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I do research on particular elites of a particular society and rely heavily on interview data. In one fortuitous dinner, at the table behind me sat three people who are exactly the people I wanted to get access to.

Furthermore, they were discussing something that I am precisely investigating! I was attentive to their conversation (as they were, honestly, speaking very loudly) but by no means eavesdropping and their conversation - if viewed in the context of my work - can prove to be very valuable.

Can I use that data for my work? It does not seem ethical to me. But, if I do not use that data, I know I will be 'deliberately' weakening my research and not being true to what I do now know.

Thoughts? What would you do and what would you suggest I do?

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    The problem with using this information is that it is (IMO) not "citeable". What would you provide as a source? You can neither say "interview", nor "personal conversation", nor "participant observation". Is this data in any way sensitive? Could you ask the people you overheard for an (anonymized) interview? This would resolve the issue, if they were ready to repeat or confirm the information you overheard. – henning -- reinstate Monica May 1 '18 at 12:58
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    Exactly, that's the conundrum that I am facing. I cannot say that it is an interview because it is not. I like your suggestion of trying to contact them for an interview (and I am actually trying to find a way to contact them) but let's assume they ignore me. Should I just discard this information? It is always very difficult to 'unhear' what I already heard... – MHL May 1 '18 at 13:55
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    So conduct some further research to get that data, this avoids all the issues of no proof due to hearsay, people saying you did not have the right to use basically a private conversation etc etc – Solar Mike May 1 '18 at 14:02
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    Your question reminds me of the situation journalists sometimes find themselves in, where they know something but don't have the sources to make it stick and be possible to report on. Maybe there's advice to be had from people in that field, although I think that you should be even more careful with sources than sometimes seems to be the case in the press. – Anyon May 1 '18 at 16:58
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    You may have better luck over at psychology.stackexchange.com ,even if you are not doing psychology, as observational studies are fairly common and someone can probably pull the relevant sections from the APA code of conduct. – StrongBad May 1 '18 at 21:50
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Without understanding your research topic and methods, it is hard to say objectively if you can use the data. That said, the American Psychological Association (APA) classifies naturalistic observation as exempt from the informed consent process. This does not mean it does not require approval by an ethics board (i.e., an IRB). Naturalistic observation studies are valid in a wide range of fields including Medicine, Psychology, Zoology and Ethnography. That said, as with any research methods, it takes skills to conduct and interpret naturalistic observation studies properly and within the framework of their limitations. This seems like a nice starting point: http://peace.saumag.edu/faculty/kardas/Courses/RMPA/naturalisticobservation.html

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Not only is it unethical (as I think you already know), it is also bordering on being unscientific. You are a scientist, not a news reporter. Your research should of course not be unnecessarily weakened, but one thing strong research needs, that this research will not have, is reproducibility. And for that reason alone, you should find some new, credible source for that data.

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    Can interviews ever be reproduced? I thought that social sciences usually cannot achieve the level of reproducibility expected in natural sciences. – Boris Bukh May 1 '18 at 20:34
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    Indeed, interviews are interpretivist in nature and reproducibility is not an issue that concerns social science with regards to interview data. I am more concerned about the ethical dimensions. – MHL May 1 '18 at 21:01
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    Just because they posted on SE, does not make them a scientist. I have limited knowledge about how conservations can be used in fields like International Relations, Sociology, and Anthropology but imposing the reproducible science framework on them is likely inappropriate. – StrongBad May 1 '18 at 21:17
  • Reproducibility of course does not concern the data itself (it never does), but the conclusions drawn from the data. – nabla May 2 '18 at 5:25
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I'd say this is not usable directly, though it can influence how you conduct future research.

See parallel construction for a similar problem in law enforcement. Certain evidence may not be admissible in court, but a law enforcement officer can use knowledge of the inadmissible evidence to find admissible evidence. (Note that I am not saying this is right or wrong of law enforcement to do, just that it happens.)

How this might work in research is that you observe a situation in your personal life, but obviously it would be scientifically and ethically questionable to use this evidence. You can avoid the problem entirely by conducting a proper study, using your previous observations to help design the study.

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  • Thanks for this, I have not heard of parallel construction before this and is something that sounds interesting although I'm not sure how I can use that in my case. – MHL May 1 '18 at 21:03
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    I explained my understanding of how parallel construction works in practice a bit more. Let me know if this doesn't help you understand how you might be able to use the approach. – Ben Trettel May 1 '18 at 21:08
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Your institution (and/or any journal you want to publish your research in) probably has strict rules about how to use "human subjects" in research. This applies to interviewing them. You need to get advance approval, and specify how you will do the interviews. So... you cannot use what you overheard. Maybe you can use that information to devise the protocol for your eventual interviews, though.

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  • The described scenario did not include an interview so I am not sure your answer applies. – StrongBad May 1 '18 at 21:48

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