Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2018

Page updated 5 March, 2018

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2018, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

10. Ethics

10.1 Introduction
10.2 Harm
10.3 Confidentiality, anonymity and privacy
10.4 Approval
10.5 Informed consent

10.6 Deception
10.7 Fraud
10.8 Publishing ethics

10.8.1 Researchers facing ethical issues over publication
10.8.2 Publishers' concerns about ethical publication Approval statements, privacy, confidentiality, anonymity and consent Authorship and funding Peer review and editorial decisions Jokes and trivia Citation, duplication of publication and plagiarism Legal issues: data protection and defamation Errors, corrections and retractions

10.9 Conclusion

10.8 Publishing ethics
Publishers should ensure that published research is ethical and responsible, with appropriate consents and approvals.


10.8.1 Researchers facing ethical issues over publication
Some researchers argue that it is unethical to betray confidence by publishing an account unacceptable to the subjects, as William Whyte (1943) inadvertently did in Street Corner Society. As mentioned above (Section 10.2), Howard Parker (1974, p. 224) commented on this issue when reporting his study of a Liverpool gang.

The major problem in 'writing up' is an ethical one, however. The fieldwork data basically fell into three categories: that which I felt could definitely be published, that which could definitely not be published and that which I was unsure about. The third category was eventually broken up and distributed into the yes/no compartments through consultation with those involved and colleagues. Becker has pointed out in reviewing studies of this nature that publication will almost inevitably 'make somebody angry'. This is probably true; my main concern is that no harm comes to The Boys. Thus what I have published is related to my knowledge of what Authority already knows about. The nature of The Boys' delinquency discussed is already well known to Authority. The analysis blows no whistles but rather tries to explain what happens when whistles are blown.

Reporting only what the subjects agree to, while salving the researcher's conscience, can be problematic if it means censoring the material of its significance. One dilemma replaces another: abandon all the hard work, or 'publish and be damned'.

The complex nature of ethical issues makes it difficult to suggest hard-and-fast rules for the writing up of research. However, it is advisable to present findings using pseudonyms (unless people want to be identified) and, as far as possible, make it difficult for individuals to be identified, especially if the research is likely to harm them in any way at all.


10.8.2 Publishers' concerns about ethical publication
Publishers should ensure that published research is ethical and responsible, with appropriate consents and approvals. Approval statements, privacy, confidentiality, anonymity and consent
Medical studies involving human participants, for example, should include a statement identifying the ethics committee that approved the study, and that the study conforms to recognised standards, such as those in the Declaration of Helsinki.  The declaration, originally adopted in June 1964, is a set of ethical principles regarding human experimentation developed for the medical community by the World Medical Association (WMA). It has undergone several revisions, which has more than tripled its original 11 paragraph length, and is widely regarded as the cornerstone document on human research ethics not least because it is the first significant self-regulation by the medical community.

For publishers, practice around privacy and confidentiality vary by discipline, relative to the risks of participation and the reasonable expectations of participants. In the biomedical sciences, for example, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE, 2017, p. 7) state in their recommendations:

Nonessential identifying details should be omitted. Informed consent should be obtained if there is any doubt that anonymity can be maintained. For example, masking the eye region in photographs of patients is inadequate protection of anonymity. If identifying characteristics are de-identified, authors should provide assurance, and editors should so note, that such changes do not distort scientific meaning.

Any publication that involves describing individuals or showing any kind of still or moving image of them should only occur if authors submit unambiguous consent forms from those who might be identified. Furthermore, publishers should ensure that other images, technical diagrams, graphs and so on include details that might identify an anonymised individual, group or organisation. In many countries, formal copyright clearance is required prior to publication of any video or audio recordings.

Deakin et al. (2014) in their Best Practice Guidelines on Publishing Ethics state that:

In the social sciences and humanities, there are numerous ethical guidelines for researchers working with human participants. Social science and humanities researchers regularly work with audio and video materials gathered in public places where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. They also use materials derived from broadcast sources, as in some political science or cultural studies work, where copyright must be addressed but where consent issues do not arise. However, wherever appropriate, social scientists are also responsible for protecting the confidentiality of human participants, and obtaining informed consent from all participants by openly communicating any and all information that is likely to influence their willingness to participate (for example, sponsorship, purpose and anticipated outcomes, and possible consequences that publication of the research may have for participants).

They add that

Guidelines include those from the American Sociological Association, International Society of Ethnobiology, and American Anthropological Association. For social research data the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth suggests in its Ethical Guidelines for Good Research Practice that it is not always possible or necessary to gain written consent to publish, particularly when researchers are working with people with limited literacy or in cultures where formal bureaucratic procedures are problematic. However, it remains prudent for journals to ask authors to provide evidence that they have obtained informed consent.

The American Anthropological Association's (2012) statement recommends that 'Informed consent does not necessarily imply or require a particular written or signed form. It is the quality of the consent, not its format, which is relevant'.

Deakin et al. (2014) emphasise that it is the quality of the consent, not its format, that is relevant. Exceptional cases might arise where gaining an individual's free prior informed consent is not possible but where publishing an individual's information or image can be demonstrated to have a genuine public health interest or to serve an important public need. In such cases editors should refer to the journal owner.

Generally speaking publishers and associations should encourage authors to follow their discipline's guidelines for accurate and complete reporting of research that enables readers to evaluate the methods and results. However, Robert White (2000), in reviewing the Tuskegee study (Section 10.2.1) pointed out that two of the last three articles published about the study were published by journals of the American Medical Association after its House of Delegates adopted the Principles of Ethics Concerning Experimentation with Human Beings in 1946.

These were the first written principles of research drafted in the United States and included provisions for consent of the human subject, scientific rationale, and scientifically competent investigators; they were written in response to the Nuremberg doctors' trial.
Apparently, the medical establishment and the peer-review process failed to recognize and act appropriately toward a study that has come to symbolize racism in medicine. (White, 2000, p. 589)

Top Authorship and funding
The list of authors should accurately illustrate who contributed to the work and those listed should qualify for authorship by standards appropriate to the discipline.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (2017), for example, recommends that those designated as authors should meet all of the following four criteria: (1) substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work, or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; (2) drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; (3) final approval of the version to be published; (4) agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

By these criteria, acquisition of funding alone, collection of data alone, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship.

Publishers of academic articles should ensure that all funding sources are acknowledged (including a zero funding statement, where appropriate). Any role in the research taken by the funder should also be described, including disclosures about whether any commercial organisation designed the study or recruited the investigators.

Top Peer review and editorial decisions
Journal editors should apply consistent and explicit standards in their peer-review processes, including confidential handling of manuscripts and disclosure of any conflicts of interest; including ensuring submissions by journal editors or board members are treated in the same way as other submissions.

Peer reviewers can also help journal publishing teams in the identification of unethical research, plagiarism (Office of Research Integrity, 1994), duplicate publication, biased reporting, undeclared conflicts of interest, data fabrication, image manipulation (Rossner and Yamada, 2004) and other forms of falsification.

Journal owners (whether learned societies or publishers) should avoid influencing editorial decisions and the principles of editorial independence should be set out in the editor's contract (Deakin et al., 2014). Editors should be free to judge all submissions on their scholarly merit and on their potential importance to the community that the journal serves and such decisions should remain separate from the sale of advertising. Journals should establish policies so that editorial decisions cannot be influenced by payment of an open-access-article publication charge or other type of payment made by authors.

Top Jokes and trivia
Another slightly bizarre activity, that editors might want to be aware of, is the insertion of hidden jokes or trivia in research papers. For example, Paul Jump (2014) revealed the hidden leopard-skin G-string in a scientific paper:

Quelle horreur: 'your mother in a leopard-skin G-string' is a renowned French insult. News that a group of Swedish scientists had been planting Bob Dylan song titles into papers [(Michaels, 2014)] had other academics emailing each other with similar challenges. That was until it transpired that one Swiss-French professor had already gone far further – with a reference to mothers in leopard-print G-strings.

The professor in developmental genomics at the University of Geneva and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Denis Duboule, revealed that in the mid-1990s a French postdoc in his lab discovered a new genetic technique. He said:

"As usual when you end up with a nice technique you think people will use, we started to think of an acronym. You have to visualise these French postdocs thinking about it over a Friday beer," Professor Duboule said. An unspecified number of bottles later they settled on TAMERE, which supposedly stands for "targeted meiotic recombination". But, in popular French parlance, ta mère is shorthand for nique ta mère (fuck your mother), a phrase also associated at the time with French rap group NTM.
"When I am in the US listening to talks and I hear people saying they have used the technique TAMERE it is hilarious. But I would never dare say it in front of a French-speaking audience," said Professor Duboule. Popular slang use of ta mère later became more elaborate, the most insulting version being "ta mère en string panthere" (your mother in a leopard-skin G-string).
So some years later, when another publishable genetic technique was invented, a French postdoc was determined to call it STRING –which supposedly stood for "sequential targeted recombination-induced genomic approach". Then a third postdoc called a technique PANTHERE, which was deemed to signify "pangenomic translocation for heterologous enhancer reshuffling". (Jump, 2014)

Professor Duboule, who admitted inserting other jokes in his papers as a reaction to his sense that science was becoming over-policed by committees, regretted that the PANTHERE article was rejected by the journal Nature Genetics. However, the techniques were united in July in a paper he co-authored called 'The genetics of murine Hox loci: TAMERE, STRING, and PANTHERE to engineer chromosome variants' that appeared in Methods in Molecular Biology.

Top Citation, duplication of publication and plagiarism
Journal editors should ensure authors add citations to their manuscripts when there is a strong scholarly rationale for doing so; that is, avoiding over citation and superfluous self-citation. Where misconduct is suspected an appropriate procedure should be implemented; the COPE Forum case archive provides independent advice on a wide range of issues.

