Policy on Research Ethics

social policy association guidelines on research ethics and how research ethics have changed over the years | download free pdf
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HelenaColins,New Zealand,Professional
Published Date:06-07-2017
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ocial esearch ssociation Ethical guidelines December 2003Introduction to Ethical Guidelines Social researchers work within a variety of economic, cultural, legal and political settings, each of which influences the emphasis and focus of their research. They also work within one of several different branches of their discipline, each involving its own techniques and procedures and its own ethical approach. Many social researchers work in fields such as economics, psychology, sociology, medicine, whose practitioners have ethical conventions that may influence the conduct of researchers and their fields. Even within the same setting and branch of social research, individuals may have different moral precepts that guide their work. Thus no declaration could successfully impose a rigid set of rules to which social researchers everywhere should be expected to adhere, and this document does not attempt to do so. The aim of these guidelines is to enable the social researcher’s individual ethical judgements and decisions to be informed by shared values and experience, rather than to be imposed by the profession. The guidelines therefore seek to document widely held principles of research and to identify the factors which obstruct their implementation. They are framed in the recognition that, on occasions, the operation of one principle will impede the operation of another, that social researchers, in common with other occupational groups, have competing obligations not all of which can be fulfilled simultaneously. Thus, implicit or explicit choices between principles will sometimes have to be made. The guidelines do not attempt to resolve these choices or to allocate greater priority to one of the principles than to another. Instead, they offer a framework within which the conscientious social researcher should, for the most part, be able to work comfortably. Where departures from the framework of principles are contemplated, they should be the result of deliberation rather than of ignorance. 10INTRODUCTION TO ETHICAL GUIDELINES The guidelines’ first intention is thus to be informative and descriptive rather than authoritarian or rigidly prescriptive. The case for an educational code of this type is argued more fully in Jowell (1983). Secondly, they are designed to be applicable as far as possible to different areas of methodology and application. For this reason the provisions are fairly broadly drawn. Thirdly, although the principles are framed so as to have wider application to decisions than to the issues specifically mentioned, the guidelines are by no means exhaustive. They are written with full acknowledgement that they will require periodic updating and amendment by the SRA. Fourthly, neither the principles nor the commentaries are concerned with general written or unwritten rules or norms such as compliance with the law or the need for probity. The guidelines restrict themselves as far as possible to matters of specific concern to social research. How to use these guidelines This update of the guidelines aims to take account of suggestions made about the 2002 update. Commentators suggested a variety of ways in which they could be made more user-friendly, workable in practice and encouraging to new researchers and students of social research. Consequently the text is divided into nine sections. The core of the ethical code can be found in Sections 1 to 5. These first five sections should be approached on three different “levels” of accessibility. Level A is a simple basic statement of the basic principles of the SRA’s ethical “code”. The next level – B – expands each of the elements of the basic code to explain why each element is important to the maintenance of ethical practice and at this level the vital educational and discursive part of the guidelines are to be found. The emboldened sections in Level B are particularly useful in pinpointing the essential principles and the dilemmas. These are followed by short 11INTRODUCTION TO ETHICAL GUIDELINES commentaries on the conflicts and difficulties inherent in the operation of the core principles – here the dilemmas of ethical decision making in social research are raised and considered in detail. Level C contains short annotated bibliographies for those who wish to pursue the issues or to consult more detailed texts. The basic ethical principles are interrelated and may well conflict with one another in certain circumstances. Therefore they need to be considered together; their order of presentation should not be taken as an order of precedence. The final sections (6 onwards) offer practical advice and guidance for engaging in ethical research and offer useful contacts and references for further reading that might aid the researcher in making difficult decisions. 12LEVEL A The core principles summarised at this level should not be read or adopted in isolation. They are highlighted here as a convenient way of alerting the reader to the relevant content of the full code. The nature of an educational code demands that the fuller versions in Levels B and C be consulted before the reader can be satisfied with these summary principles on their own. 1. Obligations to Society If social research is to remain of benefit to society and the groups and individuals within it, then social researchers must conduct their work responsibly and in light of the moral and legal order of the society in which they practice. They have a responsibility to maintain high scientific standards in the methods employed in the collection and analysis of data and the impartial assessment and dissemination of findings. 