Section 1.4: Research Ethics | Research

Fundamentals of Social Research by Adam J. McKee

Ethics describes rules of conduct laid down and largely agreed upon by a professional group.  It is very similar to morals, except that morals are more personal in nature and vary from person to person.  There may be individuals in particular professional communities that disagree with the some of the ethical principles of their discipline, but they are required to know these ethical principles and abide by them.  The ethics of research can vary from discipline to discipline because different disciplines have different ways of looking at the ethical world, and because different professions encounter different ethical problems in their research.  For example, biologists can do terrible things to bugs, but social researchers must treat their subjects—people—with dignity and respect. Major principles of social research ethics are considered below.

Voluntary Participation

Voluntary participation is the basic ethical principle of social research that people who participate in research studies should do so of their own free will without coercion.

Informed Consent

Closely related to the idea of voluntariness is the idea of informed consent.  Informed consent requires that the researcher honestly explain the study and any risks associated with it to the participants.

Risk of Harm

Perhaps the most important rule of social research is that participants not be put at risk of harm.  Social researchers define harm in terms of both physical harms and psychological harms.  Researchers should inform research participants about aspects of the research that might affect their willingness to participate, such as physical risks, discomfort, and unpleasant emotional experiences.  When the risk of harm that comes from participating in a study exceeds the risks associated with everyday life, the participants should be informed of the risk. The need to protect participants is magnified with special populations.  Special precautions will often be indispensable where the individuals studied are illiterate, under correctional supervision, minors, have low social status, are under judicial supervision, have diminished capacity, are unfamiliar with social research, or otherwise occupy a position of unequal power with the researcher.    


Social researchers sometimes deal with highly personal information that participants do not want made public.  Confidentiality refers to the ethical duty of the researcher to ensure that only individuals actively engaged in the research project have access to this sensitive information.  Often institutions, agencies, and laws protect these rights as well. The right to confidentiality is so important that most professional codes of ethics dictate that participants in research are entitled to rights of personal confidentiality unless they are explicitly waived.


Anonymity can be considered as the ultimate form of privacy protection.  Data are collected from participants anonymously such that not even the researchers can link the data back to a particular individual.  The reason that there are two different privacy standards is that completely anonymous data is often impossible to achieve, such as when a pretest-posttest design is used.  In such a case, records must be kept, but those records must be kept confidential.

Researchers must anticipate potential threats to confidentiality.  Procedures such as the removal of direct identifiers (names, social security numbers, prisoner numbers, and so forth), the use of randomization, and other statistical solutions to problems of privacy should be used where appropriate.  Care should be taken to ensure secure storage, maintenance, and the eventual destruction of sensitive records. The obligation to protect participant privacy also extends to the staff of the institution where the research project takes place.  Interviewers, coders, clerical staff and other individuals working on the project must be trained in the privacy protocols for the study by the primary researchers.

Right to Service

In the world of criminal justice research, studies often concern social problems that are associated with human misery and suffering.  While no-treatment control groups are to be preferred from a purely scientific perspective, it is unethical to withhold a potentially beneficial treatment in order to answer the research question.  The basic premise is that all people have a right to service when those services are likely to be beneficial.

Institutional Review Boards

No matter how high minded a researcher may be, potential harm to study participants may not always be foreseen.  For this reason, many institutions (such as universities) have established rules that research may not be conducted until the research has been approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB).  An Institutional Review Board consists of a committee of research experts that review proposed research in order to discover potential harms that may come to participants. Not only do IRBs protect research participants from harm, they also protect institutions from legal liability. Research should never be conducted without the prior approval of the host institution’s IRB.  

Acknowledging the Limitations of Findings

Researchers have an ethical obligation to the social science community to divulge any potential limitations to their findings.  The basic idea of research is to seek the truth, and full disclosure of a study’s flaws and shortcomings is always in the best interest of science.

Modification History

File Created:  07/24/2018

Last Modified:  06/11/2021

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APA Citation

McKee, A. J. (2019).  Fundamentals of Social Research.  Forma Pauperis Press.

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.


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