RESPECT for standards: Code of Professional Conduct in Socio-Economic Research
Introduction to the code of professional conduct
The conduct of socio-economic research in Europe is regulated by compliance to national and European law. This most notably includes intellectual property and data protection legislation (as expedited in the RESPECT Code of Practice and the RESPECT User Guide), but also health, safety, employment and anti-discrimination law. In addition to legal norms, however, professional and academic associations have a long tradition of creating self-regulating norms and responsibilities. These self-regulations, or codes of professional conduct, often exceed the legal requirements in an effort to uphold the professions reputation and assure confidence of clients and contractors, but they also research subjects, respondents, users and the public in general. The following Code of Professional Conduct in Socio-Economic Research is a synthesis of a wide range of existing codes in disciplines belonging to the broader field of socio-economic research (for a definition of socio-economic research see Huws 2002). Because of the lack of an adequate European wide professional body, its adherence must be voluntary. However, this does not mean that researchers in breach of the code may not face consequences from clients, contractors or the public (especially since many researchers are bound to similar codes by their national professional organisations). In this respect, the Code of Professional Conduct should be understood as a guideline, or as a mutual understanding, intended to help researchers of various disciplines and countries to achieve a high and commonly accepted quality in the research they are conducting. The scope of the code is to affect and support the emerging European socio-economic research community.
With regard to integrity, researchers have an obligation to adopt an unbiased attitude and open-mindedness in their approach to research. They should make sure that the selection and formulation of research questions and the conceptualisation or design of research undertakings does not presume or determine an outcome and does not exclude unwanted findings from the outset. Research is required to maintain certain minimum standards which researchers are not allowed to knowingly disrespect. Moreover, data and information must not knowingly be fabricated or manipulated in a non-standardised and previously unapproved way. Integrity also requires researchers to ensure that research findings are reported (either by themselves, the contractor or the funding agency), truthfully, accurately, comprehensively and without distortion. Moreover, researchers must not knowingly allow the distribution of conclusions that are not adequately supported by research findings or data. This also includes distribution and publication through popular media. In order to avoid misinterpretation of findings and misunderstandings, researchers have a duty to seek, when imparting research results, the greatest possible clarity of language.
Because all social research includes choices, decisions and potential errors, socio-economic research can never be entirely objective. It is more important, however, that the whole research process is transparent to colleagues, clients and users, so that researchers provide complete transparency of the research process, ie making sure that that all information concerning major decisions as well as sources, design and methods used are disclosed. It is also vital that the research clearly differentiates between facts, personal opinion, interpretation, hypotheses and theories.
Researchers must strive to design research that is cost-efficient and of adequate quality, and to carry this out to the specification agreed with the client or contractor. Researchers, moreover, are expected to meet agreed deadlines and timetables, and, if necessary, challenge unrealistic schedules that may lead to poor quality of research.
Critical questioning of authorities, assumptions and results
Progress in socio-economic research requires researchers to maintain a basically critical attitude towards established knowledge and scientific and academic/scholarly authorities. Only by continuously questioning existing theories, concepts, hypotheses and facts, ie of established scientific truths, can researchers ensure that new developments in society are adequately/truthfully recorded and interpreted. In this context, researchers are also faced with the question of which forces in society or which institutions might benefit from established truths.
Carrying out socio-economic research requires appropriate qualifications and competencies from the researcher. Although different national regulations still apply for education, training and qualifications in European countries, academic degrees can only be compared to some extent. Researchers in socio-economic research are expected to hold a university degree in a subject relevant to socio-economic research or have relevant practical experience in socio-economic research. At the same time researchers should be aware of the limitations of their own qualifications and competencies. They have an obligation to accurately and truthfully report their qualifications and competencies to contractors and other interested parties and to not take on work they are not qualified to carry out. This is also true in cases when individual researchers represent a group of researchers or an organisation which, in its entirety, does not have the relevant/necessary qualifications.
Professional competence also means that researchers meet approved deadlines and timetables.
In principle, authorship is reserved for those researchers who have made a significant intellectual contribution to a research project or another academic/scholarly piece of work. Seniority and position in a research institutions hierarchy alone is not sufficient for authorship. Honorary authorship is unacceptable. In cases where several individuals collaborate on a research project or publication, the questions of authorship should be discussed and consensus achieved among participating researchers despite, and if necessary against unequal hierarchical positions. In this process, the order of authors listed should also be discussed and decided on (eg according to the size of their contribution, in alphabetical order, preferential treatment of younger researchers, etc.). Listed authors bear responsibility for the contents of the respective publications and the presentation of data and findings in these publications.
Any material, including data, sources, information, ideas and quotes, etc. drawn from the work of others must be clearly identified and clearly attributable to their original authors. This is true regardless of whether the respective content is protected by copyright law or not (see the RESPECT Code of Practice and the RESPECT User Manual on copyright law). Moreover, this holds for every form of presentation of the original information (ie lectures, articles, interviews etc.). The only exception arises when the original author (for various reasons) intends to remain anonymous. In such instances, it must be made clear that the information was provided by an anonymous person. Failure to acknowledge the original authorship of such material as well as knowingly presenting ideas and research findings of others in ways that may lead observers to suppose that it is ones own is regarded as plagiarism and is unacceptable.
Researchers need to carefully study and comply with the requirements set out in national and EU-wide data protection legislation, as well as be aware of the obligation to obtain informed consent from respondents before actually gathering data, including initial consent for re-interviewing/re-observing respondents if intending to do so. Researchers must also respect the right of respondents to withdraw from an interview/ observation and demand the eradication of the entirety or parts of the record obtained by the interview/observation at any time (see the RESPECT Code of Practice and the RESPECT User Manual on data protection legislation and the question of informed consent).
