Collapsing borders between researchers and participants: Ethical complexities

Dr Merle Spriggs, Lynn Gillam

1University Of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia, 2Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Parkville, Australia

“I think our ethics committee had no idea what we were talking about … in retrospect I think, had no framework for ethical oversight of co-researchers … all of their feedback and responses and queries were for participants … I think there were a whole raft of ethical implications for the co-researchers that we didn’t really think about and the ethics committee didn’t know how to ask us about…” [Researcher]

Using research participants as co-researchers is a growing trend in social research in a range of research methodologies and research types such as participatory research and action research.  An example is participants collecting research data by interviewing other participants (sometimes referred to as peer-interviewing).  The role of the co-researcher may include accessing or recruiting other participants.

In this presentation, our focus is child co-research which has become popular in social research involving children. The popularity has been attributed to the emphasis on children’s rights.  It is a way of putting into practice the philosophy, common amongst childhood researchers, that children are experts on childhood.

Little attention, however, has been paid to ethical difficulties faced by child co-researchers.  There is little in the existing literature and there is nothing to guide Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) by identifying questions HRECs should be asking when faced with projects involving child co-researchers. This presentation addresses that gap by drawing on data from interviews we conducted with researchers who use co-research methodology.

We conclude with important questions for Human Research Ethics Committees to ask when they review projects using child co-research and questions for reflexive researchers to ask themselves when they use child co-research methodology.


Dr Merle Spriggs is a Research Fellow at the Children’s Bioethics Centre, Royal Children’s Hospital and Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne  and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. Her expertise is in the area of informed consent, patient autonomy, empirical ethics and the ethics of research practice. Merle has over 20 years experience on hospital and university Human Research Ethics Committees and has been retained by US law firms to review documents in a series of cases involving child research.

About the Association

The Australasian Association of Bioethics and Health Law (AABHL) was formed in 2009.

It encourages open discussion and debate on a range of bioethical issues, providing a place where people can ask difficult questions about ideas and practices associated with health and illness, biomedical research and human values.

The AABHL seeks to foster a distinctive Australasian voice in bioethics, and provide opportunities for international engagement through its membership, journal and conferences.

Members come from all the contributing humanities, social science and science disciplines that make up contemporary bioethics.

Many members have cross-disciplinary interests and all seek to broaden the dialogues in which all members of the wider community ultimately have an interest.

The AABHL is a supportive, creative and challenging community that provides a rich source of continuing academic refreshment and renewal.

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