Rocking the boat – Research Liberation Front – respondents human rights and the abuse of research

 This is a belated summary of the debate we had on a boat on the other side of the road from the MRS conference centre a fortnight back.  The point of the Research Liberation Front was originally to offer something more irreverent and challenging than we were accustomed to finding at the annual conference of the MRS.  Trouble is you get a counter reformation – the conference is really making giant strides. This year they nearly caught us.

Fortunately we had chosen topics we thought the conference wouldn't want to cover in such a public forum. we debated what was the bigger challenge facing the research industry – the way in which the standard practice of research ignore the rights of respondents. Versus the extent to which the use of research for non reserach purposes risks polluting the well of research diminishing the reputation of research and making the practice of research more difficult.

The pretext for it was the fact that the MRS are currently revising the research code. And we're expecting an election in the UK in the next 12 months so the abuse of research for political ends seems a timely issue to explore.   We introduced the issues. Steve Phillips of Spring Research and Fiona Blades of Mesh were our debating captains. We had a couple of real respondents along to ask what they thought (why is it that the national research conference never features real respondents?). And after a Q&A the audience voted by rocking the boat – crossing to the side they thought represented the bigger issue.

Here are the examples we put to people. We contacted a whole range of human rights NGOs and consumer groups to get the reaction of the human rights lawyers to these issues. None of them attended but it was evident that there was a case to answer. So here goes:

Issue 1 Does market research breach respondents human rights?

1. Client anonymity. If the client doesn’t want to
reveal his identity to his respondents – well they don’t have to. Odd and
enough to raise the eyebrows of the human rights lawyers we talked to. Now of
course in normal circumstances the moderator does indeed reveal the identity of
the client, but they don’t have to, and technically they should get clearance
from the client before doing so.

2. Distress/Redress. Medical research requires that
every project is overseen by an ethics committee. Also that there be a
comprehensive procedure including compensation insurance to provide treatment
for those who might been traumatized by the research process.. Outside fo
medical research we have nothing so rigorous. Researchers are obliged to pass
on respondent complaints but there is no requirement for clients to resolve

3. No
respondent access to findings
must provide details of methodology yes but as a respondent you can be quoted
but you how no idea how the quotation will be used., where and if it will be
used in your interest or not. And if you are a respondent there is no
possibility of finding out what the research agency reported or what the client

Second Issue Research for non research purposes

4. The use of research to legitimise social and political
. There are bad questionnaires but there are also cynical and
mischievous examples of questionnaire design. 
In 2007 the MRS upheld a complaint by Greenpeace, that Government
sponsored research was indeed asking leading questions about nuclear power which
pushed respondents towards a certain answer. How do we police mischievous
questionnaires as well as bad ones?

5. The use of political polls in marginal constituencies
to polarise undecided voters into voting for one side or the other. With an
election just finished in the USA and one imminent in the UK how likely is it
that this could happen here? If this is where political polling is going then
rather like advertising by political parties falling outside ASA should
political research be set outside the research code in the same way? Or have a
different code?

6. Convergence
of marketing and research streams
. Information gathering eg P&G Tremor
panel handing out vouchers as payment which it gathers customer research. How
realistic is it to separate them out?  -
might it be possible to gather customer data at the same time as we are
influencing them to buy. Can we have duplex communications with research
travelling one way and marketing material the other simultaneously?  Or will this kind of CRM be permanently

Talking to our respondents it became evident they were curiously detached from the consequences of the research process. They were happy to take the money and run. They didn't want a report.  They seemed more concerned about being manipulated by research. But having taken the Devil's shilling they seemed happy to live with the consequences. Interesting because we had been sitting in a conference hall all day with speaker after speaker explaining about cocreation and how customers wanted to collaborate with their brands. Well not these two!

When finally the motion was put to a vote by a thundering majority – the use of research for non research purposes was perceived to be the bigger challenge. We took care to exclude the middle – Undecideds were told they would have to walk the plank. So in the end even the respondent walked towards nonresearch and the abuse thereof. So we'll just have to put human rights aside for now!

Here's a couple of links to articles in the media referencing the Rock the Boat event and here of course is the website link. And the Mediaweek piece: View this photo as a file attachment.  We'll keep you posted on future plans for the RLF which is going to have to keep stretching to keep its bite. But we are well pleased with our piratical outing for  2009. For those of you who want to keep the pirate spirit and are on Facebook – then go to the bottom left of your screen and where you choose language then switch to English (Piratical) to get a hilarious alternative.



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