Let’s talk about Ethics

Ok, I know nobody wants to talk about ethics! It never ceases to amaze me how little understanding there is of ethics in research within the Humanities and Social Sciences. I think sometimes people see ethics as a barrier or a problem when in fact it can be a really useful process to go through which can help you think through your research design and hopefully avoid (or at least manage) any potential problems in your research.

Most funders expect a proposal to address the ethics of the research within the application. Some approach it as a tick box exercise but more often than not there is now a requirement to explain whether there are any ethical issues with your research and how you will deal with them. On quite a few occasions academics have forwarded their response to me and it has said something along the lines of “The research raises a number of ethical issues and to address these an application will be made to the university ethics committee”. There is no doubt that this is a start but funders will expect a more coherent and nuanced explanation of the ethics issues raised and how they will be addressed. They want to know they are not giving their money to a maverick!

So where do you start? The university research office (if you have one) is the best place to go if you have initial questions but there are a number of on-line resources that I think are really helpful in giving both an overview of ethics in research but also help you to think through your own research design and its implications.

The British Sociological Association has a really useful guide to sociological research although it applies more broadly than that. Another useful Social Science resource has been produced by Lancaster University. Finally, a broader research ethics check list has been produced by the UK Research Integrity Office and this provides a good standard for research throughout the HE sector.

If you are after a good resource to keep on your bookshelf then this review might help. It provides a useful summary of Ethics and Values in Social Research by Paul Ransome. It is on my list of books to read! Perhaps ask your university library to get a copy?

No matter where you are in the ethics process there are resources available to help, you just need to know where to look and who to ask.Hopefully the resources described above can help you to get started. What tips do you have for working through the ethics of research projects and navigating the subsequent ethics approval processes?