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Shining a Light on Research and “Access”

ESRC DTP Conference 2021 Blog Post by Nicholas Goldrosen, M.Phil. student, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge

Louis Brandeis, a 20th-century U.S. Supreme Court justice, coined the well-worn aphorism, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” I’ve often thought this principle to be a sound underlying philosophy for social science research in two ways. First, a good researcher sheds light upon problems and issues that previously escaped notice. Second, good research has a transparent process and a public trail of methods, data, and analysis. In each sense, the proverbial “sunlight” of access is productive. Research exposes social problems and hopefully helps solve them. An open research process exposes errors and hopefully helps researchers improve.

Illustration for the ESRC DTP Conference by Sasha Lind.

But this conference made me think more deeply about how Brandeis’ saying doesn’t always hold true. Social scientists negotiate access to the subjects of their research and access to their own research processes, but these goals are often complex and contested. How, for example, does one gain access to do research with vulnerable and underserved populations — where privacy is paramount — while also making that research transparent? Ben Jarman’s presentation on navigating open research with confidential data in the prison setting introduced, and led me to reflect on, this challenge. How might researchers’ goals to ethically shine light into out-of-view parts of society clash with the goal to shine light on their own research?

In my own talk for this conference, I focused on work I’d done with court-watching. The impetus for that research was that adult criminal courts in the U.S. are almost wholly public but data from them is scarce; the research project’s goal was to make already-public information even more accessible. I’d previously thought of access to research spaces dichotomously: There were public spaces, where no permission is needed for access, and private spaces, where it was. Yet here, too, this conference changed my thinking. In Allysa Czerwinsky’s presentation on online research, she highlighted the nuances and ethical implications of “lurking” in an online space — and how that complicates formal notions of “ethics” and the continuum between public and private spaces. How does the researcher’s aim to shine light upon new intellectual ground shift when the object of research is neither clearly public nor clearly private?

I would like to think most researchers hope their work makes a broader impact in the world somehow. But research does serve the researcher, too. Good research helps to obtain funding or get a job, for example. Stefanie Felsberger’s presentation on data ethics and power illuminated this problem: Research subjects are often expected to grant access to their own data, experiences, and thoughts without recompense. At the same time, that access materially benefits researchers. This challenge complicated my enthusiasm for the benevolent researcher selflessly revealing social ills; how do social scientists negotiate that, while shining sunlight on some problem, we are also casting a bit of a spotlight on ourselves?

I still believe that research has a powerful role in revealing societal concerns and spurring change. I also believe that transparent research is an important tool in the social sciences’ efforts towards self-correction and replicability. This conference, though, has cast some light onto my own thinking about access and the dilemmas that surround it.

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