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How to... conduct research ethically

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What are the ethics of research?

Ethical issues are assuming increasing importance in research, with most research proposals – even at undergraduate level – needing to be subject to their university's ethics committee and follow a particular code.

On these pages, we look first at what constitutes ethics in the context of management and social research, before exploring the various issues that come up throughout the research, from gaining access to an organization to disseminating the results.

Some parameters

Ethics is about the definition of what is good, and why people choose one form of good over another – in other words, it is about values and value systems.

Research is about moving forward the frontiers of knowledge, and, in the case of management research, hopefully also improving human welfare by helping businesses to run better.

Research ethics, therefore, is about how the researcher goes about the business of advancing human knowledge without doing harm to others. Certain value judgements are made, for example that people have a right to privacy.

Interest in research ethics has grown considerably over the last ten years: the boundaries as to what constitutes acceptable practice have tightened, and most universities will tend to have ethics committees which scrutinize proposals, particularly those which involve the manipulation of people. Candidates for higher research degrees may be expected to prepare an ethics protocol.

Many of the ethical codes developed for research have been done in the context of medicine and science, and are concerned with experimental treatment, control groups, etc. The peculiar characteristic of management research is that it is about people and the way that they interact with their environment. Ethical issues are therefore likely to be more complex, involving subjects in a social rather than an individual setting, and use of a range of instruments based on observation, interviews and questionnaires.

Above all there is a need to balance the behaviour of the researcher and the needs of the research with the rights of the subject. As a minimum the researcher should avoid harm and treat others as they would want to be treated. Preferably, however, where research is done in an organization, part of the objective should be to benefit the organization and its employees. Research should be based on the principle of doing greater good than harm.

The researcher needs to adopt an ethical approach from every stage of the research from the initial contact to the dissemination. We shall be looking at requirements in more detail in subsequent pages. First, though, a brief look at ethics committees and some examples of codes.

Ethics committees

Most research proposals will need to go through the university’s ethics committee, which will consider such questions as potential harm, sensitive data, full disclosure, anonymity, data confidentiality, need for debriefing, use of any hazardous materials, etc. The committee will also look for a coherent and well thought out design.

Note that ethics committees are fully aware of the dilemmas that the researcher may be faced with, for example the need for confidentiality and concern over harm to respondents needs to be balanced with the potential good of the research. They will want to know, however, that the researcher is aware of the dilemma, and the ways in which he or she proposes to minimize negative effects on participants.

The UK body, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which funds most social and some management research, has recently implemented a Research Ethics Framework and now requires proposals to take ethical issues into account.

The ESRC has six key principles:

  1. Research should be designed, reviewed and conducted in such a way as to ensure integrity and quality.
  2. Both staff and subjects should be fully informed about the purpose, methods and uses of the research, together with any risk. Where this is not possible, the ESRC has very precise guidelines.
  3. Confidentiality and anonymity must be respected.
  4. Participation should be voluntary, without coercion.
  5. Harm to participants should be avoided.
  6. Research should be independent, and any conflict of interest or partiality should be explicit.

Responsibility for ethics lies with the principal researcher and for review with the institution with which the researcher is associated.

Codes of ethics

There have been various attempts to codify the ethical issues involved in research. An early one is Glass (1966), whose principles are:

  • cherish truthfulness;
  • avoid aggrandizement at the expense of your fellow researchers;
  • defend freedom of scientific enquiry;
  • disseminate findings fully.

Russ-Eft et al. (1999) further developed the ethics codes in relations to management science research, which became the basis of the guidelines of the Association of Human Research Development. Their principles involve a professional and responsible attitude towards research, using appropriate means of data collection including adjustment for demographic factors associated with ethnicity, disability etc., informed consent, avoidance of deception except where legitimate for purposes of research, and careful interpretation of findings.

Many of the social science disciplines have their own guidelines, and the relevant websites and their links are listed below.

The guidelines of one of the main societies, the Academy of Management, are summarized below:

The Academy's ethical guidelines stipulate the following in respect of research:

  1. In support of the advancement of managerial knowledge, members should exercise "prudence in research design", and should design, analyse, research and report their findings rigorously.
  2. Informed consent should be obtained with research subjects, using easily understandable language.
  3. Privacy and confidentiality should be maintained.
  4. In reporting on research, members should:
      never fabricate data;
      report findings fully, without misrepresentation;
      present any qualifications to research;
      leave their research open to verification;
      take responsibility for errors, with appropriate steps to address, e.g. retraction, correction;
      report the sources of their sponsorship;
      acknowledge contribution of others in data collection.
  5. In publishing, members should:
      always be explicit in citing the work of others;
      provide appropriate credit to all authors, for example if a work is substantially based on a student dissertation, the student should appear as principal author;
      submit an article to one journal at time and not submit to a second journal unless the policy permits multiple submissions; if data has been submitted elsewhere, this publication should be cited;
      if journal editors, operate without any ideological or personal favouritism; ensure the confidentiality and anonymity of the review system; ensure that all accepted manuscripts are actually published; and review and respond in a timely manner;
      if peer reviewing, maintain the confidentiality and anonymity of the process, declaring any conflict of interest.

Source: Academy of Management Code of Ethics

References

Glass, B. (1966), Science and Ethical Values, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Russ-Eft, D., Burns, J.Z., Dean, P.J., Hatcher, T., Otte, F.L. and Preskill, H. (1999), Standards on Ethics and Integrity, Academy of Human Resource Development, Baton Rouge, LA, USA.