2. Obligations to F unders and Employer Researchers’ relationship with and commitments to funders and/or employers should be clear and balanced. These should not compromise a commitment to morality and to the law and to the maintenance of standards commensurate with professional integrity. 3. Obligations to Colleagues Social research depends upon the maintenance of standards and of appropriate professional behaviour that is shared amongst the professional research community. Without compromising obligations to funders/employers, subjects or society at large, this requires methods, procedures and findings to be open to collegial review. It also requires concern for the safety and security of colleagues when conducting field research. 134. Obligations to Subjects Social researchers must strive to protect subjects from undue harm arising as a consequence of their participation in research. This requires that subjects’ participation should be voluntary and as fully informed as possible and no group should be disadvantaged by routinely being excluded from consideration. 14LEVEL B 1. OBLIGATIONS TO SOCIETY The integrity and conduct of social research is dependent upon the cumulative behaviour of individual researchers and the consequences of their actions in society at large. In general, researchers have an obligation to conform to the ethical standards of the society in which they conduct their work. In particular, researchers have an obligation to ensure that they are informed about the appropriate legislation of the country in which they are conducting research and how that legislation might affect the conduct of their research. Researchers should not knowingly contravene such legislation. In most contemporary societies there are threats to the scope of social enquiry from legislative pressure intended to protect the rights of individuals. Such legislation may lead to diluted research activity as a consequence of the fear of litigation. In the course of time case law is likely to resolve legal uncertainties about acceptable practice, but waiting for test cases can halt progress and limit the assumed benefits to society of social research activity. Any dilemmas arising from the contradictions of data protection, human rights and scientific research legislation can only be resolved by the judgements of individual members of the research community in the short term. Concern for individual rights needs to be balanced against the benefits to society that may accrue from research activity. Such ethical conflicts are inevitable. Above all, however, researchers should not automatically assume that their priorities are shared by society in general. 15LEVEL B 1.1 Widening the scope of social research 1.1 Widening the scope of social research Social researchers should use the possibilities open to them to extend the scope of social enquiry and communicate their findings, for the benefit of the widest possible community. Social researchers develop and use concepts and techniques for the collection, analysis or interpretation of data. Although they are not always in a position to determine their work or the way in which their data are ultimately disseminated and used, they are frequently able to influence these matters (see clause 4.1). Academic researchers enjoy probably the greatest degree of autonomy over the scope of their work and the dissemination of the results. Even so, they are generally dependent on the decision of funding agencies on the one hand and journal editors on the other for the direction and publication of their enquiries. Social researchers employed in the public sector and those employed in commerce and industry tend to have less autonomy over what they do or how their data are utilised. Rules of secrecy may apply; pressure may be exerted to withhold or delay the publication of findings (or of certain findings); inquiries may be introduced or discontinued for reasons that have little to do with technical considerations. In these cases the final authority for decisions about an inquiry may rest with the employer or client (see clause 2.3). Professional experience in many countries suggests that social researchers are most likely to avoid restrictions being placed on their work when they are able to stipulate in advance the issues over which they should maintain control. Government researchers may, for example, gain agreement to announce dates for publication for various statistical series, thus creating an obligation to publish the data on the due dates regardless of intervening political factors. Similarly, researchers in commercial contracts may 16LEVEL B 1.2 Considering conflicting interests specify that control over at least some of the findings (or details of methods) will rest in their hands rather than with their clients. The greatest problems seem to occur when such issues remain unresolved until the data emerge. 