Call for collaboration: Confronting ethical dilemmas in qualitative research with international students

by Dr Keanen M. McKinley

Last year, I conducted interviews with international students as part of a qualitative study. Throughout the course of the study—including conducting the interviews, drafting my manuscript, and sharing my preliminary results—I often faced ethical dilemmas. For example, a student mentioned international students speak “international English.” Qualitative research methodologists urge researchers to ground their work in examples, like participant quotes, that provide context and allow readers to draw their own conclusions (Elliott et al., 1999). However, how was I to share participant quotes that may not be considered “proper English” without portraying the participant negatively or distorting what they said?

Qualitative methodologists have offered guidelines for conducting ethical and quality research (e.g., Morrow, 2005), but I have found no such guidelines for researchers who work with international students, despite researchers often drawing attention to students’ potential vulnerability (e.g., Forbes-Mewett, 2020; Marginson, 2013; Sherry et al., 2010). Existing guidelines have clear implications for researchers who work with international students. For instance, qualitative researchers encourage participants to choose their own research pseudonyms (Allen & Wiles, 2015). If a participant chooses a name that might identify their home country and risk their confidentiality, though, should researchers set limitations on what names can be chosen? What limitations would be justified? Qualitative methodologists also caution researchers “must be prepared to provide psychological support if their interviews create undue stress or raise psychological complications” (DiCicco-Bloom & Crabtree, 2006). For students who have faced extraordinary circumstances, like refugee students, what supports are considered adequate? What action should researchers take “in the moment,” should a student require support?

To start addressing these and other ethical dilemmas, I seek to collaborate with researchers who work with international students and have experience with qualitative research. I propose following the example of Williams (1996), who shared several ethical issues that surfaced during her own research. Her paper is an intimate look at the research process and the ethical dilemmas she faced noting, “I am, in some sense, owning up to the ways in which I solved, or more often failed to solve, these dilemmas” (Williams, 1996, p. 40). Her work provides insights for novice and experienced researchers, and as my proposed project would appear to be the first among researchers who work with international students, it would be fitting to write this paper for researchers with a wide range of research expertise and experience.

If you are interested in working on this project, please contact me at By confronting our own ethical dilemmas, we can help ensure researchers are conducting ethical qualitative research with international students that ultimately improves their experiences.

About the Author
Dr. Keanen McKinley is the Assistant Director for Assessment and Reporting, Arts & Sciences Dean’s Office at William & Mary. As a scholar-practitioner and applied research methodologist, his research brings together his interests in research methodologies and the internationalization of higher education to advance research practices.


Allen, R. E., & Wiles, J. L. (2016). A rose by any other name: Participants choosing research pseudonyms. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 13(2), 149-165.

DiCicco-Bloom, B., & Crabtree, B. F. (2006). The qualitative research interview. MedicalEducation, 40(4), 314-321.

Elliott, R., Fischer, C. T., & Rennie D. L. (1999). Evolving guidelines for publication ofqualitative research studies in psychology and related fields. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 38(3), 215-229.

Forbes-Mewett, H. (2020). Vulnerability and resilience in a mobile world: The case of international students. Journal of International Students, 10(3), ix-xi.

Marginson, S. (2013). Equals or others? Mobile students in a nationally bordered world. In S. Sovic & M. Blythman (Eds.), International students negotiating higher education: Critical perspectives (pp. 9-27). Routledge.

Morrow, S. L. (2005). Quality and trustworthiness in qualitative research in counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(2), 250-260.

Sherry, M., Thomas, P., & Chui, W. H. (2010). International students: A vulnerable student population. Higher Education, 60, 33-46.

Williams, C. L. (1996). Dealing with the data: Ethical issues in case study research. In P. Mortensen & G. Kirsch (Eds.), Ethics and representation in qualitative studies of literacy (pp. 40-57). National Council of Teachers of English.

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