WISERD Methods Briefing Series, WISERD/MBS/003

The ethical governance of social research is now well entrenched within the academy in the UK and elsewhere. Whereas, in the not so distant past, ethical research practice was a matter for the researcher to articulate and manage, research ethics are now a matter for institutions to govern. Departmental or University ethics committees or boards are required, expected and accepted as the primary way in which we ensure our research is ethical. Most major research funders require projects and proposals to seek and obtain ‘formal’ ethical approval, often before funding decisions are taken and certainly before research begins. This can leave research students, early career researchers and even the most experienced of researchers in the rather odd position of completing ethical approval forms, drafting information sheets and consent forms, and promising anonymity before they really know how the research will unfold and what the ethical issues will really be. At best, we anticipate and make contingencies; at worst, we seek to downplay or minimise potential ethical risks in order to get approval and move on. Both might be thought of as relatively unsatisfactory ways of ensuring social research is conducted ethically.