1.2 Considering conflicting interests Social enquiry is predicated on the belief that greater access to well grounded information will serve rather than threaten the interests of society. Nonetheless, in planning all phases of an inquiry, from design to presentation of findings, social researchers should consider the likely consequences for society at large, groups and categories of persons within it, respondents or other subjects, and possible future research. No generic formula or guidelines exist for assessing the likely benefit or risk of various types of social enquiry. Nonetheless, social researchers must be sensitive to the possible consequences of their work and should as far as possible, guard against predictably harmful effects (see clause 4.4). The fact that information can be misconstrued or misused is not in itself a convincing argument against its collection and dissemination. All information, whether systematically collected or not, is subject to misuse and no information can be considered devoid of possible harm to one interest or another. Individuals may be harmed by their participation in social inquiries (again see clause 4.4), or group interests may be damaged by certain findings. A particular district may, for instance, be negatively stereotyped by an inquiry that finds that it contains a very high incidence of crime. A group interest may also be harmed by social or political action based on research. For instance, heavier policing of a district in which crime is found to be high may be introduced at the expense of lighter policing in low crime districts. Such a move may be of aggregate benefit to society but to the detriment of some districts. 17LEVEL B 2 OBLIGATIONS TO FUNDERS AND EMPLOYER Social researchers may not be in a position to prevent action based upon their findings. They should, however, attempt to pre-empt likely misinterpretations and to counteract them when they occur. But to guard against the use of their findings would be to disparage the very purpose of much social enquiry. 1.3 Pursuing objectivity While social researchers operate within the value systems of their societies, they should attempt to uphold their professional integrity without fear or favour. They must also not engage or collude in selecting methods designed to produce misleading results, or in misrepresenting findings by commission or omission. Research can never be entirely objective, and social research is no exception. The selection of topics for attention may reflect a systematic bias in favour of certain cultural or personal values. In addition, the employment base of the researcher, the source of funding and a range of other factors may impose certain priorities, obligations and prohibitions. Even so, the social researcher is never free of a responsibility to pursue objectivity and to be open about known barriers to its achievement. In particular social researchers are bound by a professional obligation to resist approaches to problem formulation, data collection or analysis, interpretation and publication of results that are likely (explicitly or implicitly) to misinform or to mislead rather than to advance knowledge. 2. OBLIGATIONS TO FUNDERS AND EMPLOYERS Most social research depends on specific prior funding, which carries with it certain mutual obligations. The general content of a researcher’s obligations may be found throughout these guidelines. But some specific obligations arise in commissioning contracts handled at the 18LEVEL B 2.3 Guarding privileged information organisational level, and it is the researcher’s responsibility to ensure that such commitments do not compromise their own personal ethical and methodological standards. Employing organisations must in turn bear responsibility for their employees’ interests Thus they should not accept contractual conditions that are contingent upon a particular outcome from a proposed inquiry, such as guaranteed response rates or a previously conceived outcome. But individual researchers should also consider the personal consequences for themselves. The rest of section 2 is written from the perspective of positions to be taken by the individual researcher. 2.1 Clarifying obligations and roles Social researchers should clarify in advance the respective obligations of employer or funder and social researcher; they should, for example, refer the employer or funder to the relevant parts of a professional code to which they adhere. Reports of findings should (where appropriate) specify their role. 2.2 Assessing alternatives impartially Social researchers should consider the available methods and procedures for addressing a proposed inquiry and should provide the funder or employer with an impartial assessment of the respective merits and demerits of alternatives. 2.3 Guarding privileged information Social researchers are frequently furnished with information by the funder or employer who may legitimately require it to be kept confidential. Methods and procedures that have been utilised to produce published data should not, however, be kept confidential. 