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Regulating Social Research - Establishing and Applying Ethical Codes


Dr Ron Iphofen
Vice Chair of the Social Research Association, 1999 to 2001.

(This article appeared in Research Magazine in December 2002, and is reproduced here with permission.)

It is no coincidence that the major social science professional associations have recently been revising their guidelines for ethical research practice. The ESRC is funding a review of ethical practice in research, and the EU is funding more than one such review. Increased concern for accountability in the public sector has led to the establishment of ‘governance’ systems, while the private sector finds it cannot ignore such concerns. In research the concept of governance means that how we discover and share information should be open to public scrutiny and that that process can be seen to be subject to the highest standards. As communications technology advances further, concerns over access to and the management of information have been heightened, concerns that have been embodied in data protection and in human rights legislation.

Seeking transparency in research governance has increased the importance of ethical review committees which, in turn, has raised the dilemmas involved in ensuring that the quality and independence essential for good research, is balanced against the rights of, and obligations to, those being studied. Some say that the growing power of ethics committees is more a consequence of an institutionalised fear of litigation and poses a threat to research freedom. Since committees err on the side of caution any innovative research or research which might be regarded as sensitive is unlikely to be sanctioned. Indeed some traditional approaches - such as covert observation - are viewed with such suspicion that social researchers will be disprivileged in comparison with journalists who have no such qualms when there is a chance of a ‘good story’.

Experience of the US-equivalent - institutional review boards (IRBs) - does suggest a cause for concern in their gatekeeping of all human subjects research, and the difficulties and delays involved in gaining permission to engage in what have been conventionally understood as legitimate forms of enquiry. Similarly health authority ethics committees in the UK are caught between the protection of the organisation they are ‘acting for’, the disparate interests (lay and professional) that they represent, and the maintenance of general principles which are protective of human rights. These issues are sometimes too subtle for the committees to deal with as they are currently constituted. And professional codes or guidelines cannot legislate for all possibilities in the field. In the Social Research Association (SRA) we opted to retain the structure of an ethical code which stresses the balancing of obligations - to subject, funding agencies, colleagues and society. Balancing such potentially diverse interests is the essence of ethical decision-making.

Consider this dilemma: Is it ethically acceptable to investigate unethical behaviour by employing unethical means? For example, in a study of how human beings lie or deceive each other, is it permissible to lie and deceive in order to find out more about lying and deceiving? In order to come to a decision about the ethics of such a question we might say ‘It depends…’ on how it is done (practice), why it is done (aims and outcomes), and who does it (profession).

Each of these questions might be answered in terms of ‘degrees’. There are wide variations in method, some of which are inherently more ethically acceptable than others. There are variations in intent - from being ‘just curious’, through ‘explaining human behaviour in general’, to ‘helping change aspects of human behaviour which might be damaging and hurtful to others’. And there are wide variations in professional competence. Each set of issues must be considered in detail, and then balanced against each other, to establish the boundaries of ethical social research.

But in-built prejudices and preferences can cloud the process of ethical review. Thus covert observation is frequently proscribed since it is little understood and seen as inherently suspect, while randomised controlled clinical trials are accepted in spite of their being more seriously interventionist in the lives of those being studied. In this case it seems that outcomes are balanced against practices. Yet if I were given the choice, I would rather not be the potential member of a control group sacrificed to the ultimate benefit of unknown others, than to be studied unobtrusively. In fact, as most experienced researchers acknowledge, any research with sentient beings requires some covert elements or their sentience becomes a confounding variable with unmeasurable consequences.

In the end, of course, there might be a view that whatever the goals, whoever does it and however they do it cannot outweigh the view that what they plan to do is inherently unethical. In such a case, the practice of social research is subsumed within the priorities of research governance (accountability taking primacy) and this ultimately must be in the interests of the profession. That is, if researchers refuse to accept the general tenets of research governance then society will obstruct any attempt to engage the practice and the profession is thereby constrained.

I would like to argue that researchers should be left to decide these things for themselves, but can they be trusted to act altruistically and to consider their subjects interests entirely impartially? I suppose that everyone has an axe to grind about research ethics, but there is no doubt that diminished public trust is a field contaminant that will effectively hinder future access to respondents. Consequently, it is better that the profession of social research regulates itself properly before inadequate regulation is imposed by external agencies.

The SRA is now collaborating in an EU project to establish standards and codes of practice which aim to further enhance the profession of social research.

To review the SRA’s ethical code, see: