are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.
II. The ethical concerns
III. Externally imposed solutions
IV. Internal or self-regulatory measures
V. A survey of ethical codes
VI. Summary of principles in codes of ethics
VII. Examples of specific codes
And yet, in all research undertakings, the
consistent definition and maintenance of ethical standards are
of obvious importance, particularly so in those types of research
where human subjects are involved. Individuals who supply the
information which forms the basis of this research have a legitimate
concern with the uses to which that information is put and should
expect a strict adherence to undertakings of confidentiality given
at the time of data collection. Breaches can cause serious limitations
in the ability of other future researchers to collect reliable
and useful data; they can limit access to the respondents who
provide the information required for research as well as access
to statistical data collected by others. Research designs and
procedures which fail to meet ethical standards and to treat subjects
with respect, are likely to result in misleading, inconclusive
and biased results. This will be to the detriment not only of
the research participants, but of the scientific enterprise and
of society as a whole.
In comparative and cross-national research,
the problems are compounded. The data subjects must be sure that
the information they provide is handled with the same care by
every analyst involved in the comparative study. This
is by no means straightforward, as national research standards
may vary in their stringency and many nations have either differing,
or no, data protection laws in force. These differences in research
procedures and in the perceptions of both the research community
and the society as a whole can make comparative social analysis
a highly complex undertaking, and can sometimes sabotage the entire
The basic concern is clearly no longer merely
a technical one. Making data confidential through implementation
of statistical techniques ('masks') which are effective yet faithful
to original data is now increasingly possible; control of secondary
access and use through electronic gatekeepers and monitors - the
data archives and data libraries - is proving effective. The
problem facing quantitative researchers involved in cross-national
research is, perhaps primarily, an ethical one, which will require
acceptance by the international research community itself of the
need for common ethical concerns and the assumption by its members
of the role of ethically sensitive researchers, responsible data
collectors and conscientious data stewards. The key concern is
the protection of both the rights of the social community and
of the professional integrity of the research community.
This article will highlight some of the ethical dilemmas facing the social researcher, review some of the national, and international, procedures aimed at resolving them and, finally, suggest developments which can assist the cross-national and comparative researcher.
(1). Other divisions exist, with emphases dependent on both disciplinary orientation and, perhaps most importantly, national concerns.
A fuller discussion of these dilemmas must be the
subject of another paper, but for our purposes, we can isolate
the following basic considerations:
(a) the rights of subjects: the
need to protect the statutory rights of members of the social
community or groups being investigated, avoiding undue intrusion,
obtaining informed consent, and protecting the rights to privacy
of individuals and social groups;
(b) the ethical conduct of research: the
need to frame research questions and agenda objectively, so as
to widen the scope of social research, and to maintain confidence
in the research process; to ensure that the conduct, management
and administration of research is framed in a way which is consistent
with ethical principles and which recognizes the limits of competence
of each member of the research team;
(c) sensitivity to cultural and social differences: the need to remain sensitive to, and cognisant of, social and cultural differences and to consider conflicting interests;
(d) reporting of research: the need to report findings completely, widely and objectively, with full information on methodologies employed, both to allow research work to be assessed by colleagues and to increase public confidence in its reliability.
Methods currently in place to ensure that these
concerns are confronted can be broadly divided into: 1) the externally
imposed, such as legislation, legal, administrative and contractual
arrangements, sanctions, or implementation of technical solutions;
and 2) those which assume internal regulation, such as educational
programmes and the development of codes of professional conduct.
These solutions are, of course, closely interrelated.
The existence of one solution may, in some cases, result
from the lack of another, or may inhibit the development of alternative
solutions. The existence of stringent legislation may, for example,
make the development of more self-regulatory trends difficult
or impossible. Effective self-regulation may, on the other hand.
make legislative or punitive sanctions unnecessary. Legislation
may, in still other cases, relate only to research activity carried
out in one sector of a community (e.g. the federal or government
sector) and not to other quite similar types of activity within
the academic community.
The solutions are, in general and perhaps inevitably, only partial in scope, relating to one discipline or type of research. With few exceptions, they relate also only to one particular nation.
