Research ethics

By Gordon Rugg

I have done questionable things….

Note: I’ve written this article, like all the other Hyde & Rugg blog articles, in my capacity as a private individual, not as a member of Keele University.

This article intended as an explanation of why researchers need to pay serious attention to research ethics. It’s not intended as a complete overview of all the issues that ethics committees have to consider, which would require a much longer article. For example, I don’t discuss the issue of informed consent, although this is a very important topic. Similarly, I don’t discuss whether ethical review could lead to a chilling effect on research. Instead, I’ve focused on the underlying issue of why a researcher’s own opinion about ethics isn’t enough.

Research ethics committees are interesting places. The ethics committees I attend are the only committee meetings that I actively look forward to. This is partly because everybody is focused on doing a good, professional job as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then getting back to our other work. It’s also partly because the cases that we deal with are often fascinating.

Most research students view ethics committees as an obstacle to be passed, taking precious time and effort. The reality is very different. If you’re a researcher, whether a novice or an expert, the ethics committee is a valuable friend, and can help you avoid all sorts of risks that might otherwise cause you serious grief.

In this article, I’ll discuss some ways that ethics committees help you, and some things that could go wrong in ways that you might not expect. Some of those risks are seriously scary. I’ve avoided going into detail about triggering topics wherever possible, but some of the things that go wrong with ethics might trigger some readers. By way of a gentle start, here’s a restful image of a tropical beach.


Image source:

Ethics committees are like health and safety committees in many ways. Both types of committee deal with situations where something goes wrong, and people suffer or die. Both types of committee know that these situations happen a lot more often than people realise. Also, both types of committee know that most of those situations arose when the people involved thought that they were behaving in a perfectly reasonable way, and following common sense.

I’ve spent a while working in the field of safety-critical systems. In a safety-critical system, if something goes wrong, people get injured or die. There’s been a lot of research in this area. If I had to sum up the main finding from that field in one sentence, it would be something like this:

Argument by authority, personal opinion and “common sense” tend to end badly, when safety-critical systems are involved

Most disasters involve at least one key decision where someone thought that their common sense provided the answer, or where someone thought that because they were important, they knew the answer, or where someone thought that their personal opinion was more likely to be right than the standard procedures or the professional opinions of relevant experts. Those beliefs have killed a lot of people, so the safety-critical world does not like seeing them.

The same is true of research ethics. Most of the worst abuses in research ethics over the last century were carried out by people who genuinely believed that what they were doing was self-evidently right.

If you claim that your work should not have to go through ethical review because you think it’s obviously ethical, or because you think you’re very important, or because you think that everything will be okay, then the committee won’t be impressed.

So what can ethics committees do for you?

Ethics committees can’t prevent every risk, but they can help you to avoid a lot of risks that you haven’t thought of, and to minimise a lot of risks that can’t be prevented.

The support that they provide includes support to you, but also includes support to other people who may not be immediately obvious. This support falls into four main groups:

  • Protecting you
  • Protecting your participants
  • Protecting third parties
  • Protecting your university/institution

Protecting you

When you’re focused on getting your research done, it’s easy to lose sight of the broader perspective. It’s easy to focus on your research question, and to forget about what might go wrong.

Some of the risks involve your physical safety. Those are usually fairly easy to identify, once you think about them. Usually, but not always. Having some other people look out for risks is a good idea, which is where the ethics committee is your friend.

Other risks involve legal issues, which are often difficult to spot unless you’re experienced. A classic example is that while you are collecting data, you find evidence of a participant breaking the law. What are your legal obligations in this situation? It’s a good idea to know the answer in advance, and to be legally covered, rather than discovering too late that you’re in the wrong and that you don’t have any legal protection.

Some risks are potentially life-threatening, but very difficult to spot. They’re where an ethics committee could save you from a very unpleasant or fatal situation.

Here’s an example. Imagine that you’re looking at land inheritance, and its implications; for instance, if the pattern is for the eldest son to inherit all the parents’ land, what does this do to the other children’s perceptions of the eldest son?

