At present in the UK we have no reliable system of ethical governance or review. The sanctions we can apply to those who discredit our profession are limited. There is no comprehensive system of registration or licensing which can confirm the credentials or quality of a researcher for commissioners or the general public.
Chair, Social Research Association
(SRA, 2003, p.6)
Recent legislative changes with regard to human rights and data protection – and an increasing concern amongst large organisations to act responsibly towards their suppliers, employees and customers – have led to a growing awareness that accountability is an ethical concept and not merely a financial or commercial one.
This has led to concern that a system of research governance be established – especially in the light of advanced information and communications technology. Consequently, many different professional associations, government agencies, and universities have adopted specific codes, rules, and policies relating to research ethics.
The aim of the Social Research Association (SRA) guidelines is not to lay down a set of rules and regulations but rather “to document widely held principles of research and to identify the factors which obstruct their implementation”, (SRA, 2003, p.10) thus enabling researcher’s individual ethical judgements and decisions to be informed by shared values and experience.
SRA (2003) identifies that the researcher has obligations to society, to funders and employers, to colleagues and to the subjects (or respondents) of research.
Social researchers must strive to protect subjects from undue harm arising as a consequence of their participation in research. This requires that subjects’ participation should be voluntary and as fully informed as possible and no group should be disadvantaged by routinely being excluded from consideration. (SRA, 2003, p.14)
Researchers are advised, amongst other things, to:
Avoid undue intrusion - bearing in mind that “some forms of social enquiry may appear to be more intrusive than others. For instance, statistical samples may be selected without the knowledge or consent of their members; contact may be sought with subjects without advance warning; questions may be asked which cause distress or offence; people may be observed without their knowledge; and information about individuals or groups may be obtained from third parties.” (SRA, 2003, p.26)
Obtain informed consent - which may initially involve gaining the consent of the gatekeepers of vulnerable populations – such as children; those with learning difficulties; those in dependent relationship on the person or organisation commissioning the reseach; and members of social groups that may be subject to discrimination. Researchers are reminded that it is not sufficient that the gatekeepers give initial consent: it may also be necessary to obtain the consent of the vulnerable subject. It is difficult to define what constitutes informed consent – especially where there is a need to withhold the aim of the research for fear that such knowledge may affect an experiment or bias responses.
Ensure that no groups are excluded (for reasons of disability, culture, language, etc.) Sampling methods must be fairly designed and carefully implemented.
Maintain confidentiality of records. Although the records themselves may be rigorously guarded, the researcher should ensure transparency with regard to the collection methods and procedures employed to gather that information. This principle may conflict with the desire to remain unobtrusive insofar as it might sometimes be considered more convenient and less obtrusive to utilise data that has already been collected, rather than embark on a new enquiry. The researcher must at all times seek to maintain integrity.
Protect the identity of subjects by suitably anonymising any data that may lead to subjects being identified. This is particularly important where researchers are furnished with privileged information the release of which may be detrimental to the wellbeing of the subject.
SRA (2003) Ethical Guidelines. Social Research Association [online]
Available at: <www.the-sra.org.uk/documents/pdfs/ethics03.pdf> [Accessed 29 November 2009]
See also: Sheffield Hallam University guidelines. Research Ethics: Research involving human participants [online]
Available at: <http://students.shu.ac.uk/rightsrules/resethics1.html> [Accessed 29 November 2009]
A general summary of ethical principals.*
Strive for honesty in all scientific communications. Honestly report data, results, methods and procedures, and publication status. Do not fabricate, falsify, or misrepresent data. Do not deceive colleagues, granting agencies, or the public.
Strive to avoid bias in experimental design, data analysis, data interpretation, peer review, personnel decisions, grant writing, expert testimony, and other aspects of research where objectivity is expected or required. Avoid or minimize bias or self-deception. Disclose personal or financial interests that may affect research.
Keep your promises and agreements; act with sincerity; strive for consistency of thought and action.
Avoid careless errors and negligence; carefully and critically examine your own work and the work of your peers. Keep good records of research activities, such as data collection, research design, and correspondence with agencies or journals.
Share data, results, ideas, tools, resources. Be open to criticism and new ideas.
Respect for Intellectual Property
Honour patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property. Do not use unpublished data, methods, or results without permission. Give credit where credit is due. Give proper acknowledgement or credit for all contributions to research. Never plagiarize.
Protect confidential communications, such as papers or grants submitted for publication, personnel records, trade or military secrets, and patient records.
Publish in order to advance research and scholarship, not to advance just your own career. Avoid wasteful and duplicative publication.
Help to educate, mentor, and advise students. Promote their welfare and allow them to make their own decisions.
Respect for colleagues
Respect your colleagues and treat them fairly.
Strive to promote social good and prevent or mitigate social harms through research, public education, and advocacy.
Avoid discrimination against colleagues or students on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, or other factors that are not related to their scientific competence and integrity.
Maintain and improve your own professional competence and expertise through lifelong education and learning; take steps to promote competence in science as a whole.
Know and obey relevant laws and institutional and governmental policies.
Show proper respect and care for animals when using them in research. Do not conduct unnecessary or poorly designed animal experiments.
Human Subjects Protection
When conducting research on human subjects, minimize harms and risks and maximize benefits; respect human dignity, privacy, and autonomy; take special precautions with vulnerable populations; and strive to distribute the benefits and burdens of research fairly.
* Adapted from Shamoo A and Resnik D. 2003. Responsible Conduct of Research (New York: Oxford University Press).
What is Ethics in Research & Why is it Important?
David B Resnik, J.D., Ph.D.