Facing Ethical Dilemmas
The Qualitative Report 2018 Volume 23, Number 4, How To Article 1, 733-741
Dealing with Un(Expected) Ethical Dilemma:
Experience from the Field
Zaleha Othman and Fathilatul Zakimi Abdul Hamid Universiti Utara Malaysia, Sintok, Malaysia
Despite the growing interest in qualitative research and discussion of ethics,
there has been little focus in the literature on the specific ethical dilemmas faced
by researchers. In this paper, we share our fieldwork experiences regarding the
ethical dilemmas that we encountered while doing research on a sensitive topic.
Specifically, we share some of the ethical dilemmas, that is, concerning
confidentiality, anonymity, legitimacy, controversial data, interpretation and
off-the-record data, which emerged from the research. Most importantly, this
paper shares ideas concerning how researchers might deal with ethical issues
while preserving their integrity in the research process. Overall, this paper
suggests approaches that qualitative researchers can adopt when doing
research on sensitive topics. The paper contributes towards closing an existing
gap in the literature, making visible the challenges frequently faced by
qualitative researchers, that is, the vulnerability of researchers while
preserving research integrity. Finally, this paper concludes with the suggestion
that ethical dilemmas are part of the research process in doing qualitative
research. However, it is suggested that future research should focus on ethical
issues from the perspective of the researchers as well as the respondents.
Keywords: Ethical Dilemma, Research, Sensitive, Qualitative Research,
It is the nature of qualitative researchers to build interaction with the respondents. As
such, we delve into social lives of the respondents as a main part of the process. This can be
ethically challenging as there are issues associated with the welfare of the respondents as
human beings that qualitative researchers often encounter. Ritchie (2003) asserts that it is
difficult to predict the subject of study as dealing with humans involves emotion. Clearly, when
one deals with emotions, there will be many ethical issues that one needs to consider and
There are both expected and unexpected issues that are frequently faced by qualitative
researchers, particularly when the research topic has sensitive elements. In this paper, we wish
to draw explicitly on the ethical dilemmas faced based on the experience of the researchers
undertaking study of a sensitive topic. We conducted our research in Malaysia. Twelve
respondents were interviewed. Our respondents were among the individuals who had
experience dealing with corruption cases, such as a forensic accountant, a criminologist,
officials from enforcement agencies, academics, senior government officials and a senior
manager from a “Big Four” audit firm. Their experiences and information matter and hence
obtaining their participation was crucial.
We believe that sharing our experiences of undertaking the research adds value to
existing knowledge as there is limited treatment in the literature of the vulnerability of the
researchers in studying a sensitive topic. Specifically, we found little discussion in the literature
on dealing with ethical dilemmas from the perspective of researchers, particularly with regard
to sensitive areas, indicating the area is understudied. Walsh, Hewson, and Shier (2008) also
734 The Qualitative Report 2018
noted the lack of attention given to ethical considerations in qualitative research. They pointed
that where these are addressed, the focus is on confidentiality and anonymity and respecting
and protecting the interests of respondents.
Thus, it is our intention to share some of the ethical dilemmas that we experienced in
conducting our research entitled “Fighting Corruption in Malaysia” and explaining how we
dealt with each of the dilemmas. This we hope will provide useful information to other
qualitative researchers, particularly those that are doing work on sensitive topics.
Situating Ourselves as the Researchers
We have been doing qualitative research for more than 15 years and have had wonderful
experiences. Our years of doing qualitative research have helped us enhance our skills and
knowledge in conducting the study discussed here, that is, the fight against corruption in
Malaysia, which we believe is a sensitive topic. We conducted this corruption study in 2012
and completed in 2014. We believe it is high time for us to share our experiences doing
sensitive topics such as this as we observed there are many taboo topics that are understudy.
Most important, corruption issues have become a global phenomenon and it is essential for
researchers to provide deep understanding of the issue and at the same time aware of the
challenges and ethical dilemma that comes with it.
Among the skills that helped develop strength and rigour in doing the research discussed
here were understanding how to build rapport, how to interact with respondents and how to
deal with sensitive issues. At the outset, we knew that conducting research on a sensitive topic
such as ours would be challenging. Nonetheless, motivated by the urge to understand the
phenomenon, that is, corruption in Malaysia, we attempted to explore the concept of corruption
from the perspective of social reality. Attaining the findings was a challenge for us as there
were many ethical dilemmas that we faced throughout the research. In this article, we share our
experiences in the field and how we made certain decisions, how we encountered ethical issues
and how we resolved them. Some were expected, while others were unexpected. The expected
issues, such as assuring confidentiality and anonymity, were easy to deal with as these were
anticipated and considered calculated risks. However, dealing with the unexpected ethical
issues was most challenging. These included respondents not attending interviews, refusing to
be recorded during interviews and dealing with controversial and off-the-record data. We noted
that the degree of ethical dilemmas differs when conducting research on a sensitive topic
compared with a non-sensitive topic.
