Ethics and Research

Ethics and Research
by Vicky Garnett

By the end of this section, you should be able to…

  • know when to consider ethics in your research
  • understand the ethical considerations appropriate to your research
  • describe what ‘informed consent’ means
  • understand and describe the ethical issues that repositories and CHIs have to consider

While the management of data in order to make it more open, accessible and interoperable is of course important, it is equally important to make sure that due ethical consideration has been given to the data.

When dealing with data found within the arts and humanities, most of the time this can mean dealing with data about humans.  Those working within the social sciences are perhaps more likely to find this to be an issue for consideration than, say, an art historian, but the ethical treatment of data is something that is becoming of greater concern to funding agencies, and is often required as part of a Data Management Plan when submitting a proposal for funding.

laptop-2561018_1920When should you consider ethics in research?

There are perhaps two main types of research in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, which for the sake of ease we might call ‘Participatory Research’ and ‘Non-Participatory Research’.

Participatory research is the kind of research where you gather new data from participants.  This might be through any interviews you conduct for various reasons, anonymous surveys, or testing, or crowd-sourcing for example.  The important thing is that your research relies on the input of other individuals in order to create data.  We call these individuals ‘participants’.

Non-participatory research might involve research within manuscripts or archives.  You do not require the participation of individuals or groups in order to generate data for your research, you can gather this from Cultural Heritage Institutes, such as archives, libraries, museums, etc.  The difference here is that the data has already been generated by someone else, however you still need to be ethically responsible when dealing with this kind of data.

Ethics in Participatory Research

At a very basic level, the protection of any participants who assist or participate in your research is the basis for ensuring good ethical practice in research.  For those working in medical sciences, ethics deal with the physical and mental health of participants, and ensuring that they are informed sufficiently to fully agree to participate.  The same principles apply when conducting research for Arts, Humanities and Social Science (AHSS) subjects.  While the physical well-being of participants is less likely to be at risk in AHSS-based research, the mental well-being, and need to ensure that participants are well informed is still vital.

The kind of research data that would usually be subject to ethical approval includes (but is not necessarily limited to:

  • Any recorded interviews (either video or audio)
  • Surveys or questionnaires that collect personal information such as date/place of birth or anything else that could identify the participant
  • Research where the participant is asked to reveal or reflect on instances from their past (e.g. oral histories, psychology experiments)
  • Anything that involves the participation of minors (additional ethical requirements may be in place for such instances)
  • Anything in which the participant is asked to reveal something that might cause them or others physical or mental harm or embarrassment if it were to be made public.
  • Any research in which the participant is asked to complete tests, or test-like scenarios

What do we mean by ‘being well informed’?  listen-1702648_1920

In an ideal world, the participant in any research would be completely informed of what you are looking for, and how you intend to go about seeking that information.  However, in some instances, telling the participant absolutely everything can be counter-productive.  The ‘Observer Paradox’ can mean that a participant will not necessarily behave as they normally might, and this might skew your results.

So how does one make sure that the participant is sufficiently informed as to make a decision and not to feel like they’ve been ‘duped’ or exploited by participating in the research, but not know so much that they might behave differently?

Sometimes, providing a summary of what your research aims to achieve can be enough.  For example, if you are a linguist and you want to know how people within a specific region might use prepositions to describe spatial elements, you can simply tell your participants that you are interested in language variation, and you want to see what variation occurs in that region.

But, a participant does need to know:

  • What is going to happen during the interview
  • If personal data about them is to be taken, and what happens to that personal data after the research is completed.

Most faculties and universities will have a standard procedure for granting ethical approval for research.

What is the difference between ‘Confidential’ and ‘Anonymous’?

hospice-1793998_1920It is important to remember the distinction between ‘confidential’ and ‘anonymous’.

A participant’s data is confidential when it is held securely and only accessible to the participant, and the researcher.  The researcher will have met, or interacted with the participant in some way, but usually the name of the participant as well as any other personal information is withheld from any publications.  If something related to the participant needs to be stated in order to support an argument in the research, this is usually done through a code that does not reveal the identity of that participant.

A participant is anonymous if they take part in the research without having any interaction with the researcher at all.  The researcher only knows that ‘someone’ has participated, but does not know the name or identity of the participant.  A clear example of this might be if the participant fills in an online survey and doesn’t give their name or any other personal details that might reveal their identity.   Only the participant knows that they have taken part in the research.

Ethics in Non-Participatory Research

Just because you are not dealing directly with the participation of individuals in order to gather your data, does not mean that you are not responsible for the ethical management of your data.  The kinds of documents or data you may find in archives or museums should be treated with just as much care.

An example of this might be if you were to be working Holocaust studies, and were analysing oral histories from Holocaust survivors.  The people who provided those oral histories may still be alive, or if they are not might have relatives who are.  Re-producing their data has the potential to cause anxiety and pain.

This may also be found with information that was gathered after a conflict or period of extended tension within a region.  Consider the period in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles.  Interviews provided even in recent years still has the potential to cause harm if they were to be treated irresponsibly.

Therefore, it is important to remember that while your research might not involve gathering data through the direct participation of individuals or groups, consideration for the ethical implications still needs to be given.

Ethics and Data Management Plans

A DMP requires a strategy for storing and allowing access to the data you gather during your research project.  In some cases it might not be appropriate to allow access to your data, either whole or in part (e.g. embargo, personal data, sensitive content, etc.), but you should explain why, and make sure this is clearly stated in the data management plan (see the previous section: Data Management Planning).


  1. ‘Laptop’ by StockSnap, CC0 Creative Commons available on
  2. ‘Listen’ by jamesoladujoye, CC0 Creative Commons available on
  3. ‘Hospice’ by maxlkt, CC0 Creative Commons available on


Congratulations!  You have completed the “Ethics and Research” section!

Your progress through the "Manage, Improve and Open Up Your Research Data" module