Core Issues

Researchers have a responsibility to both safeguard the proper interests of those involved in or affected by their work, and to report their findings accurately and truthfully. They should also satisfy themselves that the research they undertake is worthwhile and that the techniques proposed are appropriate. The advancement of knowledge and the pursuit of information are not in themselves sufficient justifications for overriding the values and ignoring the interests of those studied.

When working in collaborative research, researchers should make everyone’s ethical and professional obligations clear. Care should be taken to clarify the roles, rights and responsibilities; access and rights in data and field notes, access to travel and conference expenses, publications and co-authorship in publication.

Researchers should also:

  • recognise the boundaries of their professional competence and not accept work they are not qualified to carry out;
  • aim to conduct their professional lives in such a way as not to jeopardize future research;
  • ensure all aspects of research are reported in enough detail to allow other researchers to understand and interpret them.

See also, the Legitimacy of Data and Data Security (Data Protection Act) tabs.

Whistle blowing

Any researcher who believes that another investigator may be conducting research not in accordance with good ethical practice has an obligation to bring the matter to the attention of the principal investigator in the first instance, who will draw the issue to the attention of the appropriate authorities. If the principal investigator is the subject of the whistle blowing, the researcher should either consult the institution’s code of practice, or if none exists, draw the issue to the attention of the principal investigator’s line manager. It is normal practice for institutions to have clearly established procedures for whistle blowing, that aim to protect the rights of both the accuser and the accused. You may wish to familiarize yourself with your institution’s code of practice.

Responsibility to funders

Researchers should attempt to ensure that sponsors and/or funders appreciate the obligations that the researcher has – not only to them, but also to research participants, professional colleagues and society at large. Researchers should be careful not to promise or imply acceptance of conditions that are contrary to their professional ethics or competing commitments.

Further, the relationship between sponsors/funders and the researcher should be such as to enable inquiry to be undertaken as objectively as possible. Researchers should not accept contractual conditions that are contingent upon a particular outcome. Researchers should clarify in advance the respective obligations of funders and researchers, where possible, in the form of a written contract. When negotiating sponsorship, researchers should be aware of the requirements of the law with respect to the ownership and rights of access to data. Some sources of funding and sponsorship may be contentious. Researchers should aim to clarify, before signing the contract, that they are entitled to disclose the source of funds, its personnel, the aims of the institution, and the purposes of the project. Emphasis should be on maximum openness. The data and results of a research study belong to the researchers who designed and conducted the study unless alternative contractual arrangements have been made with respect to either the data, or the results, or both. Researchers should try to clarify their right to publish and spread the results of their research to all relevant stakeholders. The researcher should have the right, as a last resort and following discussions with the funding body, to publicly dissociate themselves from misleadingly selective accounts of the research. Researchers should recognise and fulfil their own obligations to the sponsors/funders whether contractually defined or not. They should be honest and candid about their expertise and not try to conceal factors that are likely to affect satisfactory conditions or the completion of the proposed research. Agencies funding research are entitled to an account of the use of their funds and to a report of the procedures, findings and implications of the funded research.

Research for external bodies

Researchers may be asked to contribute their expertise to public bodies by becoming members of committees, working parties or review bodies. Such work is an important arena for the dissemination of the research. However, it can lead to involvement in the formulation of policy which conflicts with the individual’s expert opinions and the general principles of the researcher’s discipline. In such cases, researchers may wish to instigate the production of a minority report which presents a dissenting view, to resign from the committee or act as a whistle blower. Researchers placed in a dilemma of this kind might wish to consult the principal investigator or relevant line manager (for example a head of department or other).

Contracts to industry

There is an increasing tendency in academic research for collaboration with industry. However, the conditions under which academic researchers collaborate with external organisations may be such that good research practice suffers because of the desire to see a contract through to completion. While academic researchers should not engage in contract research without agreement by the institution, the latter should not be allowed to compel academic staff to engage in particular contract research.