Glaser and Strauss (1967, as cited in Hoepfl, 1997) referred to the above challenges as
concerning the “theoretical sensitivity” of the researcher. This concept explains the ability of
the researcher to make decisions based on the researcher’s skill and readiness to attempt a
qualitative inquiry. Kakabadse, Kakabadse, and Kouzmin (2002) assert that ethical issues will
emerge when one deals with humans. In understanding the causes of ethical dilemmas in
research, Kakabadse et al. (2002) identify three categories of ethical dilemma: conflict of
values within an individual’s value system, conflict of values between two value systems and
dilemmas in terms of personal orientation (p. 118).
We faced such challenges; dealing with humans involves ethical concerns that arise due
to conflicts of values within and between individuals, organizational issues and personal
dilemmas. Frequently, we faced conflicts of values, that is, both personal conflicts and
instances of conflict linked to different individuals’ value systems. We concur that it is essential
for any qualitative researcher to be sensitive ethically to the three aforementioned categories
when doing qualitative research. In what follows, we share the ethical challenges that we faced
undertaking this sensitive research topic that is, the issue of corruption in Malaysia.
Zaleha Othman and Fathilatul Zakimi Abdul Hamid 735
Undertaking Research on Sensitive Topics
As mentioned above, we conducted our study on corruption and the fight against it in
Malaysia. We considered the topic to be sensitive as this fits with the descriptions given by
several researchers. Lee and Renzetti (1990), for example, addressed the issue of sensitive
research topics and the role of researchers in such situations. They identified the characteristics
of sensitive topics, which include research intrusion into personal life, topics related to deviant
and social control, impinging on the vested interests of a powerful person and dealing with
things sacred to those being studied which they do not wish to be profaned. Reflecting on our
topic, we identified similarities with the description given by Lee and Renzetti (1990), namely
that it involved respondents’ personal lives, the topic itself concerns deviant behaviour and it
is linked with powerful persons.
Researchers such as Lee and Renzetti (1990) note that researching sensitive topics
requires care. Our experience of researching corruption supports this: it requires care not only
with regard to the data, but also safeguarding both the respondents and the researchers. With
regard to the latter, namely researchers, we found that one aspect of undertaking sensitive
research was that it was physically and emotionally strenuous, particularly in terms of the
ethical dilemmas confronted, which we address below.
Facing Ethical Dilemmas
The first ethical dilemma we experienced was the withdrawal from the study by people
who had already volunteered to participate. The respondents had second thoughts and thus
declined to share their experiences. Qualitative researchers such as Dickson-Swift, James, and
Liamputtong (2008) have stated that this is normal when one is engaged in a sensitive topic
and that respecting the private rights of the respondents is essential. We noted this risk and
respected the private rights of the respondents. We agree with Dickson-Swift et al. (2008) that
data collection in sensitive research can be a difficult task.
How did we handle this? We employed the snowballing data collection technique and
found this useful in facing the issue presented above. The snowballing technique gave us a
route to finding the right person to answer our research questions. We referred to Ritchie,
Lewis, and Elam’s (2003) explanation of how to conduct data collection using the snowballing
technique, based on their view that it is suitable for research that requires a small sample and
in which the “selection criteria are characteristics which might not be widely disclosed by
individuals or which are too sensitive for a screening interview” (p. 94). We realized that our
research was of that nature and that we had to respect the rights of the individuals. With the
snowballing technique we managed to obtain 12 respondents who volunteered to participate.
The second issue concerned voluntary consent. Many qualitative researchers have
discussed this issue and have upheld the principle that voluntary consent to participation is
essential. Indeed, van Deventer (2009) emphasized that not only do researchers need to obtain
consent, by they should also explain the research process to the respondents and discuss with
them any alterations made to the research process. Researchers are expected to obtain informed
consent from all those who are directly involved in the research or in the vicinity of the
research. This principle relates to the broader issue of respect for the respondents, ensuring that
they are not coerced into participation and have access to relevant information prior to giving
consent. Usually consent is obtained through written consent forms and the necessary elements
of consent are identified by an ethical review committee. These usually include prior
information on key elements of the research, such as the purpose, procedures, time period, risks
736 The Qualitative Report 2018
and benefits and a clause stipulating that participation is voluntary and the respondents have
the right to withdraw from the study at any time.
