Research Methods: Considering Ethics in your research - single page view

Considering ethics in your research

This guide is designed to help you to:

  • Understand the significance of ethical concerns in the research process
  • Identify the nature of the ethical issues that may be of significance in the design and implementation of your research
  • Develop your research design in a way that takes into account of ethical considerations, so that your research is as ethical as possible
  • Understand the complexity of the process of gaining informed consent and enable you to achieve this
  • Reflect on the complexity of research ethics



This MESHGuide draws on a range of key literature in the field of social science research ethics. Also its design has been informed by lessons learned from my own research, which has focussed on the following areas:

  • Developing effective collaborative learning in science
  • Factors influencing learning through play in the early years
  • Student teachers’ engagement with research and its impact on their developing practice
  • Constructivist informed practice in science within initial teacher education
  • Creativity in learning and teaching



Clark, A. (2006) Anonymising Research Data, ESRC National Centre for Research Methods, NCRM, Working Paper Series 7/06.

Corden, A. & Sainsbury, R. (2005) Research Participants’ Views on Use of Verbatim Quotations. SPRU, University of York.

Hammersley, M. and Traianou, A. (2012) Ethics and Educational Research, British Educational Research Association on-line resource. Last accessed 7/8/15

Sheffield Hallam University (undated) Safeguarding Children in Research Contexts

Wiles, R., Heath, S., Crow, G. and Charles, V. (2005) Informed Consent in Social Research: A Literature Review, NCRM Methods Review Papers, NCRM/001.

Wiles, R., Crow, G., Heath, S. and Charles, V. (2006) Anonymity and Confidentiality, Paper presented at the ESRC Research Methods Festival, University of Oxford, July 2006.


Useful resources

Links to ethical guidelines published by associations providing support for research in social sciences:

British Education Research Association Ethical Guidelines (2018)

ESRC Research Ethics Framework

University of Leicester: Ethical appraisal framework

Links to resource on safeguarding:

Sheffield Hallam University (undated) Safeguarding Children in Research Contexts



Underpinning principles for ethical research

The fundamental principle underpinning the ethics of research in social sciences is that as a researcher it is your duty to ensure that no harm comes to the participants as a consequence of their involvement in the research. 


What you need to consider to ensure high ethical standards

Considerations that you need to take into account when planning ethical research:

  • respect the rights and dignity of participants in the research

  • gain informed consent prior to starting the research

  • ensure anonymity and confidentiality at each stage of the research

  • carry out analysis of the findings with honesty and integrity

(Cresswell, 2013)

For research in education, professional guidelines are provided by the British Education Research Association:

British Education Research Association Ethical Guidelines (2018)

All guidelines provided by professional associations are intended to be non-prescriptive in order to enable researchers to interpret them in ways that meet the needs of their own research project and their beliefs and moral stance in relation to research ethics (Goodwin, Pope, Mort and Smith, 2003). However this in itself can be problematic for a new researcher as the ethical considerations of research are diverse and complex. This Guide is designed enable you to understand key principles underpinning ethics in social science research and to inform your decision-making in relation to the ethical issues related to your research project.

Further information:

University of Leicester: Ethical appraisal framework


What does gaining informed consent mean?

Before you can proceed with data collection it is necessary to go through a process of gaining informed consent from potential participants in the research. A key issue relating to gaining informed is competence (Wiles, Heath, Crow and Charles, 2005), which relates to whether an individual is able to:

  • understand the potential implications of involvement in a research project
  • make an informed decision as to whether this would be in their best interests.

For children and young people under the age of 16, and also vulnerable adults, it is usually required that parents or carers provide the informed consent. The reason for this is that it is necessary to ensure that the person giving consent can understand as fully as possible what participation in the research will involve and any implications of publication of the data.

Professional gatekeepers such as those leading institutions, do not have legal rights in relation to the decision of individuals in their care to participate in the research, and CANNOT give consent for individuals to participate in a reserach project. However they do have legal responsibility for their well-being (Masson, 2004) and as part of this remit, professional gatekeepers need to make decisions about the access which researchers have to individuals within the context that they are responsible for e.g. their school. Also, professional gatekeepers have control over the information that is given to potential participants (and where appropriate their parents or carers).

