Coinciding with the signposting in your textbook, here you will find a combination of links to selected external sites, downloadable documents featuring case studies and extra examples, as well as author-created group activities.
Controversial cases in ethics
Some of the most famous or notorious studies last century are:
The Tuskegee Syphilis study (1932–72)
The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, was a notorious clinical study that has become a byword for racist and unethical medical experimentation. Although originally projected to last six months, the study actually went on for 40 years, from 1932 to 1972, and involved nearly 400 impoverished and poorly educated African-American men diagnosed with latent syphilis – meaning that they had the infection but showed no obvious symptoms at that stage. For 40 years, they were not told that they had syphilis and were never treated for it, even when penicillin became a standard cure in 1947.
The Milgram experiments (early 1960s)
Milgram, a psychologist, conducted an experiment in 1963 at Yale University which set out to measure how willing a range of participants were to obeying a figure of authority who gave them instructions to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience, even if these were apparently causing other people serious distress or even harm.
There is also a link to this experiment in Chapter 6.
Fielding (late 1970s): Fielding, N. (1981) The National Front. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Humphreys’ study (early 1960s): Humphreys, L. (1970) Tearoom Trade: A Study of Homosexual Encounters in Public Places. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
This website provides further links to application forms for students and staff who wish to apply to ethics approval, and guidance and forms around the subject of informed consent.
Jon’s experience of Research Ethics Committees (RECs)
My personal experience of RECs is that the feedback that I have received for the research projects that I have been working on is generally very useful. As a supervisor, I also welcome the feedback I have received from colleagues on my students’ advisory panel, and/or perhaps as part of a thesis review panel. For example, a common error that researchers often make is to use data that is being, or has been, collected for one purpose, for another. This was picked up with one of the EdD students that I was supervising when we both attended her thesis review panel. She works as a deputy headteacher in a primary school for children with autism and wanted to use assessment data on pupils’ levels (known as P-Scale level) for the purposes of her research about reading development. As she had access to these data and would have looked at it anyway for professional purposes, we both (my student and I) assumed that she could use this information for her research but we were wrong. This was a classic case of using data for research that had been collected for a different purpose. In the end, my student had to seek parents’ permission. The teachers who were involved in assessing the pupils’ reading were asked to fill in a form, giving my student, the researcher, permission to use it, and she was able to carry on and complete her research. Parents were informed about the new use of these school data when they were sent a survey hard copy questionnaire.
Sometimes, collecting data for another purpose without telling the participants can have very serious consequences. A few years ago, one student’s PhD research was curtailed by the REC and she had to give up her research. She had been carrying out ethnographic research and was working as a participant observer (as a teacher and head of faculty) in a school oversees. It transpired that she was using data on teachers that had been collected without their permission and was also using information that was written for school management rather than research purposes, including personal information on teachers’ professional development profiles given to line managers, again without their permission. It was unclear whether the teachers she was observing were fully aware that the researcher was sometimes acting in her role of researcher rather than of peer (colleague). No consent forms had been signed in advance and the REC decided that retrospective consent was not possible, as some of the data had already been used. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the researcher was in a position of authority – head of faculty – and used her role to make unannounced lesson observations where data were being collected for her research, rather than for her professional role as an employee of the school.
Although the headteacher of the school had also given the researcher his permission to conduct the research, one person cannot give consent on behalf of another adult (unless they have an impairment of some kind).
Weblinks for some of the main ethical associations for social research are:
British Educational Research Association (BERA) (2011), at:
British Psychological Association (BPA) (2009), at:
British Sociological Association (BSA) (2004), at:
The six key ethical principles from the ESRC (2015: 4):
In Statement 1, what actually constitutes coercion? Would offering participants a free cup of tea qualify; and in Statement 2, what kind of harm must be avoided. Would it include missing a lesson from school? Another instance is when the guide says that participants must normally be informed ‘with appropriate information’ (Statement 3), it begs the question of when it is not normal, and how can they ever be fully informed if even the researcher is not sure how his/her research in going to turn out? Moreover, it is not clear what is meant by research integrity or quality (Statement 5), and how this should or could be judged. Whether you agree with me or not, the point I am making is that many terms are contestable and need debating, they are not fixed and clear-cut.
Examples of information sheets
These links provide guidance on information sheets and consent forms at ULC/IOEs and KCL:
This link provides an example of a consent form used at ULC/IOE, which covers the main ethical principles, including participants’ knowledge of what the research is about, and the fact that their interview is likely to be recorded:
Further discussions about carrying out research with children
Children’s capacity of competency to consent to take part
The Research Ethics Guidebook has information on assessing capacity at:
as well as research with children at:
Research with children
The Research Handbook produced by the REC at UCL/IoE argues that the ethics of research with children is a balance:
On the one hand, the focus is on ways of preventing and reducing harms in research and ensuring adequate protection of children and young people. On the other hand, there is concern about the risks and harms of silencing and excluding children from research about their views, experiences and participation.
- The ethics principles that apply to research with adults should apply equally to children, but there are four additional provisos specific to research involving children:
- Children’s competencies, perceptions and frameworks of reference, which may differ according to factors including – but not only – their age, may differ from those of adults.
