The social sciences broadly defined (as well as a number of professional associations) have promulgated codes of ethics that require social scientists to ensure the confidentiality of data collected for research purposes. Both the rights of respondents and their continued willingness to voluntarily provide answers to scientific inquiries underlie this professional ethic. The ethic applies to all participants in the research enterprise, from data collectors to archivists to secondary analysts who use such data in their research.
This section is based substantially on work carried out by Marcia Freed-Taylor (see Ethical Considerations in European Cross-National Research).
Why Be Concerned about Ethics in Research?
Social research is a complex activity; carried out within different cultural, legal, economic and political environments. Researchers must balance their own research interests or those of their institutions, those of their research collaborators and the requirements of research sponsors. In these circumstances, attention to ethical concerns is often limited. And yet, breaching ethical standards can sometimes undermine the entire research process.
In quantitative research, breaches can cause serious limitations in the ability of future researchers to collect reliable and useful data; they can limit access to the respondents who provide the information required for research as well as access to statistical data collected by others. Research designs and procedures that fail to meet ethical standards, to treat subjects with respect, are likely to result in misleading, inconclusive and biased results.
In an age of more frequent sharing of data between countries and national institutions, the problems are compounded. The data subjects must be assured that the information they provide is handled with the same care by every analyst involved in the comparative study. This is by no means straightforward, as many nations have either differing or no data protection laws in force. These differences in national standards and procedures and in the perceptions of both the research community and society as a whole can make comparative social analysis a highly complex undertaking and sometimes sabotage the entire enterprise.
This is no longer merely a technical problem. What is required is acceptance by the research community itself of the need for common ethical concerns and the assumption by its members of the role of ethically sensitive researchers, responsible data collectors and conscientious data stewards.
What Do We Mean by Ethical Research Practice?
The bases of ethical research practice are a series of obligations - to society, to funders and employers, and to the subjects of the research. Ethical considerations can impinge on the research process from the very beginning - on the decision to carry out the research in the first instance - through the conduct, management and administration of the research, including for example the definitions of the research questions - to the effects on and relationships with the participants; to recognition of limits of competence; and to the effects on larger groups and communities, interpretations, and reporting of the results of research.
The following are some of the basic considerations:
- The need to protect the statutory rights of members of the social community or groups being investigated, avoiding undue intrusion, obtaining informed consent, and protecting the rights to privacy of individuals and social groups.
- The need to frame research questions and agendas objectively, to widen the scope of social research, and to maintain confidence in the research process.
- The need to remain sensitive to, and cognisant of, social and cultural differences and to consider conflicting interests.
- The need to report findings completely, widely and objectively, with full information on methodologies employed, both to allow research work to be assessed by colleagues and to increase public confidence in its reliability.
What Kinds of Controls on Ethical Research Already Exist?
There are four kinds of ethical research controls, but most existing controls will contain elements of all of these:
- The externally imposed, such as legislation, legal, administrative and contractual arrangements, sanctions, or implementation of technical solutions.
- Data protection legislation relates to the protection of the right to privacy of the data subject. The procedures contained in the legislation of the various European countries vary greatly, as does the stringency with which they are imposed (see the Data Protection section).
- Internal review board, to review all proposals for human research before the research is conducted to ascertain whether the research plan has adequately included the ethical dimensions of the project. Many university departments, institutions, hospitals and research organisations have such boards, as do many governmental departments and statistical agencies.
- Measures operated by archives, data brokers and electronic gatekeepers or monitors to ensure that some, at least, of the ethical principles and procedures are not abused and assisting in the administration of sanctions against misuse of research data, particularly statistical data. The effectiveness of these has considerably eased the problems faced by those contemplating data-based research, defusing data collector's fears that their data will be misused and by facilitating access to the data by centralised information provision and standardisation of both data and access procedures.
- The internally imposed, those which assume internal regulation, such as educational programmes and the development of codes of professional conduct.
- Educational components within social research training course.
- Professional codes of ethics, best practice.
The general principles of all of these codes are concerned with the definition of the substantive questions being considered for empirical investigation and with the decisions made concerning the conduct of the research, the project organisation, and the methodologies to be employed.
The principles appear in various guises in the majority of the codes, and are, in most cases, intended as sign-posts rather than detailed prescriptions. The important underlying assumption is that any deviations from the standards should be the result of conscious decision and not ignorance.
Types of Professional and Academic Codes of Ethics
There are three basic broad types of professional codes of ethics:
- The "ideal" or "aspirational", which express the ideal practices of a profession which are often not realised in concrete situations because of human limitations and competing values.
- The "punitive" or "regulatory", which are explicit rules that state which acts are right and which are wrong, although these are not universally accepted by all scholars.
- The "educational", neither moralistic nor punitive: ethical decisions which assume that the ethical or moral scientist makes individual judgments about research practices in light of his own values.
The vast majority of codes of ethics are national rather than international, discipline-specific rather than cross-disciplinary. Recently, international research and funding bodies have either implemented such Codes of Ethical Practice or are actively discussing the issues. A list of exemplary codes of ethics and ethical research in the end of this page provides examples of the ways in which the principles above have been selected and implemented.
For a wide-ranging introduction to, and discussion of, the issues involved in maintaining ethics and good practice in social science research, see the website of the RESPECT project. RESPECT was funded by the European Commission's Information Society Technologies (IST) Programme, to draw up professional and ethical guidelines for the conduct of social research and has produced a code of practice. This code is intended to form the basis of a voluntary code of practice covering the conduct of socio-economic research in Europe.
