Is the third sector making a mockery of research?

While I was in the hospital over the summer, I started to watch BBC Breakfast, out of boredom as opposed to anything else. Around 8.40am each morning, they had a ‘general information’ piece which often involved someone important from a charity talking about their latest research, backed up by a few personal stories from individuals who appeared to confirm the findings of the investigation, with no one challenging it.

The research piece of my day would likely be selected because it had sparked the interest of the journalist responsible for the segment as they trolled through the 100s of news releases sent to them by charities each day, especially from those charities with dedicated press officers.

The research itself, whatever the topic, is likely to conclude directly or indirectly that their organisation has the solution to the problem, leading to hopefully government funded ‘after work’.

The problem is that it is now so easy for anyone to claim to be capable of conducting research, often without any academic understanding. You just produce an online survey with a few questions, promote it on social media allowing anyone to fill it in, wait until you reached the necessary 100 marks, and finally, make a song and dance about the headline figures.

The notion of sampling and validity, the foundations of credible research, are lost and probably unheard of by the researcher. Since the research is conducting in the name of campaigning, it is likely to bias before it even started, because the charity knows the answer it is looking for, even if this is unconscious. So rather than researching ‘people’s household incomes’, the research is ‘the impact of poverty on households’, so immediately framing the research in a biased way.

Allowing anyone to fill out surveys, as oppose to having a controlled sample based on gender, location, relevance to the topic, etc., means those who have something to say, usually negative, are more likely to be attracted. This means that any research that provides an opportunity for people to complain about a topic that has affected them will attract those with negative experiences more than anyone else.

The questions may be simple but used by the researcher to jump to conclusions because the reasons have not been explored in a full interview. So if you ask ‘have you missed a meal in the last 28 days’, there may be many reasons why someone would say yes, including the fact they were simply not hungry. But if the research has been framed in terms of poverty, the researcher may unduly conclude that it is because of a lack of money.

The worse kind of research is ‘feeling based research’. It may be easy to ask ‘are you worried about losing your benefits’, or ‘do you feel you are worst off than 12 months ago’. But what someone’s feel may have nothing to do with what has happened and will happen. And simply asking these question in the context of indirect party based political campaigning may easily lead to charities getting the results they desire, and the ‘evidence’ to prove their existence.

I, therefore, propose everyone looks more carefully at research conducted by the third sector and asks who is really benefiting from it? Their mockery of an important academic discipline may not be able to be halted, but it can be ignored and discredited.

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