Core Issues

What constitutes legitimate data?

Ethical codes of practice stress that researchers should only collect data:

  • for which consent has been obtained;
  • which is relevant to the research.

This provides a general definition of what constitutes ‘legitimate’ data in the research process, although the extent to which these two requirements can be fulfilled depends on the nature of each individual project.

Not all data is ethically legitimate. The following case study illustrates a situation where the researcher was in a position to limit his questioning of participants, in order to maintain the commitments he had made to the participants on the consent form:

Case Study 1

Kvale carried out interviews with school children to investigate the effects of a grading system on the pupils. The pupils were partially informed of the purpose of the study. During the interviews, some of them were embarrassed about describing the ways in which they related to certain forms of ‘grading behaviour’ and their accounts were ‘general and vague’. Kvale would have liked to investigate this reaction in order to obtain more detailed and reliable data, but chose instead to give priority to the pupils’ well-being, since when they had consented to being interviewed they had not been told that the interview topics would challenge their self-concepts.

Kvale, S.1996. Interviews: An Introduction to Qualitative Research Interviewing.
Thousand Oaks, London and New Delhi: Sage.p154

The case study below provides an example of how, even with sound ethical principles, it is not always possible for the researcher to control the research setting to such an extent that s/he is exposed only to the data for which consent has been obtained. In such circumstances the researcher may find themselves faced with a dilemma concerning the extent to which the data collected or experienced can be used in the research – if at all.

Case Study 1

A research project on anaesthesia was being undertaken by a researcher who was very familiar, not only with the research setting being observed, but also with the participants with whom she had previously worked as a nurse. On one occasion, two consultants held a confidential conversation within the researcher’s earshot, despite their awareness that the observational study was going on. Although they had moved across the room they made no effort to lower their voices. The researcher’s dilemma was whether or not to record the conversation. She decided that although she was overtly taking field notes at the time, and that the consultants were aware of this, she could not ensure that anonymity was maintained for the consultants or for the member of staff being discussed. She was also uncertain of the extent to which the consultants had behaved in such a manner because they trusted her to be discrete. She therefore decided to record that a confidential conversation had occurred, but not its actual substance.


Contributed by Dawn Goodwin. ‘Ethics and Ethnography: An Experiential Account.’
Unpublished paper. (2001)

Covertly collected data

In general, data which has been obtained by covert means – that is, without the participants’ knowledge – cannot be considered legitimate. However, there is a view that covert data collection can be considered legitimate when:

  • The data obtained by covert methods will contribute to the ‘greater good’ of a community and cannot be obtained by overt approaches; or
  • Informing the participants of the precise research purpose may seriously compromise the integrity of the data. .

Please see the Informed Consent section for a fuller discussion of the ethics of covert data collection.

Falsification of data

Clearly, any falsification of data is a matter of academic misconduct. In the present context, this would include falsification of consent forms.

Useful sources and references:

British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL) 1994. Recommendations on Good Practice.

Grinyer, A. 2001. ‘Ethical Dilemmas in Nonclinical Health Research from a UK Perspective’. Nursing Ethics 8 (2) pp123-132.

Punch, M. 1986. The Politics and Ethics of Fieldwork. London: Sage.

Wilson, K. 1992. Thinking about the Ethics of Fieldwork. In Devereux, S. & J. Hoddinott (eds). Fieldwork in Developing Countries. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.



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