(2). In many well-documented cases, this national legislation has, while protecting the rights of the individual national subjects of the data, impeded the carrying out of comparative European studies (3). The recent publication of a draft European Data Protection Act by the European Community represents an attempt to overcome some of these difficulties, but brings with it some new potential barriers to comparative research. Until these issues are fully discussed and resolved, it is unclear how these potential legislative barriers can be overcome.
Another type of legislated ethical monitoring is represented by the Internal Review Board, or Human Subject Committee in the United States. Under the National Research Act, such an IRB must be established within each university or other organization that conducts biomedical or behavioural research involving human subjects and receives federal funding for research involving human subjects. The purpose of the IRB is 'to review all proposals for human research before the research is conducted to ascertain whether the research plan has adequately included the ethical dimensions of the project' (4). Failure to meet the ethical standards set by the IRB can result in the withdrawal of all federal research funding from the institutions in question. Similar ethical review committees have been set up by Canadian and Swedish Research Councils, although these are essentially self-regulatory efforts bv the research community itself (5).
Other externally imposed measures include those operated by data brokers and electronic gatekeepers or monitors. Such measures and agencies are designed to ensure that some, at least, of the ethical principles and procedures are not abused and can provide assistance in the administration of sanctions against misuse of research data, particularly statistical data (6). The increasing effectiveness of data archives in performing these functions and controlling and monitoring access to research data has, in fact, considerably eased the problems faced by those contemplating comparative research, both by defusing data collectors' fears that their data will be misused and by facilitating access to the data by centralized information provision and standardization of both data and access procedures. Experiments in which controlled remote access to harmonized confidential data are granted under stringent conditions, such as the Luxembourg Income Study, might provide one model for the future (7). Technical means for ensuring the confidentiality of data and thus the imposition of certain types of ethical behaviour on researchers - are now well established (see Duncan and Pearson, 1991, for a short overview of such techniques). Despite advances in such masking techniques, however, the conflict between the needs for access to statistical information and the demands for confidentiality is obviously still a matter of great concern to all research data collectors. particularly those attached to national statistical agencies. Some of the issues exercising these national representatives are discussed in the proceedings of the International Seminar on Statistical Confidentiality held in Dublin in September 1992 (see Eurostat, 1992). The papers delivered highlight both this continuing concern and, most relevant to the subject of this article, the differing national responses to the problem. Although attempts are being made to standardize procedures, this is still far from reality. Seminars such as this one are, however, a welcome step forward.
The survey was part of a more general review of codes of professional and research ethics. It was carried out to ascertain the perceived awareness of potential ethical and professional conflicts within the social science research community, and to assess the current coverage of existing codes (8).
The survey was begun in early 1993. A variety
of social science research organizations were contacted to ascertain
whether codes of ethics and professional conduct had been formulated
and were being enforced, and to obtain copies of those which were
available. Organizations contacted included social science research
funding bodies, professional associations within the disciplinary
boundaries covered by the social sciences, and a large variety
of academic, quasi academic and public sector bodies carrying
out or managing social science research.
Initial enquiries were made of 117 organizations;
65 responses were received, among them 44 organizations which
had implemented codes of professional ethics or ethical conduct
and who were able to supply copies. Of these latter, two are
ethical statements from research funding bodies (the Swedish and
Canadian Research Councils), 30 from social science research professional
associations (such as the American Political Science and Psychological
Associations, the British Social Research Association, the British
Educational Research and Sociological Associations, the American
Sociological Association, the American Society of Access Professionals,
the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the American
Association of University Professors and the International Statistical
Institute), 11 from research institutions: universities, research
centres, and individual departments (such as the University of
Cornell, the ESRC Research Centre on Micro-social Change at the
University of Essex, the Centre for Educational Sociology at the
University of Edinburgh, and the British Universities of Warwick,
Surrey and Loughborough).
The majority of codes and guidelines already implemented were provided by organizations in the United States. Few of the major international organizations were able to respond positively, although it is possible that such codes do exist but were not known to those contacted. If true, this would represent a rather worrying state of affairs. Overall, an encouraging interest in the area was noticeable, however. Many organizations indicated that discussion on the subject was taking place and that such guidelines might well be formulated in the future.
