Google my name and you will soon see that I am not afraid of a bit of controversy or self-publicity. For me it comes with the territory of being both a researcher and a journalist – I have to be willing to put myself out there: publish and be damned.
But a recent research project of mine has brought into sharp focus the conflicts of interests and ethical dilemmas that I face as a hybrid lecturer, academic researcher and practitioner.
It has also made me think about what advice I would give to other researchers facing similar quandaries and whether it is ever ethical to compromise for the sake of appeasing the institution /the academy / the industry.
My gut reaction, is to say no. As long as you are transparent and accountable and your research stands up to peer review then any conflicts of interest / pressure from external parties should be put to one side. But then is that just me being naive and belligerent?
The example I am talking about is my recent research into the value of journalism accreditation to industry employers. There are three accreditation bodies broadly representing print (NCTJ), broadcast (BJTC) and magazines (PPA).
As a researcher I wanted to independently and objectively evaluate whether employers actually prefer to recruit graduates from accredited journalism courses or not as there was a huge gap in research in this field. I successfully bid for a small grant to conduct the exploratory research but I was well aware that this project rubbed against a number of conflicts of interest:
Conflict 1: I line manage staff who work on a PPA accredited undergraduate journalism course which is due for renewal this autumn (and I was involved in the initial accreditation bid)
Conflict 2: I line manage staff who work on a postgraduate journalism course that was unsuccessful in achieving NCTJ accreditation last autumn (and I was involved in the accreditation bid)
Conflict 3: The university strategy is to pursue accreditation of courses and as a manager it is part of my remit to seek to achieve this
Conflict 4: I continue to freelance as an accredited journalist myself
These conflicts were further compounded by the results of my research published in the Journalism education issue 4-1 (1) which found that accreditation was not a key factor in the recruitment of journalists thus posing questions about the value and necessity of achieving accreditation for employability purposes.
I presented my findings at the Association for Journalism Education annual conference where it received a lot of interest from colleagues at accredited and non-accredited courses.
As a researcher I was aware that the project had potential ‘impact’ under the REF criteria and could garner media attention. However my university press office refused to put out a press release about the research as they felt it could undermine our own journalism courses – even though at that point in time we had no accreditation as the PPA had lapsed and was up for renewal.
I was frustrated that I had done my job as a researcher and yet the university – which is meant to be a research institute after all – did not like my findings because they were too closely linked to Higher Education pedagogy, its primary business.
So I turned from researcher to journalist and got the story into the media myself. And suffered the consequences in the comment threads, as is standard practice in online news stories.
Each week our university press office puts out a ‘Newswatch’ e-letter which highlights research from its academics which has received coverage in the media. To date none of my coverage has been highlighted. But I have circulated it to colleagues and blogged and tweeted about it myself which has attracted further media attention.
The project has now led to some intriguing unanswered questions:
-Has the research damaged the department’s relationship with the journalism accreditation bodies and what might the long term impact be?
-Does the university press office have the right to censor research that does not suit the corporate strategy?
-Will I be reprimanded for publicising the research myself and potentially damaging relationships with accreditation bodies?
-Is it ever possible for such pedagogic research to be truly objective?
I am not sure that I have offered any clear advice here but hopefully sharing my experience will highlight some of the conflicts surrounding such types of research.
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