From Conferences

Meet a researcher – Helen Kara

Today is special for two reasons. Firstly, it sees the launch of the Second Edition of Helen Kara’s excellent book ‘Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time Saving Guide’. And secondly it marks the beginning of a new series of blog posts where researchers tell you about themselves.

When I think about what an ideal researcher would be like it’s someone who is approachable, generous with their time and knowledge, well connected, compassionate, critical, thoughtful – and fun. Finding all of those things together in one person is a lot to expect, but Helen Kara is a role model in that regard and I can’t think of a better person to kick off this series of researcher profiles.

Helen’s trademark is making practical aspects of research accessible to all – not just in conveying complex information in easy to follow formats – but also in publishing via open access or low cost outlets which dramatically increases who is able to learn about getting research done.

Anyway, enough from me, I’ll pass you over to Helen with more about her research career to date – and of course details about her much anticipated second edition.


I did a research degree in the early 1980s, a BSc in Social Psychology at LSE, but I didn’t go on to pursue a career in research. I’m not even sure I knew there was such a thing other than lab work. In January 1999 I was asked to do a piece of research as a one-off. I agreed, did a reasonably good job, people got to hear about it and I was asked to do more. I realised I enjoyed the work, but that I needed to brush up on my skills, so I signed up for an MSc in Social Research Methods at Staffordshire University in September 1999. I graduated in 2001 but wasn’t finished with studying, so I went on to do a PhD at the Open University which I was awarded in 2006.

In 2008 I had the opportunity to help out an academic friend by doing some teaching at the Centre for Health Studies in Damascus, Syria. That was before the conflict and it was a fascinating, friendly city, proud of its history of religious tolerance. I was teaching qualitative research methods to Syrian doctors and it was an amazing experience.

On the whole, though, my clients were local authorities, charities at local, regional and national levels, and central Government departments. By the time I finished my PhD I had good networks all around the Midlands, where I’m based, and beyond. However, that changed dramatically following the change of Government in 2010. Within a year, almost everyone in my networks had taken early retirement, or redundancy, or been demoted to an operational post.

I didn’t want another career change so I needed to reinvent myself. In the last year of my PhD I’d decided I wanted to write a research methods book, and now I had the time. I also needed access to academic literature, and friends advised me to seek an honorary fellowship with a university. I looked online and found that the Third Sector Research Centre, at the University of Birmingham, was looking for visiting fellows. I applied and was accepted, and worked with a mentor with whom I published several short academic pieces.

I also published my first book in 2012 with Policy Press. Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide was launched at the British Library, a stroke of luck resulting from some voluntary work I had been doing for the Library. It received good reviews and, more importantly, got me some paid work. I’d had to take a part-time job in September 2011, to make ends meet, and I was anxious to give it up; by September 2013 I was able to do so.

As a result of a conversation at my book launch, I was invited onto the Board of the Social Research Association (SRA – I’d been a member for many years). There were a couple of roles available and I chose to lead on ethics. I was also increasingly active on social media, particularly Twitter, which led to some paid work from people who only knew me online.

My second book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, came out in 2015. I was lucky again with another book launch at the British Library, this time with a one-day conference attached. I say ‘lucky’ but actually it was a lot of work to organise, though I had help from the SRA and my publisher. Almost 200 people came from three continents and it was a terrific day. I still wasn’t earning much, but I was earning enough to live on and doing the work I love. Later that year I was invited to work in Calgary, Alberta. I gave a keynote speech at a conference in the Public Library and taught at the Universities of Calgary and Mount Royal – another wonderful international experience. Also in 2015 I became a Visiting Fellow at the National Centre for Research Methods. And in the autumn of that year, I received the most amazing honour, being the first fully independent researcher to be conferred as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

In 2015-16 I expanded into academic self-publishing with a series of short affordable e-books for doctoral students. The autumn of 2016 was an exciting time: I was invited to give a keynote speech at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, and taught creative research methods there and at La Trobe University too. Also, I prepared the second edition of my first research methods book, adding a whole new chapter and revising everything else including the title. It’s now called Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide – and is published today!

Now I’m working on my next full-length book which will be on research ethics. I’d really love for someone to pay me to write, but that will never happen. Fortunately I seem to be able to support myself, these days, through research and teaching. I hope to do so for the rest of my working life.

Smile! Just took your picture for my study

In the latest edition of The Lancet’s Global Health is a short piece entitled “Preserving dignity and anonymity at scientific conferences”. It encourages those working across the social sciences, health and development (research and practice) to consider the impact of both taking photos and films within our work – and in sharing those images at public events. It’s an excellent piece, and one that is well worth using in your own self-development or in wider teaching about presentation skills, safety and wellbeing, individual and community rights, and professional ethics.