- Children’s potential vulnerability to exploitation in interaction with adults, and adults’ specific responsibilities towards children.
- The differential power relationships between adult researcher and child participant.
- The role of adult gatekeepers in mediating access to children, with concomitant ethical implications in relation to informed consent.
Conceptual issues, for example relating to children’s human rights or to their compentency, sit alongside legal requirements, including frameworks such as the Fraser Guidelines, based on the Gillick Ruling (Gillick ). Mrs Gillick took her Health Authority to court because they were supplying contraceptives to under-16-year-olds without informing the parents. She had five daughters and felt that she had a right to know if they were being prescribed anything.
The case went to the House of Lords. The judges, chaired by Lord Fraser, ruled that if a child was competent and had autonomy, then their confidentiality was to be respected (i.e. their parents did not need to be informed) if they fully understood all the risks. Although these legal guidelines are not intended to be applied to research, they sometimes are.
Some guidance mentions children’s assent, particularly the literature in the USA. However, this can be misleading and can be taken to mean ‘at least not refusing’, which is very different from positively agreeing. Children may be too shy, afraid or confused to give meaningful consent.
There is a project that looked into the views of children on ethics committees by setting up a fake ethics committee and showing the videos to the children. Here is the website with the videos on it, it’s very interesting what comments are made by the students: http://nuffieldbioethics.org/project/children-research/films-young-peoples-perspectives-clinical-ethics-reviews/
Two examples of covert research and further readings
Two early examples of studies that used covert methods of research can be seen from Humphreys’ (1970) and Fielding (1981):
Humphreys, L. (1970) Tearoom Trade: A Study of Homosexual Encounters in Public Places. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Fielding, N. (1981) The National Front. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Humphreys studied homosexual activities in public toilets in the 1906s by acting as a lookout or ‘watch queen’ for the gay community. Pretending to the police that he was conducting market research, he obtained the names and addresses of the unknowing participants in his study from their car registration plates. He then approached the men and requested interviews with them. He argued that he had revealed a greater understanding of the homosexual community, which potentially led to improvements in their social situation.
Fielding was a sociologist and carried out clandestine research inside a political party, the British National Front, in the 1970s. Feigning that he held racist views, he gained access to meetings and events, where he could talk freely to people. The ethical problem for Fielding was that, not only was he hiding his true intentions, but he was actually lying. When he published his book, he decided to use the real names of the people he had studied and did not feel obliged to disguise their identities. By exposing racist practices, he argued that the end justified the means.
For extra reading about covert and insider research, see also:
Calvey, D. (2008) ‘The art and politics of covert research: doing “situated ethics” in the field’, Sociology, 42 (5): 905–18.
Hodkinson, P. (2005) ‘Insider research in the study of youth cultures’, Journal of Youth Studies, 8 (2): 131–49.
Spicker, P. (2011) ‘Ethical covert research’, Sociology, 45 (1): 118–33.
The consequences of revealing names of people and places
About 15 years ago, a colleague of mine carried out some research in South America about environmental education and sustainable development. The fieldwork was set in a particular village that had a high proportion of a particular religious group living there, who had emigrated from North America in the mid-1950s. Although everyone appeared friendly, my friend began to feel that there was some deeper reticence and some of the group were reluctant to open up and talk to her in depth. She then discovered that another researcher had been present in the community about 10 years earlier and had carried out work for a PhD about the power relations involved in community decision-making, which was published at an American university. It was subsequently discovered that the researcher had not only included real names and places but that some of the narratives were highly personal, such as tales of rivalries and infidelities. When members of the religious group found out about this, the community sent a group of representatives to the university and succeeded in having the thesis sealed, which means that it could no longer be accessed by anyone. Of course, there is often more than one side to the story and the researcher insisted that her participants told her that they were happy for names to be revealed. While this seems unlikely, given that the interviews contained highly private revelations, the story illustrates not only how the researcher lacked integrity and responsibility and betrayed her participants trust by nor adhering to the principles of trying, at least, to guarantee their confidentiality and anonymity, but also how she failed in her duty to the academy or research community by making the field much more difficult to investigate for future researchers.
Natasha Whiteman’s research on internet-based fan groups
A former IoE doctoral student and tutor, Natasha Whiteman (2010, 2012) carried out observational online research on two internet-based fan groups between 2004 and 2006. Using textual analysis of written exchanges, she was interested in issues of power and how online, avatar, identities were constructed and performed through online exchanges. She did not post on the sites or disclose her position as observer; her research did not involve any attempt to contact participant members of the sites and her role was that of a ‘lurker’, rather than that of participant. No one agreed to any informed consent and her justification of her covert position was that there were no passwords needed to access the site and therefore it was publicly open. She began her PhD research before the Research Committee was set up at the IoE in 2005, and therefore her design was not required to go through any formal ethical review. However, she argued (2010, 2012) that she had still conducted her research ethically, and did not invade privacy to any damaging degree.
Whiteman, N. (2010) ‘Control and contingency: maintaining ethical stances in research’, International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, 3 (12): 6–22.
Whiteman, N. (2012) Undoing Ethics: Rethinking Practice in Online Research. London: Springer.