19LEVEL B 2.3 Guarding privileged information An essential theme underlying each of the above principles is that a common interest exists between funder or employer and the social researcher as long as the aim of the social enquiry is to advance knowledge (see clause 1.1). Although such knowledge may on occasions be sought for the limited benefit of the funder or employer, even that cause is best served if the inquiry is conducted in an atmosphere conducive to high professional standards. The relationship should therefore be such as to enable social enquiry to be undertaken as objectively as possible (see clause 1.3) with a view to providing information or explanations rather than advocacy. The independent researcher or consultant appears to enjoy greater latitude than the employee researcher to insist on the application of certain professional principles. The relationship between an independent researcher and funder may be subject to a specific contract in which roles and obligations may be specified in advance (see Deming, 1972). Employee researchers’ contracts, by contrast, are not project-specific and generally comprise an explicit or implicit obligation to accept instructions from the employer. The employee researcher in the public sector may be restricted further by statutory regulations covering such matters as compulsory surveys and official secrecy (see clause 4.4). In reality, however, the distinction between the independent researcher and the employee researcher is blurred by other considerations. The independent researcher’s discretion to insist on certain conditions is frequently curtailed by financial constraints and by the insecurity of the consultant’s status. These problems apply less to the employee researcher, whose base is generally more secure and whose position is less isolated. The employee (particularly the researcher in government service) is often part of a community of researchers who are in a strong position to establish conventions and 20LEVEL B 2.3 Guarding privileged information procedures that comfortably accommodate their professional goals (see clause 1.1). Relationships with employers or funders involve mutual responsibilities. The funder or employer is entitled to expect from social researchers a command of their discipline, candour in relation to limits of their expertise and of their data (see clause 3.1), openness about the availability of more cost- effective approaches to a proposed inquiry, and discretion with confidential information. Social researchers are entitled to expect from a funder or employer a respect for their exclusive professional and technical domain and for the integrity of the data. Whether or not these obligations can be built into contracts or written specifications, they remain preconditions of a mutually beneficial relationship. A conflict of obligations may occur when the funder of an inquiry wishes to ensure in advance (say in a contract) that certain results will be achieved, such as a particular finding or a minimum response level in a voluntary sample survey. By agreeing to such a contract the researcher would be pre-empting the results of the inquiry by having made implicit guarantees on behalf of potential subjects as to their propensity to participate or the direction of their response. To fulfil these guarantees, the researcher would then have to compromise other principles, such as the principle of informed consent (see clause 4.2). Social researchers have a responsibility to ensure that the quality of their “product” is maintained. Research cannot be exempt from quality assurance procedures. High quality research demands high qualities in ethical standards and a concern to ensure that procedures agreed to at the design stage are maintained throughout a project. Above all, social researchers should attempt to ensure that funders and employers appreciate the obligations that social researchers have not only to them, but also to 21LEVEL B 3.3 Communicating ethical principles society at large, to subjects, to professional colleagues and collaborators. One of the responsibilities of the social researcher’s professional citizenship, for instance, is to be open about methods in order that the research community at large can assess, and benefit from their application. Thus, in so far as is practicable, methodological components of inquiries should be free from confidentiality restrictions so that they can form part of the common intellectual property of the profession (see clause 3.2). 3. OBLIGATIONS TO COLLEAGUES 3.1 Maintaining confidence in research Social researchers depend upon the confidence of the public. They should in their work attempt to promote and preserve such confidence without exaggerating the accuracy or explanatory power of their findings. 3.2 Exposing and reviewing their methods and findings Within the limits of confidentiality requirements social researchers should provide adequate information about their methods to colleagues to permit procedures, techniques and findings to be assessed by others. Such assessments should be directed at the methods themselves rather than at the individuals who selected or used them. 3.3 Communicating ethical principles To conduct certain inquiries social researchers need to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines, as well as interviewers, clerical staff, students, etc. In these cases social researchers should make their own ethical principles clear and take account of the ethical principles of their collaborators. 