1. Acceptance of responsibility: Principal
researchers should be fully aware of the ethical issues involved
in their proposed research and accept responsibility for all procedures
and ethical issues related to the project. In
cross-national or comparative research, this is a particularly
important issue requiring serious discussion at an early stage
in the research project. No common principles or ethical concerns
or shared approach can be automatically assumed, and the failures
of one member of a cross-national team must be shared by all other
2. Conduct of research: Research should
be conducted in a way which maintains the integrity of the research
enterprise and does not diminish the potential for conducting
research in the future. The choice
of issues for empirical investigation should be based on the best
scientific judgement and on an evaluation of the potential benefits
to the participants and society in relation to the risk to be
borne by the participants. Research issues should relate to an
important intellectual issue; the researcher should be convinced
that there is no other way to research the question and provide
arguments to this effect.
Research should be conducted in a competent
fashion, as an objective, scientific project without bias, utilizing
a valid research design taking account of relevant theory, methods
and prior findings and all research personnel should be qualified
and competent to use any procedures employed in the project. Researchers should undertake an
assessment of risks and benefits, and adjust procedures to respect
privacy, ensure confidentiality, maximize benefit and minimize
risk. In cases where deviation of established ethical principles
of specific professions, or those researchers in a particular
country is likely, a greater degree of responsibility must automatically
be accepted by the individual national researcher.
Research should avoid undue intrusion into
the lives of the individuals or communities they study, and should
make every effort to protect them from any potentially harmful
effects of participating. This
issue might well arise in cross-national studies, particularly
in those involving communities of widely differing cultures and
societies. Specific areas to which applicants should pay particular
attention are issues of informed consent, maintenance of full
confidentiality of all records, and prevention of disclosure of
3. Awareness of legislation: Researchers
should be aware of, and comply with, the requirements of data
protection laws and other relevant legislation. This
is of particular relevance to cross-national or cross-cultural
studies, where differences in national legislation and its implementation
can otherwise cause unforeseen problems later in the research,
either in analysis or interpretation.
4. Provision of information to others: Researchers
should provide adequate information to colleagues to permit their
methods and findings to be assessed, as well as alert potential
users to limits of reliability and applicability of data resulting
from their studies. The individual
researcher's own ethical principles should be made clear to allow
informed collaboration with other researchers, either nationally
or internationally. If external researchers or organizations
are involved in the research project, the professional and ethical
principles employed should be discussed to ensure their harmonization.
If, for example, a number of market research organizations are
employed for data collection, reference should be made to the
Code of Ethics of the (national) Market Research Society.
5. Cross-cultural research: Researchers
undertaking research on other cultures, countries and ethnic groups
have a special responsibility to ensure that they make their own
research objectives particularly clear, and remain aware of, and
respect, the concerns of the individuals or communities to be
studied. All research should be
consistent with the ethical standards of both the home and host
6. Research on groups at risk: When researching
individuals or groups in a relationship
where a power differential could operate to their disadvantage
as subjects (e.g. students, prisoners, employees, minority groups,
and the socially deprived), researchers should pav particular
attention to issues of consent and potential risk. Particular
concerns of consent and potential harm arise in research on children.
7. Resolution of conflicts: If unresolved or difficult ethical dilemmas arise in either the formulation of the research project or in its conduct, assistance or consultation should be sought with colleagues or appropriate committee sponsored by professional associations.
These principles appear in various guises in the majority of the codes, and are, in most cases, intended as signposts rather than detailed prescriptions. At base, it is universally assumed that any deviations from such ethical standards should be the result of conscious decision and not ignorance.