Our own experiences taught us that researchers should not take the participation of
respondents lightly, although voluntary consent may have been granted. We suggest that
qualitative researchers should gain written consent to participation in order to avoid ethical
issues. For example, there were instances during our corruption study when we encountered
the retraction of consent from a respondent who had expressed willingness to participate in the
initial stage and had given verbal consent. However, soon after the interview, we were asked
to delete all recorded conversations with the respondent. We were taken aback by this incident
as it was unexpected. Moreover, the respondent’s data were very important, and the insights
shared were very useful for our corruption research. This was a difficult and very challenging
moment for us. There was a conflict in which we were thinking of the data on the one hand and
our concern was with our integrity as researchers on the other. Although the respondent had
previously given consent, with due respect, we had to abide by his request. In spite of repeated
assurances that his information would be kept confidential, he refused, and our final decision
was to delete all information given during the interview and not to include him as a respondent.
Such unexpected incidents require researchers’ judgment and our decision to delete the data
and exclude the respondent was based on our integrity as researchers: adhering to the principle
of caring for the respondents vs the data, we had to consider the respondent’s rights.
Ballamingie and Johnson (2011) shared their experience and concluded that “conducting case
study research in a decidedly non-marginalized community provided research findings that
challenged existing orthodoxies in some of the research literature upon which [they] drew” (p.
The third issue is related to the legitimacy of the data. Many qualitative researchers
have discussed the essential use of a medium or tool. Frequently, qualitative researchers use
tape recorders, or similar tools, during interviews. According to some, using digital data brings
the researcher closer to the data (e.g., Pearce, Arnold, Philips, & Dwan, 2010). We adopt a
similar view that using such a medium not only eases the process of gathering data, but also
brings the researcher closer to the data. Using audio and visual data is common in qualitative
In our case, we employed a recorder to audiotape the interviews. We used the recording
device to facilitate the interview, enabling us to focus on the topics discussed, as well as to ease
our transcription. Audio is an effective way of ensuring effective transcription and thus
increasing reliability of the data. We adopted Patton’s (2002) suggestion that a tape recorder is
indispensable. Working with the data in their original form is a priority based on considerations
of the authenticity, originality and completeness of the data gathered. Qualitative researchers
broadly concur that embracing this technology provides accurate, efficient and trustworthy data
collection (Markle, West, Richard, & Rich, 2011). As mentioned by Markle et al. (2011), audio
recording technology has become the staple for qualitative researchers. Using audio recording
give researchers more time to focus on the respondents and transcription becomes practical.
Patton (2002) stated the use of technology is added advantage to qualitative researchers as it
increases the quality of field observations.
Generally, we had no issue with obtaining consent from the respondents concerning the
use of a tape recorder as tool for the purpose of recording and processing (i.e., transcribing) the
data, although there were situations in which the respondent refused to be taped and requested
only note taking. Naturally, we requested permission from the respondents prior to tape
recording the conversations. Taking ethical considerations into account, we tape recorded only
when clear permission was given. We regard respect in caring for the data very highly. In our
research, we found getting connected to the data to be essential and transcribing the data
ourselves gave us closeness to the data. We know that the accuracy of data is essential. We had
Zaleha Othman and Fathilatul Zakimi Abdul Hamid 737
little problem with transcribing the data. Almost all respondents had no issue with us using
recording tools, mainly because we managed to build rapport and gain their trust prior to the
interviews. In addition, the reassurance that their identity would not be exposed was key in
being given the privilege to use tools such as a tape recorder. When transcribing the data, it is
most important to know the person conducting the transcription is a trustworthy individual. It
is crucial to have some written agreement between the person hired and the researchers if the
researchers decide to hire a person to transcribe.
In addition, we conducted the transcription ourselves. Our common practice to conduct
verbatim transcription on our own and avoid hiring any other individual to perform the task.
Although this was costly in terms of time consumption and we were pressed for time, we
conformed to this rule. In so doing, we had the assurance that all data were safeguarded as there
were no third parties involved in the process of transcribing the data. Another ethical step taken
was that soon after the transcription, we deleted the conversations gathered from the
respondents and destroyed the tapes.
Fourth is the dilemma of confidentiality. A question that is frequently asked in such
research is “How do I know you will not mention my name?” Our respondents expressed their
concern over the use of their names and we realized that they were conscious of protecting their
identities. There were many occasions on which the respondents refused to be named. In
Malaysia, it is the norm for respondents not to wish to reveal their names. One of the reasons
is that Malaysians are not comfortable with giving comments openly and disclosing their
identity. During our research exploring the corruption phenomenon, we encountered instances
that involved confidentiality. During our data collection, most of the respondents were careful
about what they said, hence limiting the process of obtaining a rich and thick description in the
data. We provided assurances that we would use pseudonyms, but our experience taught us that
the perception that carelessness in qualitative research could result in disclosing the identity of
the respondents may lead to mistrust. Hence, assurances and confidence that trust will be
maintained are essential. We concur with Johnson (2014), who stated that confidentiality is
closely linked with informed consent.