22LEVEL B 3.3 Communicating ethical principles Each of these principles stems from the notion that social researchers derive their status and certain privileges of access to data not only by their personal standing but also by virtue of their professional citizenship. In acknowledging membership of a wider social research community, they owe various obligations to that community and can expect consideration from it. The reputation of social research inevitably depends less on what professional bodies of social researchers assert about their ethical norms than on the actual conduct of individual researchers. In considering the methods, procedures, content and reporting of their enquiries, researchers should therefore try to ensure that they leave a research field in a state which permits further access by researchers in the future (see clause 4.1). Social inquiries are frequently collaborative efforts among colleagues of different levels of seniority and from different disciplines. The reputation and careers of all contributors need to be taken into account. The social researcher should also attempt to ensure that social inquiries are conducted within an agreed ethical framework, perhaps incorporating principles or conventions from other disciplines, and that each contributor’s role is sufficiently well defined. The World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki (1975), for instance, gives excellent guidance to researchers working in the field of medicine. A principle of all scientific work is that it should be open to scrutiny, assessment and possible validation by fellow scientists. Particular attention should be given to this principle when using computer software packages for analysis by providing as much detail as possible. Any perceived advantage of withholding details of techniques or findings, say for competitive reasons, needs to be weighed against the potential disservice of such action to the advancement of knowledge. In fact any principled 23LEVEL B 3.4 Ensuring safety suggestion about “meeting obligations to colleagues” may be compromised by other competitive pressures which apply throughout the scientific community: competitive tendering, scarcity of funding sources, priority disputes etc. There is a delicate balance to be maintained between professional integrity and the need for the autonomous action and independent judgement of researchers, against accountability for research interventions which may have consequences for professional colleagues. Some form of independent ethical review is proposed as the best mechanism for addressing this (see Section 5). This in itself cannot absolve researchers from addressing moral dilemmas entailed in their work for themselves, as well as part of a community of peers. One of the most important but difficult responsibilities of social researchers is that of alerting potential users of their data to the limits of the reliability and applicability of that data. The twin dangers of either overstating or understating the validity or degree to which the data can be generalised are nearly always present. No general guidelines can be drawn except for a counsel of caution. Confidence in research findings depends critically on their faithful representation. Attempts by researchers to cover up errors (see Ryten, 1983), or to invite over-interpretation, may not only rebound on the researchers concerned but also on the reputation of social research in general (see clause 1.2). The reputation of each is maintained by the actions of all. 3.4 Ensuring safety and minimising risk of harm to field researchers Social researchers have a moral obligation to attempt to minimise the risk of physical and/or mental harm to themselves and to their colleagues from the conduct of research. Research managers may, in addition, have a legal obligation in terms of health and safety regulations to ensure that risk to field researchers is minimised. 24LEVEL B 4.1 Avoiding undue intrusion While it has to be acknowledged that risk is a part of everyday life, it is also certainly the case that some research activities may place the researcher in the field in some degree of extra risk of physical and/or mental harm. Where possible research managers should anticipate the risks and ensure that field researchers are protected, as far as possible, from dangers in the field. The qualitative study of dangerous or threatening groups may place the researcher in some situations of particular personal risk, but all research entailing direct contact with the public presents a risk potential. Researchers should maintain awareness of such risk to themselves and their colleagues and make every effort to diminish the dangers. 4. OBLIGATIONS TO SUBJECTS In a very general sense meeting all of the preceding obligations as well as obligations to subjects requires that care is taken with research design. Poor design and trivial or foolish studies can waste people’s time and can contaminate the field for future research. Thus research design in itself raises many ethical considerations. It may be the case that the general public and potential research subjects do not perceive confidentiality as likely to be so rigorously maintained as ethical social researchers would like. Even if research subjects do not perceive any danger to themselves of data disclosure, nevertheless it is the task of the researcher to maintain principles of confidentiality as far as possible so that the interests of subjects are protected (See 4.4). 