact, I think the removal of people from social science writing leads to crappy research and poor theory. This is a matter for another blog post. For now, I want to ask, what are our participants to make of this sort of writing? What possible relevance could our abstract writing possibly have for their lives?

We try to survey and interview participants who we believe have troubles we think our research could help alleviate. I research the beliefs that people have about themselves because I believe I can help people evaluate themselves better. I study educational inequality because I want more people to have a chance to experience the life changing magic of a university education. If the people I wish my research to serve cannot read it, let along gain some useful insight from it, then something is wrong. It is worse if participants cannot see themselves as thinking, acting, and believing human being in the pages of our prose. This does not mean dumbing down research. It means writing with participants in mind. It means writing research that is populated by humans doing human things rather than merely packing our prose with variables, factors, and theoretical concepts. It means plainly stating what the implications of your research are. It means repaying participants time and energy with a clear statement about what can be done to improve participants lives and about what changes they could agitate for. It also means being honest when our results don’t turn out how we hoped so we don’t mislead people about important parts of their lives.

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