Even where a parent / guardian is involved in the process of gaining informed consent, it is still essential that the individual themselves is given the opportunity to gain an understanding of the research as fully as possible and that their wishes are fully taken into account. In order to make this possible information about the project needs to be provided in an accessible form and the researcher needs to make it explicit that they would like the participants themselves to be involved in the decision-making process.

Providing information about the research as clearly and accessibly as possible enables potential participants (often supported by gatekeepers) to make informed decisions about participation in a research project.

This can take the form of an information sheet which provides the potential participant with the information they will need to make an informed decision about whether they want to become involved in the research. Following this information sharing process it is necessary to gain written consent, usually in the form of a signed declaration. Requiring participants (or parents/carers) to sign a declaration is to ensure that they are protected and that their rights are respected.

The process of gaining informed consent from potential participants in your research is a complex process in which you need to consider:

  • what information needs to be provided;
  • the form that this information should take;
  • who should be involved in the process of giving consent e.g. gatekeepers in addition to participants themselves;
  • how you will go about the process of gaining informed consent.

The section ‘Ethics in practice’ has support material to help you develop your own information sheet and declaration.


Your Ethics Committee

When designing a research project, it is important for colleagues who are not directly involved in the project to support you in considering the ethical implications associated with your research. If you are being supported in your research by a higher education institution, there will be a Research Ethics Committee consisting of members of staff who are experienced in carrying out ethical reviews of research proposals. In that case a standard procedure will be in place that will help you consider the ethical issues associated with your proposed research project and have plans in place for appropriate action to ensure that participants will not suffer any negative consequences as a result from involvement in your research project. However if you are not working with an institution where ethical procedures are already established, you should consider creating ethical guidelines and procedures within your setting to support you in ensuring the highest possible ethical standards are attained in your research. This MESHGuide is designed to help you to achieve this.


Anonymity and confidentiality

Under the UK Data Protection Act (1998) legal requirements exist which require that the identities and personal information of participants in a research project are protected, which has implications for how information is collected, stored and communicated. Key terms associated with the ethics of research are anonymity and confidentiality. The key difference between anonymity and confidentiality is that anonymity involves protecting the identity of a research participant, whereas confidentiality ensures the personal information of participants is protected. To maintain confidentiality of data it is important to anonymise individuals at the earliest possible stage in data processing, for example label data files with pseudonyms and store the codes that link the data to the real names of individuals securely and away from the actual data. It is necessary to be aware that your understanding as the researcher of confidentiality and what this will mean in practice may differ from participants’ understanding and research in this area has highlighted this as an issue (Corden and Sainsbury, 2005).

Where possible it is good practice to allow participants to see how you intend to use the data collected in relation to their contributions. When planning your research, consider whether it is possible for an opportunity for ‘checking back’ where participants can review the data and gain insights into how you intend to use it. This is difficult where a large amount of data has been collected or where participants cannot be easily contacted subsequent to data collection. An alternative approach is:

  • to check with participants following an interview if there is anything that was discussed that they would not be happy for you to include in the research data;
  • to include as much detail as possible about what you intend to do with the research data in the information given to participants prior to them agreeing to be involved in the research.

Anonymity is not an essential requirment and gaining permission to publish data that is attributed directly to participants is possible, as long as permission for ''the right to share' is gained (Data Protection Act). Many children would benefit greatly from having their views etc. attributed to them in published work, however caution should be excercised as it is ESSENTIAL that no negative connotations or interpretataion of the data could be possible that would reflect negatively on participants. Therefore this appraoch should only be used where the focus of the research will reflect positively on participants.



Item 19 of the BERA (2011) Guidelines states that all researchers must ensure they comply with legal requirements in relation to working with school children or vulnerable young people and adults. The British Sociological Association Statement of Ethical Practice (2002) further states that ‘Researchers should have regard for issues of child protection and make provision for the potential disclosure of abuse’. More detailed guidance from Sheffield Hallam University suggests that, while there is no legal mandate to report child protection and safeguarding concerns, researchers should be alert to any risks identified, be aware of the reporting procedures in the organisation within which they are researching and should contribute to whatever actions are needed to promote the individual child’s safety and welfare.

