Assessing Risk to Researchers: Using the Case of Sexuality Research to Inform Research Ethics Board Guidelines


  • Valerie Webber Memorial University of Newfoundland
  • Fern Brunger Memorial University of Newfoundland



IRB, research ethics committees, risk, researcher risk, sexuality studies, sex exceptionalism


Research Ethics Boards (REBs) typically focus on ensuring the safety of participants. Increasingly, the risk that research poses to researchers is also discussed. Should REBs involve themselves in determining the degree of allowable researcher risk, and if so, upon what should they base that assessment? The evaluation of researcher safety does not appear to be standardized in any national REB protocols. The implications of REB review of researcher risks remain undertheorized. With a critical queer framework, we use the example of sexuality research to illustrate problems that could arise if researcher risk is assessed. We concentrate on two core research ethics guidelines: 1. How research risk compares to the risks of everyday life. 2. How potential harms compare to the anticipated research benefits. Some argue that sexuality research is more deeply scrutinized than research in other fields, viewed as inherently risky for both participants and researchers. The example of sexuality research helps make explicit the moral undertones of procedural ethics. With these moral undertones in mind, we argue that if adopted, researcher risk guidelines should be the purview of pedagogical relationships or workplace safety requirements, not REBs. Any risk training should be universally required regardless of the research area.


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Author Biographies

Valerie Webber, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Valerie WEBBER is a PhD student in community health and humanities at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She holds degrees in sexuality studies, medical anthropology, and public health, with an interest in the intersections of health, power, and sexual marginalization. Her doctoral research examines the use of public health rhetoric in popular and political discourse around pornography. Her recent publications include, with R. SULLIVAN, "Constructing a Crisis: Porn Panics and Public Health" (part of a special section they co-edited for Porn Studies, 2018) and '"I'm Not Gonna Run Around and Put a Condom on Every Dick I See': Tensions in Safer Sex Activism Among Queer Communities in Montréal, Quebec" (Sexuality & Culture, 2017).

Fern Brunger, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Fern BRUNGER is professor of health care ethics in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She is a medical anthropologist and ethicist with an active research agenda at the interface of bioethics and anthropology. She examines science, medicine, and bioethics as cultural systems, considering culture in its relation to power.




How to Cite

Webber, V., & Brunger, F. (2018). Assessing Risk to Researchers: Using the Case of Sexuality Research to Inform Research Ethics Board Guidelines. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 19(3).



Research Ethics in Qualitative Research