It’s an interesting question, and it would be particularly interesting if you could compare results across different cultures. So, you decide to set up a study that will involve data collection in two different countries. So far, it sounds pretty harmless. However, what happens if one of those countries was involved in a war a few decades ago? What often happens is that in the chaos of war, someone kills a farmer and grabs their land. How is that person going to react if you show up, investigating land ownership? In some post-conflict settings, there’s a fair chance that you’ll end up disappearing, or turning up dead in a ditch.

Yes, that’s an extreme case, and yes, that particular example is unlikely to affect the research that you are doing. However, there are a lot of other rare scenarios, and there’s a fair chance that one of them will be relevant to your research. If that does happen, you will probably be very grateful to anyone who spots the risk and gives you advance warning.

Protecting your participants

It’s also important to protect your participants. In social science research, this often involves protecting their identity. For instance, if you’re investigating anything to do with sex, religion and/or politics, your participants might be at risk if their identities are revealed. In some cases, those risks might include imprisonment and death.

Protecting identities isn’t a simple case of not stating your participants’ names. Supposed, for instance, that you describe a participant as 57 years old, male, and a senior lecturer in Politics at a leading university in a named country. How difficult would it be to identify that participant? Not very difficult at all.

It’s surprisingly easy to identify individuals from apparently trivial pieces of information, such as their likes in film and music. There was a case a few years ago where one of the major online film distributors had to cancel a competition to predict people’s viewing habits from anonymised data, because it turned out to be possible to identify many of the individuals in the anonymised data.

You also need to think about whether the task you ask them to do will be distressing to them. It may be legal, and it may not distress you, but it might easily distress someone else. This goes beyond obvious cultural issues into less obvious ones, such as phobias. If you want your participants to evaluate your website about common British spiders or about poisonous snakes, for instance, then you are likely to have several severely distressed participants to deal with before long, and several formal complaints about your behaviour to deal with after that.

There are other, less obvious risks, particularly if you’re collecting data in a culture with which you are not familiar. This is a topic that goes well beyond what can fit into this blog article; the short message is that if the ethics committee raises objections about something relating to your participants, you should pay serious attention to those objections, rather than treating them as just another annoying obstacle to your plans.

Protecting third parties

In addition to protecting your participants, you also need to protect third parties.

A fairly obvious example involves discovering that one of your participants is doing something that could cause physical damage to other people.

A less obvious but classic case is when one your participants give information about someone else that could cause distress or risk to that other person, if their identity was revealed. The information may not be about anything illegal or immoral; the key point is whether it could cause distress or risk. This can be a particular risk when you’re doing cross-cultural research, where something that isn’t viewed as an issue in one culture is viewed as profoundly shameful in another.

Protecting your university/institution

The issue of damage to reputation also affects you and your university. Some research topics and research findings are particularly likely to be mis-represented in the media and on social media. If your research is likely to end up in this situation, then being prepared can make a lot of difference.

Conclusion and further thoughts

The examples above give a brief taste of why research ethics are important, and why having a committee look at your plan is a good idea. At a practical level, they’re likely to spot potential problems that you have missed. At a sordidly self-interested level, there’s also the consideration that if something does go horribly wrong with your research, but that you have had ethical clearance for it, then you are much less likely to end up getting blamed for everything.

So far, I’ve used examples involving human participants. It’s also possible, however, for ethical issues to arise even when you’re working purely from published literature. What happens, for instance, if a historian wants to hire a research assistant to work on documents from survivors of Nazi concentration camps? Some of the stories in those documents are likely to be traumatic to whoever reads them. Does the historian need to get ethical clearance before advertising the job?

I don’t know the answer to that one, or to a huge number of other ethical questions that can affect research. Nobody else does, either. This is a field that is evolving fast in an increasing range of disciplines, including fields where ethics are a well-established issue, such as medicine. Things that were considered perfectly acceptable fifty years ago may now be considered astonishingly unethical. The world changes. We do the best we can, by reading about best practice, and by working through the implications of each case.

So, in summary: Ethics committees are your friend, particularly when they save you from risks that you haven’t spotted. They’re not perfect; no institution is. But they are staffed by fellow researchers, so they know what it’s like going through ethical review (they have to do it themselves, with their own research), and they’re on the side of good.

On which inspiring note, I’ll end.

Notes and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

You might also find our website useful:

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