How is benefit defined?
The potential benefits of your study depend on the type of research you are doing. Remember that:
- Some benefits or harms may only be known in the longer term. There may be short-term advantages, but no long-term ones.
- Benefits from social research may be difficult to define and assess precisely.
What do you think the benefits of your research could be? You need to be very honest with yourself here – are the benefits for you personally (e.g. completing your PhD), for your institution (reputation and publications that count for the Research Excellence Framework), for your participants, or for the wider community or wider audiences? There isn’t one right answer – and the answer may well be a mix of the benefits above – what’s important is that you’ve thought about it and are able to explain what the benefits may or may not be.
It’s important to be realistic about what your research can achieve. Social research is often intended to improve conditions for people – for example, through reports, policy briefings, and recommendations. Yet research on its own rarely brings real benefits without time and effort being spent on disseminating and implementing the findings. If you think those wider benefits are important for your study, you need to plan – and allow time for – your dissemination strategy. Some research may have few wider benefits – for example if its purpose is primarily to contribute to your degree. Even if that’s the case, consider what the wider benefits might be, but be honest and realistic about what you can achieve.
Benefits for participants?
The researchers’ definition may differ from respondents’ ideas of benefit. Some researchers report direct benefits during a study. For example, people may enjoy having a willing listener. However, this is not the purpose of studies when the main aim is to collect data. Simply talking, or filling in a questionnaire, may not feel like a benefit to the person concerned, especially if nothing happens after a study is completed. Another possible benefit may be in the friendly relationship between the researcher and the participant. But – however good the rapport between researcher and participant – the research interaction is not the beginning of a friendship. It is important to reflect on the ways in which research participants might feel after the researcher has left and makes no further contact. Who really benefits in the long term? These problems show the importance of researchers being honest and fair about their aims and interests, and about likely benefits after the study. There are useful examples in the literature about this sense of ‘estrangement’ or alienation for people who have taken part in research - see our related resources.
Be careful not to raise people’s expectations, and be honest and realistic about what will happen as a result of their involvement in the research. It can be useful to think in terms of ‘hoped-for’ benefits, as this more partial or tentative idea is a little more honest about the uncertainty underlying all research. We know how beneficial we hope our research will be, but we can rarely guarantee those benefits.