In addition to legal and ethical obligations, researchers are also expected to adhere to certain professional practices to make sure that the identity of respondents, participants or research subjects remains confidential and information gathered in the research process cannot be related to an identifiable individual (unless disclosure of a subjects identity is central and relevant to the research and if the individuals in question have agreed to the disclosure of their identity). Such practices request eg that all indications of the identity of respondents, participants or research subjects should as soon as possible be physically separated from the records of the information they have provided. The researcher must ensure that any information that could be related to individuals is stored securely, and separately from the other information provided by respondents, participants or research subjects; and that the access to such material is restricted to authorised research personnel within the researchers own organisation (on the other hand, the researcher is expected to keep records for an appropriate period of time). Particular caution is necessary in this context with regard to the risks posed by electronic data processing and data transfer. To preserve an individuals anonymity not only their names and addresses but also any other information provided by or about them which could in practice identify them (eg their company and job title) must be safeguarded. The identity of respondents, participants and research subjects must also be withheld from clients and contractors unless consent has first been obtained.
When acting in their capacity as researcher the latter must not undertake any non-research activities, ie database marketing involving data about individuals which will be used for direct marketing and promotional activities. Any such non-research activities must always, in the way they are organised and carried out, be clearly differentiated from research activities.
When a sample is transferred from one researcher to another (or from one organisation to another), written or oral approval must be obtained ensuring the security and confidentiality of the data by the recipient, even if the prime responsibility remains with the supplier. In cases where an entire source or database is transferred between researchers or research organisations, the prime responsibility for data security is shared with the recipient. however, the supplier must not transfer the data to a third party if it comes to his/her knowledge that the recipient is not willing or able to guarantee the data will be kept and used in accordance with data protection legislation.
Interaction with colleagues, trainees, respondents and research objects should be based on principles of equality and mutual respect. Discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, colour, ethnic and social background, age, religion, disability or other criteria irrelevant for professional performance, is unacceptable and to be refrained from, as is failure to support individuals on the basis of non-performance related criteria. Researchers have a duty to ensure that interaction with trainees, respondents and research subjects takes into account the risks these people are exposed to owing to the power researchers inherently have over them. In addition, interaction with individuals should be based on the principle of informed consent freely given by the subjects involved (see the RESPECT Code of Practice and RESPECT Ethical Guidelines). Researchers also have a duty to make sure that themselves, colleagues, and other individuals participating in a research project are not exposed to any avoidable risks.
Researchers involved in socio-economic research should make sure they use non-sexist, non-racist and in general non-discriminatory language. In this context, researchers should be aware of the specific discriminatory and derogatory concepts, terms and expressions of the language used for the research. If necessary, they should refer to country-specific or national guidelines for guidance on the non-discriminatory use of language.
Abuse of power
Trainees, but also colleagues, respondents and research subjects, are at particular risk of abuse of power and/or (sexual) harassment. For this reason, researchers are obliged to refrain from abusing their professional position or social standing in any way. This includes the duty to protect the safety of all individuals participating in the research process, as well as the responsibility to make sure that others do not feel harassed by ones owns (conscious or unconscious) behaviour.
A research organisation must not only dispose over adequate qualifications to conduct socio-economic research, but it must also provide its researchers with an appropriate research infrastructure and working environment. Researchers have a right and a duty to demand appropriate conditions which allow them to achieve and maintain a high quality of their research effort.
In order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest, researchers and research organisations are expected to disclose sources of research funding, with permission from their clients and contractors. They should clarify to clients and contractors (in advance) that they adhere to certain professional and ethical standards and that they will not conduct any research that might compromise their professional integrity. Since the responsibility for the design and execution of research ultimately lies with the researchers, it is they who decide upon the research process in consultation with the client or contractor. If necessary, researchers are obliged to publicise inappropriate interference and demands of clients or contractors. In order to avoid conflicts between researchers and clients or contractors, expectations and obligations of the contracting parties should be clearly identified and agreed on. These also include publication rights and rights to the use of research findings.
Research findings and the results of other scholarly or scientific work should, if possible, be made publicly available in an appropriate form. Public distribution of research work enables the scientific evaluation of the research. It is thus indispensable for progress in the field of socio-economic research and is of interest to all researchers working in this field. As stated in Section 3 above, publication rights are to be clarified with contractors and funding parties (in advance).
Socio-economic researchers have an obligation to ensure that any participation in evaluations and review processes of research projects, other research work and publications by other researchers, are not subject to any conflict of interest. Where there is a conflict of interest of any kind, this should be declared, and if necessary, the reviewer should refrain from the task if their judgement could be compromised. Such conflicts of interest include, for instance, cases where the reviewer might have a close positive or negative connection with those under review. In general, personal information provided by researchers should not influence the evaluation process. In addition, researchers have a duty to take sufficient time to evaluate a research project or publication. Reviews should be based on thorough academic appraisal and not be influenced by personal opinion. The work and professional careers of all researchers depend on reviews, and only fair evaluation processes can ensure the quality standards of socio-economic research. Researchers involved in the evaluation of research proposals have an obligation to respect the intellectual property of others and the ideas and concepts provided in such proposals, even in cases when the proposal is rejected and not considered for funding. This means that these ideas and concepts must not be used without their original authors prior consent and must not be used in ways that might lead others to suppose they are ones own.
As outlined in the introduction, this is a voluntary code of conduct in socio-economic research in Europe. Its objective is not to sanction misconduct, which because of the lack of an adequate Europe-wide professional body is simply impossible, but to provide guidance and create mutual understanding in the conduct of socio-economic research across various disciplines and countries. Nevertheless, we hope that a Code of Professional Conduct will help to assure a high quality of socio-economic research in Europe and protect researchers from unprofessional and unethical demands.