4.1 Avoiding undue intrusion Social researchers must strive to be aware of the intrusive potential of their work. They have no special entitlement to study all phenomena. The advancement of knowledge and the pursuit of Information are not 25LEVEL B 4.1 Avoiding undue intrusion themselves sufficient justifications for overriding other social and cultural values. Some forms of social enquiry may appear to be more intrusive than others. For instance, statistical samples may be selected without the knowledge or consent of their members; contact may be sought with subjects without advance warning; questions may be asked which cause distress or offence; people may be observed without their knowledge; and information about individuals or groups may be obtained from third parties. In essence, people may be inconvenienced or aggrieved by enquiries in a variety of ways, many of which are difficult to avoid or to anticipate although the researcher would be behaving responsibly by the subsequent seeking of informed consent for participation in the research (see also clause 1.3). One way of avoiding inconvenience to potential subjects is to make more use of available data instead of embarking on a new inquiry. For instance, the preferred option would be to make greater statistical use of administrative records by conducting secondary analysis of existing data for which informed consent had been granted. By linking existing records, valuable social research information may be produced that would otherwise have to be collected afresh. But there are often issues of confidentiality in linking records which may affect what can be done. Individual subjects should not be affected by such uses provided that their identities are protected and that the purpose is statistical, not administrative. On the other hand, subjects who have provided data for one purpose may object to its subsequent use for another purpose without their knowledge (see clauses 4.3 iii, 4.6. and 4.7). This is particularly sensitive in the case of identified data. Decisions in such cases have to be based on a variety of competing interests and in the knowledge that there is no “correct” solution (see clause 4.4). Under the UK Data Protection Act one can use data collected for one purpose for other statistical and research purposes without explicit 26LEVEL B 4.2 Obtaining informed consent informed consent. This is assumed to be granted under the process for collection of the original data. The key concern is that there should be no unanticipated consequences for the original data subject. As Cassell (1982b) argues, people can feel wronged without being harmed by research: they may feel they have been treated as objects of measurement without respect for their individual values and sense of privacy. In many of the social enquiries that have caused controversy, the issue has had more to do with intrusion into subjects’ private and personal domains, or by overburdening subjects by collecting “too much” information, rather than with whether or not subjects have been harmed. In some cases a researcher’s attitudes, demeanour or even their latent theoretical or methodological perspective can be interpreted as doing an injustice to subjects. Examples include an offhand manner on the part of a survey interviewer or studies which depend upon some form of social disruption. By exposing subjects to a sense of being wronged, perhaps by such attitudes, by such approaches, by the methods of selection or by causing them to acquire self knowledge that they did not seek or want, social researchers are vulnerable to criticism. Participants’ resistance to future social enquiries in general may also increase as a consequence of such ‘inconsiderateness’ (see also clauses 3.1, 4.3c, 4.6 and 4.7). (See Ehrich 2001 for more explicit examples.) 4.2 Obtaining informed consent Inquiries involving human subjects should be based as far as practicable on the freely given informed consent of subjects. Even if participation is required by law, it should still be as informed as possible. In voluntary inquiries, subjects should not be under the impression that they are required to participate. They should be aware of their entitlement to refuse at any stage for whatever reason and to withdraw data just supplied. 27LEVEL B 4.2 Obtaining informed consent Information that would be likely to affect a subject’s willingness to participate should not be deliberately withheld, since this would remove from subjects an important means of protecting their own interests. Gaining informed consent is a procedure for ensuring that research subjects understand what is being done to them, the limits to their participation and awareness of any potential risks they incur. The principle of informed consent from subjects is necessarily vague, since it depends for its interpretation on unstated assumptions about the amount of information and the nature of consent required to constitute acceptable practice. The amount of information needed to ensure that a subject is adequately informed about the purpose and nature of an inquiry is bound to vary from study to study. No universal rules can be framed. At one extreme it is inappropriate to overwhelm potential subjects with unwanted and incomprehensible details about the origin and content of a social inquiry. At the other extreme it is inappropriate to withhold material facts or to mislead subjects about such matters (see clauses 4.3d and 4.4). The appropriate information requirement clearly falls somewhere between these positions but its precise location depends on circumstances. The clarity and comprehensibility of the information provided are as important as the quantity. An assessment needs to be made of what information is likely to be material to a subject’s willingness to participate. Examples of what might be considered appropriate information can be seen in the checklist in Section 7. In selecting from such a list, the social researcher should consider not only those items that he or she regards as material, but those which the potential subject is likely to regard as such. Each party may well have special (and different) interests. As a means of supplementing the information selected, the social researcher may choose to give potential subjects a 28

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