IST Programme RESPECT: an IST Programme Project
     home          The Code         User Guide    publications     partners          links          contact     

RESPECT for research ethics: principles and dilemmas

 

The research aims of any study should both benefit society and minimise social harm

The general principle

It is the responsibility of both the commissioner of research and the researchers who conduct the work, jointly, to develop a set of research aims and objectives which benefit society and minimise social harm. This means that any benefits derived from the research should outweigh any harm caused.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

How should it be assessed whether the need for the research outweighs any potential harm it might cause? Who should be responsible for making the assessment — researcher, commissioner or some independent agency? How can the interests of the range of different stakeholders be balanced? How can the interests of other stakeholders groups, who may not be directly involved in the research project, be protected?

Who decides what constitutes harm and benefits? How can the different understanding of what these are for different groups be reconciled?

Is conducting research purely for the pursuit of knowledge ethically justifiable?

Is it, in principle, ethically sound to randomly assign human subjects to comparative groups for the purpose of ‘controlled’ experiments?

Researchers should endeavour to balance professional integrity with respect for national and international law

The general principle

Socio-economic research is a profession whose members have technical and substantive expertise and who work to ethical standards. However, when conducting research, researchers must in general not contravene national and international laws. In circumstances where this does happen, this should be a result of conscious deliberation and decision, rather than due to ignorance.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

Is contravening the law ever acceptable?

Which laws apply to Internet research?

What should happen in situations of conflict between the law and ethical standards/philosophy?

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that research is commissioned and conducted with respect for, and awareness of, gender differences

The general principle

In designing and conducting a study, and in putting together a research team, researchers must pay attention to, and respect, gender differences. Whether or not there is equality legislation in a country, attention must be paid to the way people are treated, the use of gendered language, issues of inclusion in research, and the different impact of various methodologies on women and men.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

Do particular research methodologies discriminate against women or men?

Are there practical mechanisms for ensuring that gendered language and concepts are not included in any aspect of the research design, conduct or reporting?

How can it be ensured that members of research teams are treated in relation to their contribution and expertise, rather than due to their gender or seniority?

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that research is commissioned and conducted with respect for all groups in society, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion and culture

The general principle

In designing and conducting a study, and in putting together a research team, researchers and commissioners should pay attention to, and respect, all groups, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion or culture. Whether or not there is equality legislation in a country, attention should be paid to the way people are treated, the use of language, issues of inclusion in research and the impact of various methodologies on different groups.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

Do particular research methodologies discriminate against people from different racial, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds?

By what means can it be ensured that different groups are properly represented in research studies, and if not, that this is due to considered rationale rather than omission or accident?

How can it be ensured that racist or xenophobic language and concepts are not included in any aspect of the research design, conduct or reporting?

How can it be ensured that members of research teams are treated in relation to their contribution and expertise, rather than because of their nationality, skin colour, religion, culture or ethnicity?

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that research is commissioned and conducted with respect for under-represented social groups and that attempts are made to avoid their marginalisation or exclusion

The general principle

All research studies must take into account the treatment of under-represented social groups by ensuring that they are appropriately treated in all aspects, from research design to reporting the findings. It is important that these groups are not excluded from research, but also that research findings do not lead to their further marginalisation. Equally, it is important that vulnerable or marginalised groups are not over-researched so that participating becomes a burden for them.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

How is it possible to ensure that these groups are adequately represented in large-scale studies?

How is it possible to ensure that any singling out of these groups is not to their disadvantage?

To what extent can it be guaranteed that findings from research studies are not used to further marginalise and stigmatise these groups?

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that the concerns of relevant stakeholders and user groups are addressed

The general principle

Researchers need to take into account the needs and concerns of stakeholders and user groups with an interest in the research, from the beginning of a project. This will ensure that different groups are properly involved and not just brought in at the final stage when it is too late to make an input.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

When interests conflict, how should this be resolved and which should be given priority?

How should situations be dealt with when treating one group ethically is to the disadvantage of another?

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that an appropriate research method is selected on the basis of informed professional expertise

The general principle

Researchers have professional expertise, including both methodological expertise and substantive knowledge, which must inform their selection of research method. Researchers should have knowledge of a wide range of socio-economic research methods or, at a minimum, a full understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their own specialism, and how this fits with others.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

What is good research? It is important that methodologies are assessed and critiqued from an informed position, rather than on the basis of vested interest and conflicts of interests.

Selecting an appropriate method involves balancing the needs of the client/sponsor with the methodologies available. Conflicts may arise.

The most appropriate methodology may not be possible within the timescale and budget available. It is up to the researcher to point this out to the client and, where possible, offer an alternative. The researcher should not mislead the client as to what is possible.