Duplicate publication of entire articles is not acceptable (Deakin et al., 2014). Any previously published results, including the primary data source for subgroup analyses or earlier drafts on conference websites, need appropriate citation. Any translated material that has been published elsewhere should have appropriate permission and should indicate that it has been translated and republished, identifying the original source. There may be copyright issues involved in representing already published research, even if it is the author's own work.

Usually, the following prior publication forms are not problematic: abstracts and posters presented during sessions at conferences; results presented at meetings that inform investigators, participants or funders about outcomes; dissertations and theses in university archives. However, that does not mean that authors can re-present PhD thesis material that is not their own without due acknowledgment. As such, that would normally be construed as plagiarsm.

Plagiarism is unacceptable: this occurs when a proposed publication includes substantial sections from other people's work without any citation or acknowledgement of the original source. For example, Mahesh Visvanathan and Gerald Lushington, of the University of Kansas, published three bioinformatics articles, portions of  which had been lifted from other scientists' work. Both admitted culpability to the the U.S. Office of Research Integrity but  have been allowed to keep their jobs and the University of Kansas agreed to monitor the legitimacy of their research contributions over the next two years (Bavley, 2012).

Caton and Watkins (2017) reported how Monica Crowley, the U.S. President's choice as a security advisor for the National Security Council, plagiarised numerous passages in her Ph.D. dissertation.

An examination of the dissertation and the sources it cites identified more than a dozen sections of text that have been lifted, with little to no changes, from other scholarly works without proper attribution. In some instances, Crowley footnoted her source but did not identify with quotation marks the text she was copying directly. In other instances, she copied text or heavily paraphrased with no attribution at all.

Crowley apologised and withdrew from consideration for the post followng the reports of plagiarism.

Jonathan Bailey (2014) noted that Mustapha Marrouchi, an English professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), had once again been accused of plagiarism. 'In 1992, he was accused of lifting passages from an essay by W.J.T. Mitchell in the London Review of Books. Then, in 1999, in the same publication, a letter by Stephen Howe appeared accusing Marrouch of plagiarism of one his book reviews'. When the Chronicle for Higher Education accused Marrouchi of further plagiarism, UNVL investigated and dissmissed him when it was found that 23 of his 26 papers contained plagiarized passages. 

What is truly frightening about Marrouchi's story is the sheer volume of plagiarism involved. For over 20 years, Marrouchi built a career on lifting passages without citation and, even after being called out twice for the behavior, he continued to have a prosperous academic career. The fact that an academic could plagiarize dozens of works over decades of their career without any obvious consequences should give academics and their editors pause to think about the challenges that face those who seek to enforce ethical standards in research and academia. (Bailey 2014)

Top Legal issues: data protection and defamation
Journals should comply with data protection legislation and editors should seek advice from publishers if in any doubt.

Editors should be alert to libellous or defamatory language, directed at individuals or corporate entities and associations, in both submitted manuscripts and peer review reports or correspondence that could result in legal action (Deakin et al., 2014). Such language should be removed any if in any doubt should seek advice from the publisher's legal department.

Top Errors, corrections and retractions
Journals should work with authors and their publisher to correct important published errors. Corrections should be published, and free to access, when important errors are found. Fundamental errors that they invalidate the work should lead to retraction of the published work, along with an explanation of the reason for retraction, making it clear whether the retraction was for a genuine error or because of research misconduct (see also Section 10.5.3).

An example of retraction is an article by Nguyen Van Toan and Tran Thi Hanh (2014). The retraction states:

Retraction: Improved treatment of Asthma by using natural sources of antioxidants
Nguyen Van Toan and Tran Thi Hanh
The original version of this paper (Van Toan and Thi Hanh 2013) is retracted because of ethical concerns: the clinical trial was not approved by an ethical board and the authors did not provide evidence that patient consent was obtained. The scientific advisor for this clinical trial (ANZCTR 2012) at the University of the West of England UK (an affiliation of the corresponding author) indicated he was not aware of this study and that the university was not involved.

Nonetheless, the original retracted article is still available online (as of February 2018).

To overcome the problem of rejection on the grounds of a lack of ethical approval, COPE (2008) recommended the following actions by journal editors in addition to the normal review process:

1. Is the study scientifically valid and clearly presented; for example is the sample size adequate, are the results adequately and clearly presented and explained, and have the investigators excluded or considered the possible confounding factors and/or biases? Second, does the study contribute sufficiently to knowledge to make acceptance and publication a possibility? 
2. Have the ethical harms been minimised; for example has due care been taken to avoid coercion or exploitation, to protect confidentiality, to minimise the risk of physical and psychological harm and to respect autonomy where possible? (For example, information sheets and consent forms can still be used for certain audits and service evaluations as a demonstration that appropriate ethical standards are being met, even if a research ethics committee has not asked for it). It may be necessary to seek further information from the investigators to establish how they have addressed these issues. 
3. Do the benefits outweigh the harms in this particular study's case? 
4. If there is doubt about local law or regulations, editors should clarify this with the authors and ask them to provide a letter from the individual research ethics committee or the research ethics authority in that country about the research. (COPE, 2008)


Next 10.9 Conclusion