The International Statistical Institute Declaration on Professional Ethics is of the third type, the 'educational', neither moralistic nor punitive. This type of code is described as being 'based on the twin premises that most ethical issues defy unambiguous regulation and that ethical decisions are matters for the individual rather than the group'. As such, it seeks to describe the current norms of professional practice, to expose the conflicts inherent in the conduct of research, and to give guidance on possible resolutions. Its aim is 'to ensure that individual ethical decisions are informed by professional experience, not governed by professional authority' (Jowell, 1986, pp. 217-9). The annotated Guidelines offer an excellent discussion of the ethical dilemmas facing all types of social researchers, and have been adopted in modified form by a number of other research organizations. They formed the basis, for example, of those of the British Social Research Association Ethical Guidelines, as well as the Statement of Ethical Principles of the ESPRC Research Centre on Micro-social Change at the University of Essex.
Other codes combine elements of more than one
type. The established codes of the two funding bodies - the Swedish
Research Council and the Canadian Social Science and Humanities
Research Council - contain elements of both types, the 'aspirational'
and the 'regulatory' codes; the principles outlined are drafted
in broad terms (to cover the wide varieties of research potentially
funded) but the requirement for the maintenance of ethical conduct
suggests ethical review before grants are awarded and consultation
with either the Council's own Research Ethics Committee or that
of a statutory or semi-statutory Ethics Committee.
The Canadian SSHRC states: 'All SSHRC
applicants who propose to carry out research involving human subjects
in any discipline must arrange an ethics review. This requirement
applies wherever living persons or communities may be affected.
. . . SSHRC reserves final judgement in all matters relating to
research ethics. The guidelines contained in this booklet are
offered to assist both institutional ethics review committees
and researchers, whether or not they are funded by the SSHRC .
The Swedish Research Council recommends consultation
with the Research Council's Committee for Ethical Questions in
Research in all cases where some doubt exists as to the infringement
of the subject's rights. The implication is that all applications
are potentially subject to the scrutiny of the Council's Committee
for Ethical Questions in Research. The British Economic and Social
Research Council is currently considering a draft Code of Ethics,
which combines the educational and advisory with the regulatory.
Many professional associations also have ethics
review committees, either for resolution of reported conflicts
or to answer queries from members. In the US, the National Bureau
for Economic Research has instituted a Human Subjects Committee,
which is authorized to 'approve or disapprove, or state conditions
for, the conduct of any research involving a human subject or
subjects, in accordance with the policies stated' (9).
At the other extreme (and closer to the ISA
Guidelines), the Director-General of the CNRS in France, François
Kourilsky, launched a discussion of ethical principles within
the CNRS. A dozen scholars met to construct basic propositions,
to be discussed at a seminar in December 1993 focused on 'The
Ethics of Scientific Research', with three philosophers in charge
of the discussion (see Desplechin, 1993). Responses were sought
from national and international specialists, as well as specific
testimony from researchers confronted with practical ethical problems
in current research activities. One of the seminar leaders, Hourya
Dinaceur emphasizes that legislation is not the answer. The aim
of the group is not to deliver a moral lecture but rather to offer
a framework for thinking on the subject. They are not, they contend,
searching for rules for action, but rather for a critical awakening,
a conscience éveillé for the creation of
a permanent and pragmatic concern with the ethical dimension.
Research ethics in France, they contend, will always remain essentially
an affair of thought and vigilance, with scientists acting as
These conflicting orientations share one common
concern - researchers must become ethically aware. Yet the question
remains, much as it does in all discussions of ethical issues.
Should, and can, we legislate good behaviour or can it ultimately
be reduced to a question of education and personal conscience?
Many writers on the subject conclude, with Diener and Crandall,
that the definition of 'ideal practices' (or 'wisdom ethics')
is most often not realized in concrete situations because of human
limitations and competing values and that explicit rules on right
and wrong modes of conduct ('content ethics') are impossible because
they are not universally accepted by all scholars. This leaves
us with 'ethical decisions' which assume that ethical or
moral scientists make individual judgements about research practices
in light of their own values.
With this in mind, a more informal survey of
individual researchers was carried out, in addition to a review
of the established ethical guidelines and codes of ethics. This
indicated that current awareness of those guidelines and codes
which do exist was sketchy. Typical responses were 'I think there
is one, but I have no idea what it says'; 'I think I saw it once,
but I can't remember now'; 'Is there such a thing? I had no idea'.
