You are the leader of a 5 member team that has been assigned to carry out social impact assessment of a project proposed in a Naxal area. Members have been allotted a remote village each to conduct surveys and ascertain views of local people. You are under strict instructions not to disclose the identity of respondents outside the project. While compiling data, you are puzzled by the responses from one of the villages. You accompany the point-person for that village the next day for verification. You randomly pick a person from the list of respondents and ask her for clarification of the response she had given earlier. She seems confused and denies any knowledge of the survey being conducted, let alone she is questioned. You try to verify this from other respondents and get similar replies. This raises serious doubts about the integrity and credibility of the survey process. (a) What are the ethical issues involved in the situation? (b) As a team leader accountable for the credibility of the survey and working on a hard timeline, what are the possible options before you? List their merits and demerits. (c) Giving reasons, state the course of action you would follow. (15 Marks)

Mentors Comments:

  • Apart from covering the integrity of the team member, ethical issues should also include giving him/her benefit of the doubt as well as the opportunity for explanation.
  • Evaluate the merits and demerits based on ethical dimensions of public service such as honesty, commitment to work in adversity, etc.
  • Clearly state your course of action with logical connections of merits and how it will address the demerits listed above.

Answer:

(a) The ethical issues involved in the case are:

  • Fabrication and falsification of data that can potentially impact the lives of many poor and vulnerable.
  • Honesty, integrity and commitment to work by the team member in a potentially hostile area where there is already a lack of trust between people and government.
  • Leadership capability – standing up to the errors of team members and handling them.
  • Strict privacy concerns on how to verify their claims without disclosing their identity.
  • Trust that can be reposed in villagers and verifiability that they are acting in an independent capacity.

(b) As a team leader, there the following options before me:

  • Suppress the issue then and there and admonish the team member.

Merits: Given the time constraint, pursuing this option will seem a practical way out. Moreover, data from a single village may not impact the overall findings radically and therefore core conclusions may not change.

Demerits: This not only encourages dereliction of duty but also eats into the overall value system. It abuts the team to be dishonest and untruthful in the performance of their task. It also reflects a lack of empathy on part of researchers towards the rights of vulnerable people.

  • Inspect the claims of other team members; ask the erring ones to re-conduct the survey ASAP.

Merits: It will establish the truthfulness of the survey. As a leader of the team, it is my responsibility that not only the data and conclusions I present are correct but also that the integrity of my team members is maintained. Moreover, perseverance, i.e. performing duty in the face of adversity is a desired and expected trait of a person involved in working with vulnerable groups.

Demerits: Given that there is dearth of time, this may not be feasible. This may also jeopardize the strict anonymity concern. Finally, there are chances that the other team members will also follow the suite if resurveying is done, defeating the purpose altogether.

  • Hire new team members(s) and re-conduct the survey, explaining the situation and asking for extension and 
  • Expel the erring team member(s).

Merits: The dishonesty will be punished and the truthfulness of the data will be established.

Demerits: There will be time and cost overruns. It may also become a never-ending cycle with claims and counterclaims.

(c) Course of action to be followed:

It is important that this data be corrected before being presented. I can either order a new survey, with not necessarily the same respondents or can re-conduct the survey with the same people. While the former will be fresh data and would not need comparison, the latter would establish whether the data was fabricated or not. While the first strategy would save time and not violate privacy, the second one would be necessary to determine guilt/innocence.

I would inform the authorities about possible delays and ask for new personnel. The verified data will establish the truthfulness. If the guilt is established, they will be reprimanded.

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