Softly, softly on ethics tightrope

August 5, 2005

A deliberate, well-planned approach is important when embarking on researching sensitive issues, along with the ability to foresee the potential outcomes of your investigations, says Harriet Swain

I don't know quite how to put this. You may well not want to talk about it. You may find it embarrassing, intrusive or ethically awkward. It may even affect your funding. But here goes... Are you having problems with your research? Is some of it proving just too hot to handle?

Raymond Lee, professor of social research methods at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that every research topic is potentially sensitive. "When you think about sensitivity, what you are really thinking about is the relationship between the topic and the context in which you are investigating it," he says. "Often when people run into difficulties it's because they don't know what they don't know." It is only by delving deeper into the topic that they realise some of the sensitivities involved. This is why it is vital to do your homework and to have fallback positions and contingency plans, he says.

Clive Hollin, professor of criminological psychology at Leicester University, says that securing access to data is a regular problem. He advises getting to know the Data Protection and Freedom of Information Acts thoroughly and making sure that you share an understanding of these acts with the person from whom you are trying to obtain the information. It is also important to clarify who owns the data you want, he says.

He suggests being explicit about the information you are going to need as soon as you enter into a research contract with another organisation and stating that you would expect to be given access to this data.

He also advises starting on ethics procedures as soon as you have written the research proposal because the process takes such a long time.

Mark Sheehan, director of research ethics training programmes at Keele University, says it is nevertheless a mistake to think that if you fill out all the right forms, you won't have to worry about ethics. "That's deeply wrong," he says. "The right thing to do is to think very hard about ethics."

This means considering how you would respond to potential harm caused by your research, and assessing whether this research is ultimately worth the risk. An ethics committee will judge how objective your thinking about ethical issues has been, he says. Don't assume something is important, or that others will appreciate its importance, because of your own enthusiasm.

He says you should look into the kinds of ethical issues raised by research similar to your own and consider what other people's ethical worries might be.

Jackie Blisset, lecturer in psychology at Birmingham University, who has carried out research into parenting, says that if you are asking people who are vulnerable to relive their experiences you have to take some responsibility for their mental health, and make sure that support is available. "Put yourself in the place of the person participating in the research," she says. "What kind of support would you like to see? What kind of things would you be thinking about that you wouldn't have thought about before?"

She argues that some topics are too sensitive for research. "The ultimate responsibility is to the wellbeing of your participants," she says. "You cannot justify damage to a small number of individuals to carry out research the results of which you have no idea about."

Where possible, you should try to brief participants in advance about the kinds of things you are going to talk about and the risks involved, and should emphasise their right to withdraw at any time, she says. You have to be aware that some participants, especially those referred by the National Health Service, may fear losing medical or other services. You must make it clear that these fears are unfounded.

Gill Hague, director of the Violence Against Women Research Group at Bristol University, says it is important to make an interview as equal and empowering an experience for the interviewee as possible.

Lee says you also have to consider your own physical and mental health. You should make sure you have your own sources of support and perhaps consider keeping a diary to give yourself an outlet for your feelings. If a setting is particularly dangerous, don't assume the only way you can collect the data you need is by interview, he says.

If you do interview, you must realise that there are instances in which you will need to breach confidentiality, Hollin says. You must make it clear to interviewees that while most of what they say will be in confidence, in certain circumstances you may be legally obliged to pass on information.

He says you must be aware of your legal rights and responsibilities. "It is astonishing how many people aren't aware of what they can and cannot do," he says.

Once you have successfully completed your research, your problems are not over, warns Colin Pritchard, research professor at Bournemouth University, who has researched issues including suicide and child protection. He says you must think carefully about how you publish, being aware that your findings may be distorted by interested groups. Don't be tempted to compromise your sources, or the emphasis of your research findings for the sake of publicity. "Be aware of the subtle flattery of the media," he warns.

However, don't get too discouraged by the difficulties involved in sensitive research topics. According to Lee: "Difficulty itself is a source of data. It tells you something about the setting you are studying." He says it is essential for anyone experiencing problems to reflect why this is so and to read the methodological literature. Sometimes you will find that others have encountered exactly the same problems you face.

Further information - Central Office for Research Ethics Committees
Doing Research on Sensitive Topics , by Raymond Lee, Sage (2003)


  • Prepare
  • Think about ethics early on - and keep thinking about it
  • Be an expert in data protection and freedom of information
  • Make sure support is in place for yourself and your research participants
  • Think how your results could be misused

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