In research ethics, one size doesn't fit all 1

January 21, 2010

In his article "Do the right thing - unite" (14 January), Ron Iphofen says that all the social sciences have to do to overcome the apparently endless debate about research ethics is to agree on a single common framework that we could all sign up to. But this assumes that such a framework would suit everyone equally well and is, in fact, possible.

In 2006, Times Higher Education published an article called "Ethics guards are 'stifling' creativity" (25 August). It reported on research by David Calvey, senior sociology lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, who posed as a doorman working in a nightclub to investigate the professionalisation and criminalisation of bouncers.

As Calvey said, it is difficult to see how this research could have been undertaken if informed consent had been required, as both the British Psychological Association and the Economic and Social Research Council dictate.

Even if retrospective consent is sought after the research has been completed, what are we to do if it is not granted by people who, after all, may well have been observed taking part in criminal activities?

It is difficult to agree with Iphofen's conclusion that we need "to be less precious about our own codes and learn to draw the best from each other". Instead we need to recognise that different social science disciplines have very different research agendas and that this explains the ongoing disagreements. We must develop a complex, multi-dimensional ethics model and accept that one size usually does not fit all.

Ken Smith, Senior lecturer in criminology, Bucks New University.

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