Six Principles to Guide Research Ethics in the Social Sciences

The ESRC has published a revised ‘Framework for Research Ethics (FRE)’, updated January 2015, which is available in full on the Web. Having been involved in the revision, I would just like to draw from the  report here to highlight six key principles of ethical research — principles that the ‘ESRC expects to be addressed whenever applicable — are:

1. Research should be designed, reviewed and undertaken to ensure integrity, quality and transparency.
2. Research staff and participants must normally be informed fully about the purpose, methods and intended possible uses of the research, what their participation in the research entails and what risks, if any, are involved.
3. The confidentiality of information supplied by research participants and the anonymity of respondents must be respected.
4. Research participants must take part voluntarily, free from any coercion.
5. Harm to research participants must be avoided in all instances.
6. The independence of research must be clear, and any conflicts of interest or partiality must be explicit.

In addition, the report highlights key procedural issues for implementing these principles:

•    The responsibility for conduct of the research in line with relevant principles rests with the principal investigator and the research / employing organization.

•    The responsibility for ensuring that research is subject to appropriate ethics review, approval and monitoring lies with the research organization seeking or holding an award with the ESRC and which employs the researchers performing it, or some of the researchers when it is acting as the co-ordinator for collaborative research involving more than one organization.

•    Research organizations should have clear, transparent, appropriate and effective procedures in place for ethics review, approval and governance whenever it is necessary.

•    Risks should be minimised.

•    Research should be designed in a way that the dignity and autonomy of research participants is protected and respected at all times.

•    Ethics review should always be proportionate to the potential risk, whether this involves primary or secondary data.

•    Whilst the secondary use of some datasets may be relatively uncontroversial, and require only light touch ethics review, novel use of existing data and especially data linkage, as well as some uses of administrative and secure data will raise issues of ethics.

•    Research involving primary data collection will always raise issues of ethics that must be addressed.

I hope you take the time to review the entire report. There are of course many other useful references. For example, the US Department of Health and Human Services has a decision tree that offers a very useful set of issues that research in any nation should consider.

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