Building ethics into the research design

Professional guidelines

Different disciplinary perspectives raise particular issues in relation to the limits of confidentiality, and so it is useful to refer to your own discipline’s professional guidelines.

For example, in political science ethics, there can be a tension between confidentiality for the  individual and the wider ’public interest’.  See our section on limits of confidentiality in professional and elite interviews for a more detailed discussion of these issues.

The Political Studies Association Guidelines for Good Professional Conduct state that:

’Members should treat their research subjects fairly. Subjects’ agreement to participate should be given on a voluntary and informed basis. Participants should be made aware of the likely limits of confidentiality and must not be promised greater confidentiality than can be realistically guaranteed.’ 

Similarly, the ethics guidelines of the Social Policy Association highlight the difficulties of ensuring confidentiality or anonymity for those is prominent professional positions.  These guidelines note:

’Careful consideration should be given to how to maintain confidentiality and anonymity for research participants whose social position may make their identity hard to disguise’.

In relation to research involving members of the general public – and particularly children or vulnerable adults – the limits of confidentiality are related to the researcher’s duty of care in case of concerns about risk of harm.  There is advice, but it is not always clear, and may be overridden by professional guidelines. For example, some professionals – such as teachers and social workers – have a professional responsibility to report suspected abuse. Researchers are in a more ambiguous position, as is summed up in the British Sociological Association Guidelines, which state that:

’Guarantees of confidentiality and anonymity given to research participants must be honoured, unless there are clear and overriding reasons to do otherwise, for example in relation to the abuse of children’.