The Research Ethics Framework Project was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to undertake the development of a framework for social science research ethics. As an example of a research ethics framework, this is worth looking at.
A selection of references to professional ethical codes, guidelines and standards is included here. For a database of professional ethical codes, guidelines and standards, see the website of the RESPECT project.
- Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) of the UK and the Commonwealth: Ethical Guidelines for Good Research Practice
- American Anthropological Association: Code of Ethics
- National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (USA): NAPA Ethical Guidelines
- Society for Applied Anthropology: Ethical and Professional Responsibilities
- British Society of Criminology (BCS): Code of Ethics for Researchers in the Field of Criminology
- Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology: Code of Ethics
- Academy of Criminal Justice Science: Code of Ethics
- Association for Computing Machinery (ACM): Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
- Australian Computer Society: Code of Ethics
- Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS): Code of Ethics
- Gesellschaft für Informatik: Ethical Guidelines
- Institute for the Management of Information Systems (IMIS): Code of Ethics
- British Educational Research Association (BERA): Research Guidelines
- American Educational Research Association: Ethical Standards of AERA
History and Oral History
- American Historical Association: Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct
- Oral History Society: Ethical Guidelines
- American Political Science Association: Guide to Professional Ethics in Political Science
- Political Studies Association (PSA): Guidelines for Good Professional Conduct
Psychology and Psychotherapy
- American Psychological Association (USA): Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct
- Berufsverband Deutscher Psychologinnen und Psychologen (Germany): Ethische Richtlinien der DGPs und des BDP
- The British Psychological Society (BPS): Code of Conduct and Ethical Guidelines
- Canadian Psychological Association: Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists
- Colegio Oficial de Psycólogos (Spain): Codigo Deontologico del Psicologo
- European Federation of Professional Psychological Associations: Meta Code of Ethics
- European Association for Psychotherapy: Statement of Ethical Principles
- Fédération Belge des Psychologues (Belgium): Code de déontologie des psychologues belges
- Psychological Society (New Zealand): Code of Ethics
- British Association for Applied Linguistics: Recommendations on Good Practice in Applied Linguistics
- American Sociological Association: Code of Ethics
- British Sociological Association (BSA): Statement of Ethical Practice
- Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association: Statement of Professional Ethics
- International Sociological Association: Code of Ethics
- Sociological Association of Aotearo (New Zealand): Code of Ethics
- British Association of Social Workers: Code of Ethics for Social Work
- National Association of Social Workers (USA): Code of Ethics
- American Statistical Association: Data Access and Personal Privacy: Appropriate Methods of Disclosure Control
- International Statistical Institute: Declaration on Professional Ethics
- New Zealand Statistical Association: Code of Conduct
- African Evaluation Association: African Evaluation Guidelines
- American Association of University Professors: Statement on Professional Ethics
- American Society for Public Administration: Code of Ethics
- Association for Institutional Research: Code of Ethics
- Association of Internet Researchers: Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research
- Social Policy Evaluation and Research Committee, New Zealand: SPEaR Good Practice Guidelines 2008
- Ethnic Net: Collection of Codes of Journalism Ethics in Europe
- Ethical Practitioners’ Association of Canada (EPAC): Ethical Standards
- German Evaluation Society: Evaluation Standards
- NAFSA (Association of International Educators Washington DC (USA): Code of Ethics
- National Academy of Science (USA): On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research
- SEVAL-Standards: The Swiss Evaluation Society
- Lawrence Hinman’s Ethics Update site
- U.S. National Institutes of Health, Office of Human Subjects Research: Nuremberg Code
- Market Research Society MRS (UK): Code of Conduct
- Social Research Association SRA (UK): Ethical Guidelines
- ICC/ESOMAR: International Code on Market and Social Research
- Council of American Survey Research Organisations (CASRO): CASRO Code of Standard and Ethics for Survey Research
- ADM Arbeitskreis Deutscher Markt- und Sozialforschungsinstitute (Germany): Erklärung für das Gebiet der Bundesrepublik Deutschland zum ICC/ESOMAR Internationalen Kodex für die Markt- und Sozialforschung
- European Science Foundation: Good Scientific Practice in Research and Scholarship
- Management of Social Transformations (MOST): Ethical Guidelines for International Comparative Social Science Research in the Framework of MOST (an international programme established by UNESCO)
- Economic and Social Research Council: ESRC Research Ethics Framework
- Research Methods an ESRC Research Programme: Informed Consent and the Research Process
- Medical Research Council (MRC): Ethics and research guidance
- Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada: Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (Medicine, Science and Engineering, Social Sciences and Humanities)
- National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH): Guidelines (Forskningsetiske retningslinjer)
- National Research Ethics Service NRES (UK): Guidance for Applicants to NRES
- Chatham House: Chatham House Rule (UK)
- Department for Work and Pensions (UK): Doing the Right Thing: Outlining the DWP’s Approach to Ethical and Legal Issues in Social Research (Jo Bacon and Karl Olsen). Working Paper No.11
- National Advisory Board on Ethics (Finland): Good Scientific Practice and Procedures for Handling Misconduct and Fraud in Science
- National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioural Research (USA): The Belmont Report. Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research
- National Disability Authority (Ireland): NDA Ethics in Disability Research
- Office of National Statistics (UK): Code of Practice
- Statistics Finland: Guideline on Professional Ethics
- UNICEF CEE/CIS: Ethical Guidelines. Principles for Ethical Reporting on Children
- WHO: Ethical Standards and Procedures for Research with Human Beings
- World Medical Association: Declaration of Helsinki. Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects