How is risk defined?
Risk is a vague word which covers harm, as well as practical matters such as incurred costs and practical inconvenience.
In contrast, the idea of ‘benefits’ implies that there will be a definite ‘good’ for the researcher, research participants or for a wider community. So assessing the ‘risk-benefit’ involves evaluating the relative balance of these two areas. It can be useful to think of this as an assessment between risks and ‘hoped-for’ benefits, as this more partial or tentative idea is a little more honest about the uncertainty underlying all research.
In social science research, one of the main risks for participants is that the questions asked may be embarrassing, insensitive, worrying or upsetting. The risk of a few people taking part in research being asked sensitive questions may be balanced against hoped-for benefits in the future. For example, you might want to interview terminally ill adults about their care experiences, and you hope that your research will improve end-of-life care services in the future. However, the danger is that researchers can justify any research by claiming huge hoped-for benefits. As a researcher, you need to be clear whether you are considering risk and benefit to the individual research participant, or are using the much looser equation of risk to the participant and hoped-for benefits to society. Most codes of ethical conduct state that the researchers’ first concern must be the effects on the individual research respondent. You also need to consider risks to researchers, including yourself.