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)

Blogs:

Felicity Slocombe – What the ethics? Negotiating ethics submissions by Dementia Researcher Blogs (2021)

This blog post takes you through the process of submitting an ethics application, which you may need to do if your organisation or university has an Ethics Board and will require you to consider whether participants can give informed consent to your research and how it will affect them.

(Academic reference: Slocombe, F. (2021). What the ethics? Negotiating ethics submissions. Dementia Researcher. https://www.dementiaresearcher.nihr.ac.uk/guest-blog-what-the-ethics-negotiating-ethics-submissions.)

Method in action

Videos:

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Research ethics in practice by SAGE Publishing (2021)

This hour-long panel discussion showcases the perspectives of two scholars from different cultural contexts to ask how researchers can identify ethical considerations in their work and practically respond to their demands.

(Academic reference: SAGE Publishing. (2021). Research ethics in practice [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GbgTWRdUd4)

Podcasts:

Ethics in action research with Dr. Mary Brydon-Miller by The Action Research Podcast (2021)

This podcast episode explores how people undertaking action research can think about navigating power imbalances between researchers and participants, maintaining respect for participants and taking a collaborative approach to research.

(Academic reference: The Action Research Podcast. (2021). Ethics in action research with Dr. Mary Brydon-Miller. https://the-action-research-pod.captivate.fm/episode/episode-17-ethics-in-action-research-with-dr-mary-brydon-miller)

Articles:

The ’empty choice’: A sociological examination of choosing medical research participation in resource-limited Sub-Saharan Africa by Patricia Kingori (2015)

This article identifies some limitations of the emphasis on individual choice in certain ethics guidelines and suggests that more weight should be placed on the quality of the choices that participants are presented with.

(Academic reference: Kingori, P. (2015). The ‘empty choice’: A sociological examination of choosing medical research participation in resource-limited Sub-Saharan Africa. Current Sociology, 63(5), pp.763–778. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392115590093)

Ethical issues in social science research in developing countries: Useful or symbolic by Julius A. Mollet (2011)

This article explores ethical issues relating to cultural background and diversity in social science research that takes place in developing (or low and middle income) countries. In particular, it focuses on the ethically contentious issues of covert research, participant vulnerability, informed consent and regulation.

(Academic reference: Mollet, J. (2011). Ethical issues in social science research in developing countries: useful or symbolic. In R. Cribb (Ed.), Transmission of academic values in Asian Studies: workshop proceedings. Canberra: Australia-Netherlands Research Collaboration. http://hdl.handle.net/1885/116956)