17th May 2024

By Samuel Cornelius Nyarko

This is a commentary of my observations regarding ethical research in Ghana. I did two research projects as an undergraduate and graduate student in Ghana. All the three academic supervisors I worked with on these projects were awesome people and very good at what they do, but one thing I never heard during the conduct of both researches is the issue of ethics.

I had no research method courses prior to both researches and so research ethics was something I had never heard of. Just like all my mates, we had to rely on the scientific method of identifying the problem, collecting data and analysing it, then writing a report of what we find. We had no idea of what constituted ethics in research.

I recently reviewed some reports of Ghanaian researchers and students carrying out undergraduate and graduate research in Ghana and the issue of ethics always come up in my reviews. The major issue I am concerned about, as it puts the future of both social and scientific research at risk, is anonymity regarding data confidentiality.

Most of the reports I reviewed specifically provided participants information such as names (for example, individual, school, town/city names, etc.), place of work, religion, etc. in the report. Often, researchers think that merely using pseudonyms for individual names solve the issue of anonymity, but information such as school names, towns, place of work and religion easily provide unique or closely narrows identifying information of participants. This commentary provides some reasons why anonymity in research should be taken serious by Ghanaian researchers. I also suggest some ideas on how to improve anonymity in research, especially when qualitative and mixed methods research designs are becoming more prominent among researchers in Ghana.

Why anonymity?

The main idea of anonymity is to protect the sample used in the research. Several social research associations, such as the British Sociological Association (2002) and the Economic and Social Research Council (2011), and several institutional review boards for scientific research, emphasise the need for disguising the personal identities of research samples. Though people might argue that it makes the research authentic, as suggested by Merriam and Tisdell (2016), the authenticity of a research is determined by the trust that the research community give to the study. This trust is highlighted by the integrity and the ethical considerations such as maintaining the anonymity of research participants. Exposing the identities of research participants create several potential problems: stigmatization, profiling/discrimination, insecurity and several others.

Apart from visiting these problems on our participants, we might also lose the public interest in participating in research studies. In Ghana where scientific information is usually communicated in “sensational” contexts and scientific literacy is very low, revealing the identities of research participants can be very damning.

The stigmatization that people identified as having the coronavirus in Ghana receive from their communities is a typical example of why we need to consider anonymity even more. Again, we need to consider the socioeconomic implications of a study that identifies an unfavourable trait among certain group of people if the names of these group or people are not made anonymous.

What we can do

Ensuring the anonymity of research samples is not an easy task but it is highly doable. I want to emphasise here that making the identities of our sample anonymous should not in any way compromise the data or information we report. All I am saying is that we should collect and report data identifiers, but we should never create any link that can lead to sample identification in the report. As a start, universities and academic associations in Ghana should think about setting up human subject and institutional review boards (HSIRB). These boards should be giving the mandate to review the research proposals of their members to make sure they have plans about how they will ensure the privacy and confidentiality of research samples. Again, institutional boards and associations should come up with frameworks that ensures ethical practices in research.

Another way to ensure anonymity is the use of pseudonyms for all identifiable information. A pseudonym is a fictitious name, or an alias used to conceal someone’s real name used by people or groups. Selecting pseudonyms can be exhausting especially in qualitative research with a large sample size but it is the most effective way of ensuring anonymity. For example, let’s say we collected data from Benjamin, David and Jonathan who are students of Breman Jamra University regarding favorite fruits of Ghanaian students. In reporting the findings, we can say/write that “we collected data regarding favorite fruits of Ghanaian students from a large/small public/private university in Ghana. Our participants were “Kofi Ghana, Yaw and Chief” or in quantitative sense “Ghanaian students”.

This conceals any information that links the report to both the students and the university used in the research, but readers can still conceive that the study was done in Ghana.

The third and final suggestion is that we should not collect and report identifiable information at all if they are irrelevant to the study. Some information is not relevant to the report of a research study so we must not worry ourselves in collecting them.

However, I suggest that details essential to the research such as gender, age and other demographic information should be kept.

The writer is a PhD Science Education student and a graduate research associate at the Mallinson Institute for Science Education, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, US.





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