Link to further resourceson safeguarding:

Sheffield Hallam University (undated) Safeguarding Children in Research Contexts


Reciprocity: What does your research ‘give back’?

The research process is often associated with a cost for participants, most frequently in the form of the time that they have to give up in order to be involved in the research. Therefore it is important to consider how the research can ‘give back’ in some way to the participants, either directly or indirectly. There are potential difficulties associated with financial incentives for taking part in research, in particular where potential participants are under financial constraints. In this situation offering monetary gains can then in itself become an ethical issue, as it puts potential participants under pressure to take part in the research, which they may otherwise have chosen not to do. However there are other forms that this reciprocity can take, for example in education research there are often benefits for participants in being involved in intervention programmes.


Ethics in practice

This section of the MESHGuide is designed help you with the practical implementation of ethical principles when designing your research by:

  • enabling you to consider ethical issues that could arise at each stage of the research when you are planning your research;
  • giving practical advice on how to gain informed consent in practice and the types of information you could provide to participants;
  • providing insights into achieving anonymity and confidentiality in practice;
  • outlining what you need to consider in relation to safeguarding young people and vulnerable adults.


Identifying potential ethical issues when planning your research

It is important to consider the possible ethical issues that may arise at each stage of your research when you are developing your research plan. It is important to consider both the potential impact on research participants and the context in which the research is taking place:

  • during the process of gaining consent;

  • at an early stage in the implementation of the research during which methods are being trialled and when your research questions are likely to develop and change;

  • during the main data collection phase;

  • at the data analysis stage;

  • in the dissemination of the data, which may for example take the form of a dissertation / thesis, a conference presentation or a paper in a journal.

A useful way of structuring this is shown in the table below :

Stage in the research process where the ethical issue likely to have an impact

Detail of the ethical issue

Action that you could take to address the ethical issue


(adapted from Cresswell, 2013)

To enable you to identify potential ethical considerations it is helpful to refer to the guidelines published by professional associations:

British Education Research Association Ethical Guidelines (2018)

ESRC Research Ethics Framework



Application of ideas: An opportunity to explore ethical issues

Below are scenarios from actual research which provide you with opportunities to reflect on potential ethical issues that may arise in practice:

Examples from research

What is the nature of the ethical issue?

Action that could to be taken to address the ethical issue

A study was carried out into the impact of creative contexts on children’s engagement in science enquiry activities. Due to time constraints it was only possible to carry out the research with a small proportion of the children within a school. The findings of the study reported that the use of creative contexts had a positive impact on children’s engagement in science enquiry. 


Research into teacher questioning behaviours involved interviewing the teachers about their use of questioning in lessons, followed by observation of questioning behaviours in lessons. In the findings there was a discrepancy between teachers’ perceptions of their use of open questions established and what observed by the researcher.


A project was set up to analyse social networks through interviewing individuals to discuss their perceptions of their roles in social networks. The interview stage was followed by a mapping exercise involving participants in physically recording their social network, using concentric circles to indicate the closeness of relationships (with the interviewee in the centre). It was observed by the researcher that what participants the nature or extent of the social network that participants described in interview was often challenged when they began making a physical representation of their social network and this resulted in embarrassment and reluctance to be involved further in the research.




Gaining informed consent in practice

Initially the process of gaining informed consent appears to be a straightforward process, however when you begin to look at what this means in practice there are several issues to think about. Below are some questions to consider when you design the information sheet for the project and plan how you will manage the process of gaining informed consent:

