‘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 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)