Research, reporting and research ethics

The results of scientific studies are typically published in scientific journals, the websites of the research projects and in university blogs and newspapers. Even though the most significant findings are widely reported, also in international media, a lot of important and useful research data often fails to be brought to the attention of the general public. The issue is partially, of course, the fact that there are simply not enough column inches or working hours for reporters for all the material that is on offer, but also because the reporting of scientific research results is not always as widespread or effective as it could be.

The fact that the results should be reported as widely as possible was particularly emphasised in the announcement of the application period for the Is Finland Becoming Polarised? programme launched by Kone Foundation in 2014 . The purpose of the programme’s content is to produce new information on social inequality and equality, so it is especially fitting that the target is to place significant emphasis on reporting: a detailed journalistic publication plan implemented with media professionals was considered an advantage in applications.

In this programme, the University of Tampere was awarded a three-year grant for a research project called “Towards a Two-speed Finland? Longer Working Life, Retirement Pathways and Inequality” led by adjunct professor Pirjo Nikander. The project is based on identifying the current developments in working life: in the wave of co-determination talks, large numbers of people are losing their jobs before their official retirement age, and working life has, in general, become very fragmented, so there is a danger that a new class of poor pensioners is forming in Finland. Even though the significance of prolonging careers and treating elderly workers as a resource is constantly spoken about publicly, the reality is that age discrimination is common in our working lives.

The name of our project refers precisely to this: a type of inequality is developing in our working life which, in part, is not related to educational background. There is inequality in careers and as a result, unfortunate events may cumulate in the fact that in the end income is very low during retirement.

In our research project we find out about and study the day-to-day life of the elderly unemployed using qualitative longitudinal research: we highlight their experiences and reality which is hidden behind statistics and political rhetoric. In this day-to-day life a considerable number of people experience poverty, bodies broken by working life and lack of prospects in future employment opportunities. But there is also hope and joy, recovery and empowerment, and resources that could genuinely help society if we were only prepared to receive them.

I am a post doc researcher in the project and at the moment am working, in particular, on carrying out the qualitative longitudinal research, which is a rather challenging method. The method is based on the fact that we contact the participants in the study at certain intervals, which allows us to study and learn from their experiences over the long term and observe various changes. The subject is very personal for each participant so it is therefore of particular importance to take into account research ethical perspectives. We have consulted experts in research ethics, drawn up detailed practices for processing the material and for future archiving, and drawn up strategies to help us to always maintain and renew participants’ consent and confidence in the project and its makers.

These important factors that are part of the everyday life of a research project are of particular importance when the goal is to extensively report the subject. Our project is cooperating with the Finnish Broadcasting Company, YLE, and our aim is to produce content on these themes for reporting and for television programmes. In addition to the traditional type of publication of research results, a central aim of the project is to produce contributions for public debate and increase awareness of the actual situation of elderly workers on the labour market.

The media operates according to journalistic rules and decisions on the published content are always made based on journalistic value. Personal stories offer incredibly strong and interesting content and we hope that we will also be able to recruit people to the project who are interested in media cooperation and who would be able to talk about their experiences of unemployment or taking early retirement. This is an interesting situation from the perspective of research, as people naturally provide various types of information about themselves when appearing on national media and also in confidence in research projects when talking about their life. In practice, it might be possible to identify the people who appear in the media with the accounts in the research material.

However, at the project planning stage, we decided to keep the people appearing in the media and in the research material as separate groups.

There are very strong research ethical reasons for this and we have integrated this practice into our method of approaching people for the first time. The results of our project will, of course, be announced in the media, but the individuals whose faces will appear in the media will not be involved in the actual research material. The role of these people is just as important, though.

This one example of the way in which extensive reporting impacts the preparation and implementation of an entire project. It is necessary to think carefully about many things throughout the entire lifecycle of a project and from the perspective of all parties, as you simply can’t afford to make mistakes. On the other hand, the launch of bold studies such as these are important precisely because we might be able to have an impact on changing the nature of scientific data and its role in the media and the everyday life of people.



Jari Luomanen

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