The situation of the short-term contract researcher

Contract research, as the term implies, is a relatively short term arrangement between a university and a researcher. Some professional bodies set high standards of ethical practice which contract researchers are increasingly unable to meet, often because of financial and professional insecurity. This situation can be exacerbated in situations where funding for short-term researchers is dependent on external contracts with industry (see below). The terms of the contract between a university and a short-term contract researcher are made clear; but what is often not made clear in the case of contracts undertaken for an external funder is the relationship between the contractor and the funder. Recent EEC legislation determines that a fixed-term contract which extends beyond four consecutive years will automatically become indefinite unless the employer can show objective justification for its continued use. This goes some way to protect contract researchers. In response academic institutions have introduced strategies for assisting career development and managing expectations of contract researchers. Contract researchers should familiarize themselves with the situation their own institution. Additionally, ‘The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers’ sets out national principles. However, it remains likely that early-career contract researchers will work on externally funded projects and that they may feel less able than their tenured colleagues to turn down opportunities for continued employment.

Academic freedom and “academic prostitution”

The increasing reliance of academics on commercial funds may lead to indiscriminate acceptance of a research contract, as the following case study illustrates:


Case Study

One researcher, who could not get a full-time lecturing job, became a multiple contract worker. She did many varied pieces of research in a wide variety of subjects, from papers going to the Cabinet Office to a “quickie bit of research”. She never said ‘no’ to a contract. Beckett, F. ‘The Truth Exposed’ AUTLOOK Issue 217 January 2001 p8-10

The insecure nature of contract research can lead to bad practice for a number of reasons:

  • The job may be beyond the boundaries of the researcher’s competence;
  • The researcher may be under pressure to work in a way that is a) not objective; and b) time-limited, so compromising accuracy and honesty;
  • The researcher may not have the right to control dissemination of the research findings; and
  • The researcher may not consider the consequences of their work.

It may be helpful for contract researchers in academia, undertaking research for external organisations, to be aware of the potential areas of conflicting interest that give rise to bad practice at the outset of the contract. The contract could address issues such as:

  • What happens if the focus of the research changes – for example, if the client becomes the subject of the research;
  • The limitations on the type of data that can be collected and used;
  • The limitations on the subsequent use of the data;
  • Who should approve any proposed publications;
  • Who is in control of the dissemination process;
  • The provision of pre-publication material to the client;
  • Who owns the intellectual property right;
  • The use of the researcher’s and the institution’s name by the client; and
  • The ethical implications of the research as they apply to all parties involved in the process, including issues of anonymity for individuals and organisations.

“Blue skies” research and “interest led” research

Addressing these issues is one way in which the contributions of academics can be established as distinct from those of consultants at an early stage in the collaboration. Clients may then be less likely to expect researchers to provide an academic rubber stamp for their research opening up researchers to criticisms over abuse of position as occurred in the following example:

Professor Roger Scruton, a regular on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, was in collaboration with a Japanese Tobacco company to promote pro-smoking articles in some of Britain’s newspapers and magazines through his Fleet Street contacts. The director of ASH, the anti-smoking campaign, criticised Scruton for abusing his academic status to earn money: “Scruton likes to pass himself off as the leading intellectual of the right, but it seems he’s just a grimy hack for the tobacco industry.” (Maguire, K. & J.Borger ‘Scruton in media plot to push the sale of cigarettes’ The Guardian, 24th January, 2002)

The University and College Union (UCU) anti-casualisation campaign

The UCU has taken up the issue of contractor research and engaged in an ongoing national campaign against the “casualisation” (i.e. fixed term contracts in higher education) of researchers, which it claims has caused significant damage to the researchers affected. (see )

Useful sources and references:

British Sociological Association (BSA) ‘Statement of Ethical Practice’. Grinyer, A. 1999. Anticipating the Problems of Contract Social Research. Social Research Update. Issue 27, University of Surrey.



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