The fifth issue concerns the provision of off-the-record information. Off-the-record data
relates to information given by respondents, but which they request is not disclosed in the
report. On a few occasions, there were times when the respondents shared their stories, which
were essential to our data, but mentioned that the data were not to be disclosed anywhere,
commonly phrased as “please do not include this in your work, this is off the record.” Very
often we faced this “off-the-record” condition. Our conflict was whether to include the
information or not. No doubt, the information would have been useful and would have
enhanced the findings and there were times that we faced the temptation to include the data.
Although the data carried weight, we respected our respondents and decided the ethical
consideration towards our respondents were higher; hence we either switched off the tape
recorder or eliminated the information from the tape recording when doing the transcription.
Facing ethical dilemmas is one of the essential aspects of doing qualitative research.
Reflection on our own experience, studying a sensitive topic as mentioned above, clearly
denotes its importance. Scholars have argued that facing ethical dilemmas in doing qualitative
research is normal and the most important consideration is how to deal with such dilemmas.
Some have pointed out that ethical dilemmas appear even before the fieldwork, although it
continues during and after the research. Qualitative researchers such as van Deventer (2009)
consider that each stage of the research process (design, implementation, analysis,
dissemination) has a specific set of ethical issues associated with it.
738 The Qualitative Report 2018
Also, there are calculated and uncalculated ethical dilemmas. Refusal to participate on
the part of the respondents is one of the ethical issues commonly faced even before the
fieldwork. Hence researchers should be prepared for this. In our case, rejection occurred at the
onset of the research, although some withdrew during the research project. We have shared our
experience of how we dealt with the dilemmas encountered. We find that there are ways that
researchers can minimize the dilemmas in the pursuit of getting data.
McCosker, Barnard, and Gerber (2001) wrote that researching sensitive topics creates
methodological and technical issues: what is most important is how researchers confront these
issues. They pointed out that solving ethical dilemmas depends on the context and cultural
norms and values. For example, in our case to confront the issue, we obtained consent from the
12 respondents, noting their voluntary consent as part of the research. Even then, we faced
some ethical dilemmas when some of the respondents withdrew.
According to Halai (2006), “Researchers are expected to obtain informed consent from
all those who are directly involved in research or in the vicinity of research” (p. 5). This
principle applies to the broader issue of respect for the respondents, so that they are not coerced
into participation and have access to relevant information prior to giving consent. Usually,
consent is obtained through written consent forms and the necessary elements of consent are
identified by review committees. These generally include prior information on the key elements
of research, such as the purpose, procedures, time period, risks and benefits and a clause
stipulating that participation is voluntary and the respondents have the right to withdraw. We
would suggest that researchers obtain written consent as the lesson we learned was that the risk
of withdrawal from participating in research is higher when one obtains verbal voluntary
Previous studies have indicated that voluntary consent from respondents is essential.
For example, the studies previously cited (Halai, 2006; van Deventer, 2009) explained that it
is crucial to obtain consent from the respondents. Our findings are congruent with those of
previous studies. Our study finds that voluntary consent from respondents is essential.
However, it is even more essential to know that written consent is preferred. Although Halai
(2006) addressed the issue of respondents having the right to withdraw from the study, we find
that written consent is evidence that there was agreement between the researched and the
researcher prior to the study. Walsh et al. (2008), in their participatory action research project
with youth in Calgary, Canada, explained that in participatory research there are many ethical
issues that emerge during the process of the research and that research involving youth requires
consent not only from the respondents, but also those connected with the youth, e.g., parents
In Malaysia, the culture of being committed to research is lower and hence there is the
possibility of withdrawal from participation, even more so without written consent. The lesson
learned was that verbal consent exposed us to a high risk of withdrawal as there was a high
likelihood that the identity of the respondents might retrieved from the research (deductive
disclosure). It is important to know that in Malaysia the risk in terms of getting respondents to
participate is even higher than in other contexts. Through our experience of undertaking this
sensitive research, we found that Malaysians are concerned about sharing their stories.
Although there are many who speak out, there is also scepticism about sharing sensitive stories.
The dominant culture of not speaking out and avoiding sensitive issues shaped the respondents’
behaviours in shying away from participating. Another aspect we noticed was that there was
always the concern that “this is off-the-record,” giving rise to the dilemma of whether or not to
use the data. We noticed that this was a cultural aspect as it is a norm in Malaysian not to
disclose or be too transparent about their feeling particular on issues that are sensitive. Din and
Haron (2012) conducted a study on the culture of sharing knowledge using online, that is,
through Facebook and they found similar situation where they assert that “Malaysians tend to
Zaleha Othman and Fathilatul Zakimi Abdul Hamid 739
share anything that is common or having compatible interest however still  reserved on issues
that touch on personal or sensitive issues” (p. 1049). This is typical, unlike in studies in the
Western world, where people
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