A Brief Summary of Guiding Ethical Principles

The following is a summary of the guiding principles which Schools, Faculties and the University’s Ethics Committee will refer to in making their decisions. It is not intended to be exhaustive, and of necessity, individual School’s will need to reference the norms and conventions of their own disciplines in reaching any decision.

Above all it should be remembered that the integrity of any research depends not only on its scientific rigour, but also on its ethical adequacy. Ethical issues are many and varied, and may be quite complex. Research involving human participants is undertaken by many different disciplines and conducted in a broad range of settings and institutions. While some issues are specific to professional groups, all research should be guided by a set of fundamental ethical principles to ensure the protection of human participants. Underpinning the standards are the ethical imperatives of ‘do no harm’ (non-malfeasance) and ‘do good’ (beneficence).

Consideration of risks versus benefits need to be weighed up by researchers. In medical research, physically invasive procedures are easily defined, but what constitutes risk in social research is sometimes less clear cut. Questionnaires, observation and interviews can all be potentially intrusive and provoke anxiety in participants, or worse, involve psychological risk.

It is important to think through carefully the likely impact on participants of any data collection methods. Certain groups are particularly vulnerable and may succumb to pressure, for example students, children or people with learning disabilities. Some participants are unable to give informed consent and are therefore less able to protect themselves, for example people with dementia. Research activities may be so unobtrusive that individual consent is not warranted, such as in the case of some community-based studies.

The following standards have been developed to guide staff and students undertaking research involving human participants. They are intended to cover general principles, but they may not address all situations and the researcher should seek further advice from their School’s Research Ethics Officer, the University’s Research Ethics Committee and their profession’s code of practice for research ethics as appropriate.

Researchers enter into a personal and moral relationship with those they study and should strive to protect their rights. Researchers have a responsibility to ensure that the physical, social and psychological well-being of the participant is not adversely affected by the research. So, while researchers are committed to the advancement of knowledge, the goal of the research does not provide a right to override the rights of others. Wherever possible, researchers should seek to:

  • Minimise disturbance to both those participating in the research and to their relationships with their environment and those gatekeepers who may control access to participants -since these relationships will continue long after the researcher has left;
  • Anticipate and guard against consequences for research participants which can be predicted to be harmful and try to anticipate the long-term effects on individuals or groups as a result of the research;
  • Take special care where research participants are particularly vulnerable by virtue of age, social status and powerlessness;
  • Resort to covert research only where it is impossible to use other methods to obtain essential data (in such studies it is important to safeguard the anonymity of research participants);
  • Take care to avoid falsification or misrepresentation of evidence, data, findings or conclusions;
  • Clarify with participants the extent to which they are allowed to see transcripts of any interviews and field notes and to alter the content or interpretation of the data.

Terms such as risk, harm and hazards include emotional and mental distress, and possible damage to financial and social standing, as well as to physical harm. In principle:

  • The research should be methodologically sound and the purpose should be to contribute to knowledge;
  • The research should be undertaken and supervised by those who are appropriately qualified and experienced;
  • The importance of the objective should be in proportion to the inherent risk to the subject. Concern for the interests of the subject must always prevail over the interests of science and society;
  • The research should be preceded by careful assessment of predictable risks in comparison with foreseeable benefits to the subject or to others;
  • Research should not be undertaken where the hazards involved are not believed to be predictable;
  • Adequate facilities and procedures should be in place to deal with any potential hazards.

It is generally held that sane competent adults should be free to make their own decisions. Consequently, respect for the individual right to choose is at the core of ethical research. Gaining informed consent is an essential element of ethically valid social research. Thus three basic principles apply.  Consent needs to be:

  • Informed - given in possession and understanding of the principal, relevant information;
  • Voluntary - given freely and not as a result of coercive pressure (real or perceived);
  • Competent - given by somebody able, in virtue of their age, maturity and mental stability, of making a free, considered choice.

More specifically, it is necessary to ensure that the potential research participant is fully aware of, and fully understands, 

  • What the research is about;
  • Why it is being conducted;
  • Who it is being conducted for and who is funding it;
  • What the purpose of the study is and what will happen to the results;
  • Where the results will appear and who is likely to have access to them;
  • What will be expected of them if they agree to participate and how long their participation will take;,
  • What anonymity and confidentiality mean in practice and an understanding that the participant does not have to participate; and having agreed to participate can withdraw any time without detriment. 

In practice researchers should therefore ensure that: 

  • Each potential subject is adequately informed of the aims, methods, anticipated benefits and potential hazards of the research and any discomfort it may entail;
  • Any documentation given to potential participants must be comprehensible and there should be an opportunity for them to raise any issues of concern;
  • Consent should be acquired in writing and records of consent should be maintained;
  • Potential participants must be informed that they are free to withdraw consent to participation at any time;
  • There should be a procedure for making complaints and participants should be made aware of this;
  • All participants should be volunteers. Considerable care should be taken where consent is sought from those in a dependent position and it should be made clear that refusal to participate will not lead to any adverse consequences. For example, students must be assured that any decision not to participate will not prejudice in any way their academic progress;
  • Any inducement offered to participants should be declared.
  • Consent must be obtained from a legal guardian in the case of minors or any others who do not have the legal competence to give informed consent.
  • Asking participants to sign a written consent form is a widely accepted method of obtaining informed consent. In addition to ensuring that participants agree to participate of their own free will and understand what they are getting involved in, the existence of signed documentation protects the researcher from subsequent accusations by participants.
  • Young people aged 16-18 with sufficient understanding are able to give their full consent to participate in research independently of their parents and guardians.
  • Where research involves children under the age of 16 assent should be obtained from parents or those inloco parentis. However, it is highly desirable that children themselves should be actively engaged in the consent process. It is arguable that children are capable of being partners in research and that they have rights to receive information, to be listened to, have their wishes and feelings taken into account and to give or withhold consent if judged competent to do so. From this perspective, assumptions about lack of competence to give informed consent can function to deny children valuable opportunities for involvement, thereby eroding their rights and excluding them from processes of developing shared understanding of social relationships. It may, therefore, be appropriate to seek consent from the parents of participating children and from the children themselves. However, if consent is gained from the relevant adult but the child clearly withholds consent or shows distress, the wishes of the child should prevail. Enabling children to engage in a meaningful way requires careful attention to practical considerations, including the use of information sheets and consent forms written in a child-friendly way
  • One parent can give assent but it is preferable to have both.
  • Further guidance should be sought from the BERA Guidelines.

