Ethical guidelines are not about a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’, as the types of ethical considerations will vary depending on the research methods and context. Rather, guidelines are about assisting with recognising, understanding and resolving ethical issues that may arise throughout a research process.’
(Australian Council for International Development 2017, p.9)

As a researcher, you will usually be aiming to achieve something genuinely important to you, such as improving people’s health, disseminating knowledge or supporting community-based activities. However, it is equally important that while conducting valuable research you do not cross any ethical boundaries. Hereby, you need to rely both on your personal judgement and draw on the ethical principles that have evolved out of a long history of research to ensure your project is ethically sound.

Key Protocols

Key ethical guidelines that shape our research in the UK include the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki ‘Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects’. The declaration seeks protection for ‘those who cannot give or refuse consent themselves, for those who may be subject to giving consent under duress, for those who do not benefit personally from the research, and for those for whom the research is combined with treatment’.

Another declaration is the Belmont Report which emphasises three principles:

  • Beneficence (minimising harm and maximising benefit)
  • Justice (appropriately balancing who bears the burden of research and who benefits)
  • Autonomy (showing respect for persons and maintaining informed consent)

The principles a researcher needs to follow depend hugely on social, institutional and legal factors, and various other ethical guidelines exist that are specific to disciplines and professional domains. Groups of social research professionals and social anthropologists have all formulated distinct sets of guidelines some of which can be found below.

Your organisation or research site may also have its own set of guidelines that you will need to follow and may even require you to undergo a formal process of ‘ethical review’ before you can carry out active research with participants.

(Author: Jonny (Jonathan) Adams)

What is it?

Videos:

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Research ethics by Yale University (2011)

In this video, one of the authors of the Belmont Report explains the report’s historical context by discussing abuses of research ethics, its influence on research standards and how it must evolve.

(Academic reference: Yale University. (2011). Research ethics [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jD-YCDE_5yw)

Podcasts:

Dr. Helen Kara on research ethics by Research in Action (2019)

This podcast episode explains the concept of research ethics, how it is related to other kinds of ethical values and how it should be integrated into the research process.

(Academic reference: Linder, Katie. (Host). (2019, September 2). Dr. Helen Kara on research ethics. Research in action. Oregon State University. https://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/research/podcast/e169/)

Reports:

Ethics in social science and humanities by the European Commission (2018)

This report identifies potentially problematic areas of social science and humanities research, articulates some guiding research ethics principles and suggests how risks and harms can be minimised and managed in the research process.

(Academic reference: European Commission. (2018). Ethics in social science and humanities. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/6._h2020_ethics-soc-science-humanities_en.pdf)

Articles:

Ethics assessment in different fields: Social sciences by Agata Gurzawska (2015)

This article explains how ethics assessment applies to research in the social sciences, explores some of the main ethical issues that may arise in these disciplines and describes the mechanisms by which ethics has been institutionalised internationally and nationally.

(Academic reference: Gurzawska, A. & Benčin, R. (2015). Ethics assessment in different fields: social sciences. https://satoriproject.eu/media/2.d-Social-Sciences.pdf)

How is it done?

Videos:

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The ethics of social research. Part 3 of 3 on practical issues and ethics by Graham R Gibbs (2012)

This short lecture explains some of the practical aspects involved in considering and managing ethical risks, considers how research can be ethically justified when it comes with costs to participants and points towards codes of practice that may be useful in resolving ethical issues.

(Academic reference: Gibbs, G.R. (2012). The ethics of social research. Part 3 of 3 on practical issues and ethics [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQeUuxIzsfU&)

Manuals & Guides:

Research ethics guidance by the Social Research Association (2021)

This guidance for social research professionals aims not to provide ‘rigid rules’ but rather to illustrate best practice in the field across informed consent, confidentiality and anonymity, avoiding harm and more.

(Academic reference: Social Research Association. (2021). Research ethics guidance. https://the-sra.org.uk/common/Uploaded%20files/Resources/SRA%20Research%20Ethics%20guidance%202021.pdf>)

Ethical guidelines for good research practice by the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK (2018)

These guidelines explain how social anthropologists can think about their ethical relations with and responsibilities towards research participants; sponsors, funders and employers; colleagues and the discipline; governments and wider society.

(Academic reference: Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK. (2018). Ethical guidelines for good research practice. https://www.theasa.org/ethics/guidelines.shtml)

The charter for engaging survivors by Survivors Voices (2018)

The charter for engaging survivors sets out what good and ethical engagement looks like in research to ensure it is safe, empowering, amplifying the voices of survivors, promoting self-care, accountable and transparent, liberating, and creative and joyful. Seven areas of good practice guidance are outlined which can be useful as a guide and checklist for research ethics applications involving survivors.

(Academic reference: Perôt, C., Chevous, J. & Survivors Voices Research Group. (2018). The charter for engaging survivors. https://survivorsvoices.org/charter/)