In deciding on the appropriate methodology, the full range of ethical considerations need to be taken into account. If the most appropriate methodology is ethically difficult, this needs to be discussed and, if necessary, alternatives considered.

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that the research team has the necessary professional expertise and support

The general principle

The research team must have the appropriate professional expertise (see RESPECT report on professional competencies) to work on a particular project and be given the necessary training to fill any gaps in skills and ensure that these skills are up to date. Members of a research team should be treated in relation to the contribution they make to a project, rather than on the basis of seniority and experience.

Researchers may experience physical and/or emotional distress or harm during the course of a project. They need to be briefed on the potential for this, and the means of ameliorating any harm need to be in place.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

Identifying the potential for a research project to cause harm or distress is not always straightforward. What may distress one researcher may have no impact on another.

To fully engage in, and understand, social processes, some element of harm or danger may be inevitable. It is important to balance the potential for harm against the need for the research, and to put in place mechanisms for dealing with the harm or distress caused.

At times it may be necessary to take professional risks and challenge established norms, possibly putting a researcher in a risky position professionally.

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that the research process does not involve any unwarranted material gain or loss for any participant

The general principle

Researchers should not gain commercially or through gifts from interested parties during the course of a research project, apart from the income due to them for conducting the work.

Respondents may be remunerated to cover the costs of expenses incurred in taking part in a study, for example, a focus group, or given an appropriate payment or gift to encourage participation. Payments or gifts of an excessive nature which amount to bribery and which might influence the outcome of a study or lead to unequal treatment are not acceptable.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

When does payment or the making of gifts to a researcher become unacceptable and take the form of a bribe or undue influence?

When does payment to a respondent become a bribe?

What impact does rewarding of respondents have on response rates and the quality of the data collected? When is some form of reward justified to improve these?

When does the burden of research become so great, and unequal to that on other groups, that some form of remuneration becomes necessary?

Researchers should endeavour to ensure factual accuracy and avoid falsification, fabrication, suppression or misinterpretation of data

The general principle

Any research study should be designed, conducted and reported in such a way that the findings are accurate and not compromised by preconceptions, or by any particular political and philosophical stance.

Findings and data should not be falsified or suppressed for any reason.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

Can researchers ever operate in a value-free way? Most researchers work from a particular theoretical, political or philosophical view of the world. What is important is that a project is not designed and conducted simply to reflect and reinforce these views. All stages of the study should allow issues which are contradictory to these views to emerge and be properly acknowledged.

Participants in research studies provide their own perspectives of the issues under study. It is important that researchers do not naively accept these in reporting the data.

Participants may mislead researchers — researchers must ensure that they do not create a situation in which respondents feel that this is appropriate or acceptable, and that they are aware of any such possibilities when interpreting the data.

Researchers should endeavour to reflect on the consequences of research engagement for all participants, and attempt to alleviate potential disadvantages to participation for any individual or category of person

The general principle

Researchers and respondents can be involved in research studies in a range of different ways: for example, respondents can be involved in designing and conducting a study and researchers can become involved in helping and supporting those they are researching. The consequences of these ways and levels of involvement need to be considered in advance.

Special care should be taken to protect the interests of members of vulnerable groups such as children, older people and those with learning or other disabilities.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

What are the advantages and disadvantages of involving those being researched in designing and conducting a research project? Do the advantages outweigh any negative methodological implications?

How far should researchers become involved with, and change, the lives of respondents? Does this type of involvement impact negatively on the objectivity of a study? Do socio-economic researchers have a duty to address difficult situations and disadvantaged groups when they come into contact with them in the course of their work?

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that reporting and dissemination are carried out in a responsible manner

The general principle

The findings of research should be made widely available, and to a range of audiences. Those conducting the research have a responsibility to ensure that the findings of their study are made available, and in a form suitable to the audiences aimed at. The commissioners of research must be prepared to make research findings available, even when the findings are unpalatable.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

What happens if publishing the findings could cause harm or distress to those researched or to other groups in society?

How can an academic or policy report be made accessible to wider audiences?

Dispute between the researcher and the client or individual researchers and their employers on the interpretation of the findings should be negotiated and not seen as sufficient cause for non-publication.

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that methodology and findings are open for full discussion and peer review

The general principle

Researchers should be open about the research methodology used and any theoretical underpinning, including any difficulties encountered when conducting a study. They should be prepared to submit this for peer review, along with the findings of their study.

There is also an ethical responsibility on those conducting a peer review to perform that function in an unbiased manner, based on professional expertise and knowledge, rather than their own particular political stance or as a means of scoring points. Related to this is the obligation on reviewers to declare a personal interest if the work under review is by a colleague or competitor, or by someone well known to them, with views which they are either strongly opposed to, or that are strongly similar to their own.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

Where the reviewers substantially disagree with the methodology used or findings — this can sometimes be on political or ideological grounds and be matters of interpretation. These types of disagreement are not sufficient to damn a piece of work, but rather, should be used to stimulate debate on the issues.