It is often the case that members of professional organizations
or associations sign an ethical undertaking when joining, but
these are rarely read or studied in any detail.
Given that it cannot be assumed that one set
of principles is universally accepted by all scholars, and given
human limitations and competing values and, further, given that
researchers from different disciplines and from different countries
will not be aware that their standard practices or 'shared norms'
are not, in fact, standard or shared, it cannot be assumed that
we can rely upon all researchers to behave in consistently responsible
We have seen that many of the surveyed organizations
combine guidelines for ethical behaviour (relying on individual
self-control) with ethical review committees (offering more impartial
judgements and additional perspectives on ethical issues). Operating
alongside the self-regulatory codes and guidelines, there are
also a number of sanctions which can be imposed on those who break
the code or the regulations. These include censure, reprimand
and, in cases of serious breaches of ethics, ostracism by professional
bodies, through refusal or withdrawal of research funding to withdrawal
of public cooperation in research undertakings and, in some cases,
a ban from future access to statistical data imposed by data brokers
or archives. The threat of such sanctions is most often sufficient
to deter researchers from bad behaviour, or, as likely,
to remind them of the 'good' behaviour options.
The decisions which face the social researcher are often extremely complicated. To resolve them in a satisfactory way requires a highly developed awareness of the moral and ethical issues. For the comparative researcher, or those involved in cross-national research, the issues become even more complex. We are suggesting a combination of a self-regulatory code, an ethics review committee and recourse to legislative sanctions in the case of serious breaches. The success of this solution depends, however, on two developments. First, the research community must be informed and concerned about ethical issues. To benefit the cross-national researcher, the debate must occur at a cross-national level. Differences in ethical standards and professional approaches must be aired, discussed and, where possible, resolved. Secondly, guidelines and accompanying potential sanctions must be formulated and harmonized across disciplines and across countries. Discussion of such subjects is clearly already on the agenda of a number of cross-national organizations, who are considering formulation of such common standards. To ensure that these reflect the current needs of researchers and of the subjects of the research, the research community must itself take a more active interest and part in this debate.
The following statement concerns a failure of ethical behaviour in engineering research which, it is contended, was a major cause of the explosion of the US Space Shuttle Challenger. It is reproduced here, as it has much relevance to the social research community also.
Whatever the field, the ethical dimension is inherent in its very practice and should never be regarded as a separate or distinct consideration. If it is, the ethical perspective is likely to be postponed until it becomes retrospective, with the investigators and academics looking back to see what went wrong. . . . The need for training in applied ethics, the demand for effective communication - these are now well known themes in the modern organization. Until these subjects are integrated into the curricula, professionals will remain trapped in a vision of their work that is, at best, limited and, at worst, dangerous. (Elliott et al., 1992)
The awakening of ethical conscience demanded by the CNRS team formulating a code of ethics for French social researchers may well be an essential step towards truly comparative research. The minimal aim must surely be that stated by Barnes in 1984 - (researchers must) 'learn to live with an uneasy conscience but continue to be worried by it'.
1. See The Belmont Report for a full discussion. Sieber (1992, p.18) provides a short summary.
3. One project, the Panel Comparability Project (PACO) based at CEPS/INSTEAD in Luxembourg is confronting the problems created by differing national data protection and confidentiality laws; while creating a large database of comparable variables from a number of household panel studies, it is able to disseminate only a portion of the database to users outside the project. The project is attempting to obtain dissemination rights for a public use version of the entire database, which involves in some cases modification of national data protection legislation.
4. Sieber, 1992, p.5. This book was written to provide social scientists, their students, and members of research ethics committees with the theory and practical knowledge needed to plan ethically responsible social and behavioural research - and is intended as a 'handbook on how to translate ethical principles into valid research methods and procedures that satisfy both scientific and ethical standards' (Preface, p.xi).
7. The Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) is organized and administered by the CEPS/INSTEAD in Luxembourg, and contains data from a large number of national statistical agencies. There is some harmonization of data, and stringent controls on access to otherwise unavailable information. For more information, contact LIS at CEPS/INSTEAD, B.P. 65, L-7201 Walferdange, Luxembourg.
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