Core Issues

Outline of subsections

Responsibilities to research participants (see below) >

• Anonymity and Confidentiality >

This subsection introduces and establishes the fundamental ethical importance of anonymity and confidentiality. The necessity to guarantee anonymity and confidentiality is explored, together with the importance of providing realistic guarantees. The appropriateness, in some situations, of a "phased consent" procedure is discussed. This subsection concludes with consideration of situations in which exceptions to anonymity and confidentiality may apply.

• Informed Consent >

This subsection established the importance of voluntary and fully informed consent as a basic ethical principle for social research. Criteria are set out for the dimensions of information that should be provided and the procedures by which consent should be sought. Advice is given for writing information sheets and consent forms; and consideration is given to situations where seeking written consent may be inappropriate. The appropriateness, in some situations, of a "phased consent" procedure is discussed. The issue of seeking consent "by proxy" is considered for situations where research participants are not considered competent to provide such consent themselves. The subsection concludes with a discussion of situation in which covert data gathering – i.e. without the consent of those studied – may be legitimate.

• Sample Consent Forms and Information Sheets >

Some sample, editable consent forms, covering a variety of different research scenarios are provided.

• Professional Integrity >

The necessity for probity at all stages of research is emphasised. Whilst this refers first and foremost to obligations to those researched, it is also relevant to relations with funders, governments, one‘s academic institution and other academics. The issue of "whistle blowing" is considered. Issues of inappropriate expectations by funders and pressure that may be exerted on researchers are discussed, with special consideration being given to potentially invidious the situation of short-term contract researchers.

• Legitimacy of Data >

The question of what constitutes legitimate data is discussed, with reference back to issues of informed consent and covert data collection. The matter of falsification of data or consent forms is also covered.

• Data Protection Act >

This section gives some general guidance on researchers' obligations under the Data Protection Act.

• Safety and Risk in the Field >

This section covers issues relating to safety of researcher's in the field, together with ethical and legal obligations to colleagues and employees. General advice covering a range of different situations and potential dangers is given. Consideration is also given to dangers of emotional trauma (or ‘burn out’) and, in this regard, the necessity to safeguard people employed to transcribe tapes is pointed out. The risk associated with politically contentious research are also discussed.

Responsibilities to research participants

Researchers enter into a personal and moral relationship with those they study and should strive to protect their rights. Researchers have a responsibility to ensure that the physical, social and psychological well-being or research the participant is not adversely affected by the research. So, while researchers are committed to the advancement of knowledge, the goal of the research does not provide a right to override the rights of others. Wherever possible, researchers should seek to:

  • minimise disturbance to both those participating in the research and to their relationships with their environment and those gatekeepers who may control access to participants -since these relationships will continue long after the researcher has left;
  • anticipate and guard against consequences for research participants which can be predicted to be harmful and try to anticipate the long-term effects on individuals or groups as a result of the research;
  • take special care where research participants are particularly vulnerable by virtue of age, social status and powerlessness;
  • resort to covert research only where it is impossible to use other methods to obtain essential data (in such studies it is important to safeguard the anonymity of research participants);
  • take care to avoid falsification or misrepresentation of evidence, data, findings or conclusions;
  • clarify with participants the extent to which they are allowed to see transcripts of any interviews and field notes and to alter the content or interpretation of the data.


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