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that any debts to previous research as a source of knowledge, data, concepts and methodology are fully acknowledged in all outputs

The general principle

The intention should be to avoid representing the ideas of another researcher as one’s own.

While some research studies are based around original ideas and lead to totally new findings, the majority are based on, and draw on, existing ideas and methodological approaches. In reporting a research study, the authors should fully acknowledge and reference the source of these.

Furthermore, the contribution of those who made a substantial contribution, whether as a researcher, sponsor or in a support capacity, should be acknowledged in any publications.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

When ideas have been recycled through a range of publications, articles, etc., it can sometimes be difficult to identify the originator of an idea.

Similar ideas can emerge from a number of different sources; where this is the case, a range should be acknowledged.

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that participation in research is voluntary

The general principle

All potential research subjects should be given the opportunity to refuse to participate in the research. They should not feel that they are being coerced into participation through deceit or through being put under undue distress. They should be aware that they are entitled to refuse to answer particular questions and to withdraw completely at any stage in the study. An exception to this principle is when the data to be collected are required by law (such as census or electoral registration data).

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

Even when participation is required by law, what sorts of limitations should be put on the secondary analyses or uses of such data?

When does persuading someone to respond put them under undue distress? Can researchers be made more aware of the reactions of potential respondents, identifying when they are pushing too hard?

How should relationships with gatekeepers (who protect access to particular respondents — for example, children, people with disabilities and elderly people) be managed? Can permission from the gatekeeper be adequately considerate of the needs of, and potential for harm to, vulnerable respondents?

When proxy or mediated interviews are conducted for a survey, how can care be taken not to infringe the ‘private space’ of the person about whom questions are asked, or to avoid disturbing the relationship between them and the respondent?

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that decisions about participation in research are made from an informed position

The general principle

For respondents to make informed decisions about participating in a study requires that they are provided with accurate information. Even if participation is required by law, participants should be given as much information as possible about the requirements of their participation and the extent of the data sought.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

How much information should be given to help participants decide whether they will participate or not? How much information can be given without excessively ‘leading’ respondents? How much technical detail about a study can respondents be expected to comprehend? What constitutes essential information? How available should researchers be to answer further questions from participants?

When should the information be provided and consent obtained? Should information be provided and consent obtained some time before the required response or interview — to allow the respondent some thinking time? Or should it be dealt with immediately proceeding the seeking of responses? If a study is conducted in several parts, should this process be gone through prior to each response episode? Might excessive advance information prejudice the outcome of the study? How much debriefing (and of what nature) should be offered afterwards?

Should a signed consent form be used?

Is deception ever acceptable? Are there any situations in which information should be withheld because it might affect a respondent’s willingness to participate — such as to increase response rates? It if is only possible to obtain information through covert research (for example, studies of violent, criminal or subversive groups, or of fraudulent or discriminatory practices) how can the researcher balance the need for deception against the value to society of conducting the research? How can the researcher make it clear that collecting the information is necessary and that covert methods are the only means of doing this?

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that all data are treated with appropriate confidentiality and anonymity

The general principle

The principles of data confidentiality and anonymity should be clarified as part of gaining the participants’ informed consent. This should be agreed and understood between all parties at the beginning of a research project. This must include adherence to the legal requirements provided in the RESPECT reports on data protection and intellectual property rights.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

To what extent can confidentiality and anonymity be guaranteed?

What happens when respondents want to be named?

What should be done when information is uncovered which should be revealed, for example, where a company is defrauding the public, where criminal activity is taking place or when the respondent is a danger to themselves or others? If issues of confidentiality my be over-ridden for legal reasons and/or reasons of conscience, how is the researcher to reach such a decision?

When researchers are subpoenaed to name respondents in Court, for example, where illegal activities are being carried out, on what grounds might they refuse to reveal the information? What legal and what ethical consequences might they then have to face?

Researchers should endeavour to ensure that research participants are protected from undue intrusion, distress, indignity, physical discomfort, personal embarrassment, or psychological or other harm

The general principle

Participants in research have a right to be protected from questions, situations or interventions in their lives which may cause them physical and/or psychological harm or distress, or which may be seen as unduly intrusive.

Dilemmas that may need to be addressed

What constitutes undue intrusion? How can the differential perceptions of participants about what constitutes intrusive, sensitive or private matters be balanced?

What causes harm? How can respondents’ different reactions to similar situations and questions be dealt with?

Are harm and intrusion ever justified? How can a balance be struck between the benefits of researching and understanding a particular issue or topic, and the impact conducting a study may be seen to have on participants?