There are occasions when informed consent may be impracticable or meaningless in social research, for example:

  • Research on ‘public behaviour’, e.g. street or crowd settings
  • Where it would compromise the subjects of research (e.g. when studying those engaged in illicit or illegal behaviour, such as drug-taking), or
  • Where written consent could put them at unnecessary risk.

In some contexts consent can be gained retrospectively (and in this case informed consent refers more to consent to use the data gained and an understanding of how the data is to be used) e.g. as in the example of observational psychological experimentation, or where covert research is necessary and warranted – such as work in the field of deviance where it involves immoral or illegal behaviour.

It should be recognised that seeking written consent is not under all circumstances appropriate. For instance, illiteracy may be an issue, such that imposing written consent forms would not be a meaningful or legitimate means of establishing consent. In overseas research there may be circumstances where translation is not feasible; or it may be that asking for written agreement is culturally inappropriate. In such cases the researchers should seek informed verbal consent. In the case of children however informed consent must always be obtained as set out in 16.4.

Covert research cannot, by definition, involve informed consent, because informing the subject would render the research overt. If informed consent is ethically required for research, then covert research is not permissible. If any member of staff or student is seeking to use research methods and designs covered in these exceptions they should in the first instance seek the advice of their Research Ethics Committee.

The right of the individual to privacy is a pre-eminent ethical driver in western societies. In the social researcher’s relationship to participants this translates into two imperatives: anonymity and confidentiality. Anonymity and confidentiality may be defined as follows:

  • Anonymity refers to concealing the identities of participants in all documents resulting from the research;
  • Confidentiality is concerned with who has the right of access to the data provided by the participants.

In practice the obligation of the researcher to the researched may be summarised thus:

  • Anonymity and privacy should be respected. This means that care should be taken in deciding whether or not sensitive information should be recorded;
  • Identities and research records should be kept confidential whether or not an explicit pledge has been given;

The right to remain anonymous should be respected unless a clear understanding to the contrary has been reached. Researchers have the responsibility to ensure appropriate precautions to protect the confidentiality of participants’ data. For instance, names and any information from which identities could be inferred (e.g. locations) should be removed.

Whilst respecting anonymity and confidentiality are core principles of social research they are not absolutes. There may be situations when the researcher has a duty of care to reveal information that has been provided in confidence, or which the researcher has discovered through interactions with the participant.

For example, if a researcher were to become aware of abuse in a care home, it would be necessary to act on this knowledge and inform the relevant authority. Who constitutes the relevant authority in any given case would depend on a variety of factors, including whether the abuse is isolated or systemic within the organisation. In any case, researchers would be well advised to consult confidentially with their own colleagues and inform their own institution.

All researchers should be aware of and work to uphold the principles set out in Universities UK's, Concordat to Support Research Integrity (July, 2012) and RCUK's Policy and Guidelines on the Governance of Good Research Conduct (February, 2013). As a minimum, researchers are advised to familiarise themselves with professional association guidance which is relevant to their field of research and use the principles as a guide for their own work. Below is a (non-exhaustive) list of such codes and guidelines.

Other policies and guidance documents include:

Research specialism or methodology

Association and guidance document

Anthropology

Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth

Education

British Educational Research Association: Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research

Geography

Association of American Geographers Statement on Professional Ethics

Geography

Royal Geographical Society: Research Ethics and Code of Practice

Law (Socio-Legal)

Socio-Legal Studies Association:Statement of Principles of Ethical Research

Politics

Political Studies Association, Guidelines for Good Professional Conduct

Psychology

 

British Psychological Society: Conducting Research on the Internet: (Guidelines for internet-mediated research)

Social Research

Social Research Association: Ethical Guidelines

Visual Research

ESRC National Centre for Research Methods Review Paper : Visual Ethics: Ethical Issues in Visual Research (PDF)


Research Councils: research ethics guidance

Research Council

Guidance

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Framework for Research Ethics

Medical Research Council (MRC)

Research policy and ethics

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

Ethics Policy


Other external organisations: research ethics guidance

Organisation

Title of Guidance

Association of Medical Research Charities>

Good research practice

Department for Business , Innovation and Skills

Rigour and Respect – a universal ethical code for scientists

Department of Health

Research Governance Framework

Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Various publications on ethical issues in bioethics

RESPECT

Code of Practice for socio-economic research in Europe

Second world conference on Research Integrity

Singapore Statement on Research Integrity

Universities and Colleges Employer Association

Safety in Fieldwork, and Health and Safety Guidelines for Working Overseas