It reminded me of a case study I’ve used in teaching many times, that I published in 2010 (then titled ‘Smile! You’re on my phone’s camera’). It’s based on a real story, but I deliberately altered identifying details. I developed it as a training activity for healthcare practitioners to consider some of the shifting boundaries that exist around mobile technology and our working practices. In an era where we’re eager to use new technologies to improve healthcare and health education there can also be hidden issues we’ve perhaps not focused on as much as we should.

See what you think about the case described below. What would you do if you were the healthcare practitioner, the patient, or the carer talked about in the story?

Darrell, a newly qualified physiotherapist was talking animatedly with his colleagues over lunch about a new patient Ketan, a six-year-old boy recovering from a car accident that had left him with severe leg injuries. ‘He’s amazing!’ enthused Darrell, explaining how Ketan was slowly learning to walk again, ‘here, let me show you’. Darrell produced his smartphone, and showed his colleagues a series of photographs. There was Ketan concentrating hard, frowning as he performed his exercises. Next a shot of the injured leg, followed by a beaming Ketan giving a gap-toothed grin and thumb’s up to the camera. Louise, one of Darrell’s co-workers was the only one to appear concerned. Raising her voice above the ‘isn’t he adorable?’ comments of her colleagues she asked ‘is it okay to take pictures like this?’ ‘Oh yes’ Darrell reassured her ‘I asked Ket’s mum and she said it was fine, in fact, here they are together’. A fourth photograph was shown, picturing a smiling Ketan seated on his mum’s lap, pointing at his leg, whilst she looked uncertainly into the camera.

Darrell’s case probably isn’t that unusual. With new technologies it’s now easier than ever to capture a memorable moment, and that includes colleagues, patients and their families. Darrell wasn’t using the images for research or training, he was inspired by Ketan and wanted to share that feeling with others. He genuinely meant no harm. Ketan was clearly happy to show off his ‘poorly pins’ as he and Darrell had come to name them. Ketan’s mum probably was happy that such an enthusiastic health professional admired her son enough to take his picture.

But would she have agreed so readily knowing Darrell intended to show the picture to his colleagues, friends, and relatives? Perhaps Ketan’s mum thought that Darrell’s photo taking was part of his job or her son’s recovery, so didn’t question it. Or maybe she felt unable to say no.

Consistently we ask patients to share their stories, lend us their images, and let us sample bits of their bodies. We use this to diagnose, help and treat patients, to teach medical students, or to make new discoveries in research. Patients can expect to be asked to share their histories, be photographed, filmed or audio taped. That doesn’t mean they always understand what they are consenting to, nor have control over how the information, images, or samples they provide will be used.

And outside of this process are the health care staff like Darrell with their own agendas. They collect images or stories to explain their work, to move others as they’ve been moved, or even to make themselves look good in front of friends and colleagues. Maybe like Darrell they show a picture of a cute case study, or perhaps regale squeamish friends down the pub with a story of a particularly gruesome illness or difficult patient. Shouldn’t we be training our staff to respect patient confidentiality and privacy? Or in criticising someone like Darrell are we stifling their skills, and denying them job satisfaction?

In an era where public access is greater than ever, where we’re used to seeing candid shots of celebrities, Darrell’s behaviour isn’t out of place. But in a hospital setting where his job is to provide care, is it appropriate? Ketan’s recovery made a remarkable story – but maybe it wasn’t Darrell’s to tell.

You can use this story in several ways. You can think about changing the dynamics – what happens if you alter the gender, age, status, or ethnicity of the protagonists in this case?

You can also consider how this kind of situation occurs in teaching settings, with students filming or photographing and sharing stories of classmates or lecturers. In research where participants or wider communities can be filmed or photographed. Or where films or images are collected during work in development or aid. Images certainly can be used to raise awareness, drive funding or explain complex issues more simply. Which may be essential in crisis situations.

When is it okay to share images? How can this be explained to those you’re filming or photographing? And what happens when you take a photo or a film with people you’re researching or treating but not at a point when you – or they – consider this to be a formal study or therapeutic situation.

Answers to these questions may seem obvious, but often they are not. We are so used to sharing images and posting status updates it may feel odd to not be able to take pictures of what you want, where you want, and share it how you want. Having a space to talk about when it is – and is not – okay to photograph or film. And noting different places where it might be okay or not to share images, and the consequences of doing so.

If you’ve got examples of good practice or templates for gaining consent or encouraging ethical and respectful practice I’d love to hear them in the comments. Conversely learning from where people have been filmed or photographed without full consent is also important to talk about, so long as we don’t reproduce any abuses or breach anonymity and confidentiality.