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Understanding different research perspectives
Understanding different research perspectives

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4 Research ethics

Ethics is a fundamental aspect of research and of professional work. Ethics refers to the science of morals and rules of behaviour. It is concerned with the concept of right and wrong conduct in all stages of doing research. However, while the idea of right and wrong conduct may seem straightforward, on reflection you will realise how complex ethics is. Ethics is obviously applied to many aspects of life, not just research, and, in business, topics such as ethics and social responsibility and ethical trading are often brought to people’s attention by the media.

Activity 4

Timing: About 15 minutes

As the meaning of what is ethical behaviour is often subjective and may have controversial elements, think about the following questions and make some notes:

  • What does ethics in research mean for you?
  • Why is ethical behaviour important for you?
  • Why should ethics matter in research?

There is no feedback on this activity.

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Research ethics is concerned with the prevention of any harm which may occur during the course of research. This is particularly important if your research involves human participants. Harm refers to psychological as well as physical harm. Human rights and the law must be respected by researchers with regard to the safety and wellbeing of their participants at all times. Research ethics is also concerned with identifying high standards of research conduct and putting them into practice. Cameron and Price (2009) suggest that researcher conduct is guided by a number of different obligations:

  • Legal obligations which apply not only to the country in which researchers conduct the project, but also where they collect and store data.
  • Professional obligations which are established by professional bodies (e.g. British Psychological Society, The Law Society, CIPD) to guide the conduct of its members.
  • Cultural obligations which refer to informal rules regulating the behaviours of people within the society in which they live.
  • Personal obligations which include the behavioural choices that individuals make of their own will.

In planning and carrying out a research project researchers should consider their responsibilities to the participants and respondents, to those sponsoring the research, and to the wider research community (Cameron and Price, 2009, p. 121). Before embarking on a research project it is worth identifying all stakeholders and considering your responsibilities towards them.

Generally universities and professional bodies have a list of principles or a code of ethics conduct that governs the research process. The principles to be followed in conducting research with human participants, and which you must follow when collecting data for your research project, are outlined below:

  • Informed consent: Potential participants should always be informed in advance, and in understandable terms, of any potential benefits, risks, inconvenience or obligations associated with the research that might reasonably be expected to influence their willingness to participate. This should normally involve the use of an information sheet about the research and what participation will involve, and a signed consent form. Sufficient time shall be allowed for a potential participant to consider their decision from receiving the information sheet to giving their consent. In the case of children (individuals under 16 years of age) informed consent should be given by parents or guardians. An incentive to participate (e.g. a prize or a small payment) should be offered only after consent has been given. Participants should be informed clearly that they have a right to withdraw their consent at any time, that any data that they have provided will be destroyed if they so request and that there will be no resultant adverse consequences.
  • Openness and integrity: Researchers should be open and honest about the purpose and content of their research and behave in a professional manner at all times. Covert collection of data should only take place where it is essential to achieve the research results required, where the research objective has strong scientific merit and where there is an appropriate risk management and harm alleviation strategy. Participants should be given opportunities to access the outcomes of research in which they have participated and debriefed, if appropriate, after they have provided data.
  • Protection from harm: Researchers must make every effort to minimise the risks of any harm, either physical or psychological. Researchers shall comply with the requirements of the UK Data Protection Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and any other relevant legal frameworks governing the management of personal information in the UK or in any other country in which the research may be conducted. Where research involves children or other vulnerable groups, an appropriate level of disclosure should be obtained from the Disclosure and Barring Service for all researchers in contact with participants.
  • Confidentiality: Except where explicit written consent is given, researchers should respect and preserve the confidentiality of participants’ identities and data at all times. The procedures by which this is to be achieved should be specified in the research protocol (an outline of the research topic and strategy).
  • Professional codes of practice and ethics: Where the subject of a research project falls within the domain of a professional body with a published code of practice and ethical guidelines, researchers should explicitly state their intention to comply with the code and guidelines in the project protocol. Research within the UK NHS should always be conducted in compliance with an ethical protocol approved by the appropriate NHS Research Ethics Committee.

This guidance has been adapted from, and reflects the principles of, the Open University Research Ethics Guideline. The CIPD’s Code of Professional Conduct [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] provides more information on professional standards in the field of HR.

Activity 5

Timing: About 75 minutes

Look at your research topic mind map and the research statement you wrote for Activity 3. Did you consider ethics? Regardless of whether or not you included ethics in your earlier outline of your research topic, consider what ethical factors could prevent you from conducting a research project on the chosen topic. Write your notes in the space provided below.

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Describe at least two types of risks that could be encountered in HR research.

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What is informed consent? What factors would you want to know before agreeing to participate in a research study? What should be included in an informed consent form?

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This activity added the ethical dimension to the research topic, which was likely to be missed out in a previous outline of the project topic and aim(s). It also compels you to reflect on the specific ethical risks of HR research. There are risks associated with most HR research (e.g. stress can be induced by an interview or questionnaire questions) and it is important to consider them before finalising the research proposal. The activity also encouraged you to consider the elements that should be included in the informed consent form.

The next section considers the research question.