Building ethics into the research design

Covert or deceptive research

In general, covert research is discouraged in guidelines, although it is recognised that covert designs are necessary in exceptional cases. One example might be an observational study in a public setting (and this could include online environments, such as internet chatrooms), where it would not be feasible to reveal the nature of your research to everyone in the setting.  Another example might be a study involving deception of participants, where you don’t reveal the true purpose of the study (or reveal it only after the study is completed).  You can read more about these issues – along with examples of classic studies such as the Milgram studies of obedience to authority in the 1960s, or the ethnographic study Tea Room Trade study of male to male sexuality in the 1970s – in most textbooks on social science research ethics. 

In considering whether covert methods are justifiable, it’s useful to look at the ESRC guidance in the Framework for Research Ethics (2010, p21) which states:

‘Covert research may be undertaken when it may provide unique forms of evidence or where overt observation might alter the phenomenon being studied. The broad principle should be that covert research must not be undertaken lightly or routinely. It is only justified if important issues are being addressed and if matters of social significance which cannot be uncovered in other ways are likely to be discovered.’