  • Is the information about your research provided in a form that the participant can fully understand? For research that involves children and young people a letter is usually sent home for the parent or guardian (who act as gatekeepers) to read. Consider whether they can actually understand the information presented as you need to remember that the domain of research is associated with specialist terminology and unfamiliar concepts. In areas of social disadvantage or for parents for whom English is an additional language accessing the text may be insurmountable. In these cases you need to consider an additional information sharing approach, such as being available to talk to parents before or after school to explain your research. Research carried out by Kent (1996) has shown that the wording of information sheets can be a barrier to people agreeing to becoming involved in the research and it is important that you make the information as accessible and non-threatening as possible.
  • What are the potential future implications of your research for participants? It is difficult to predict all the potential implications for participants of engagement in a research project and the possible impact of subsequent dissemination of the research findings. However it is important to brief participants as fully as possible on the potential implications the research may have for them. For example if there is a possibility that the research findings may be published in a journal, include this in the information sheet.
  • How much information about the research design should you share with participants? In many cases, providing detail of the research questions may have an impact on the validity and reliability of the data collected, as this knowledge may influence the behaviour or responses of the participants. This will then create a tension in the decision making process about the amount of information you provide. Often it is possible to word aspects of the information sheet so that sufficient information is provided to participants to enable them to make informed choices, without compromising the research. However this is a delicate balance and it is important for you to ask yourself if anything that has been omitted could have an impact on the participant’s decision to be involved in the research. The bottom line is to ensure that you have been ethical in the level of detail in the information provided and adhered to guidelines published by professional bodies such as BERA and this will ensure that you have complied with legal frameworks relating to the ethical aspects of your research.

Both the BERA (2011) and the ESRC (2015) guidelines recognise that there may be occasions where the requirement for confidentiality may have to be breached to avoid significant harm or criminal activity, such as in disclosure of child abuse. The ESRC Framework specifically suggests that: Researchers should, when eliciting consent, make clear the limits to confidentiality particularly when working with potentially vulnerable individuals or groups. It is necessary to develop a protocol for dealing with child protection or criminal disclosures, and this should be included in the information you provide as part of the informed consent process (McLaughlin, 2015). 


Providing information to participants

Usually information will be provided to participants in written form and (where appropriate) to gate keepers prior to gaining signed consent. It may also be necessary to provide information orally to ensure that participants understand the implications of becoming involved in the research as fully as possible.

In the design of the information sheet you need to think about how to balance providing sufficient information so that potential participants and gatekeepers can make an informed decision about involvement in the research, without overwhelming them with information. Also the wording and layout of the information sheet needs to be accessible and not off-putting. This checklist that will help you in the design of your information sheet:

  • Have you explained all of the necessary points about the research clearly?

Check that you have not used jargon and complex language which will make it difficult for the intended audience to understand?

  • Have you considered the layout of the information sheet?

Consider using text boxes, bullets and other approaches to formatting that will break up the text and make the information sheet look less daunting.

  • Are the key messages clear?

Check that the design of the sheet ensures that ethical aspects are clearly explained.

Below is a checklist of the key ethical issues that need to be explained on the information sheet to enable a process of ethical informed consent to be achieved:

  • Who will have access to the data prior to the process of anonymization?
  • What will the data will be used for? e.g. published as part of a dissertation, published to a wider audience such as part of a journal article
  • How will the data be stored and confidentiality ensured?
  • Is the right of individuals to withdraw from the research at any point clearly explained?

In order to gain a written record of consent it is also necessary to design a letter of consent. In the letter of consent you will need to repeat some of the information from the information sheet, in particular how you will ensure that you specify how the research will be conducted ethically. The information sheet will be retained by the participant and the consent form returned to you once it has been signed by the participant or their parent / guardian to agree informed consent for them to participate in the research project.

It is also possible to gain other forms of consent that do not rely on a written record, for example gaining verbal consent that could be audio recorded.

Information sheet example

Here is an example of the type of information that you could include in your information sheet.

Letter of consent example

Here is an example to help you design your letter of consent, outlining the type of information you will need to include.

The process of gaining informed consent from potential participants in your research is in itself a complex process in which you need to consider:

  • what information needs to be provided;
  • the form that this information should take;
  • who should be involved in the process of giving consent e.g. gatekeepers in addition to participants themselves;
  • how you will go about the process of gaining informed consent.


Achieving anonymity and confidentiality in practice

Two aspects need to be considered relating to anonymising research data:

  1. Protecting the identify of participants in the research: this is of particular significance when disclosure research data may have a negative impact on the participant
  2. Ensuring that locations in which the research were carried out are not identified and cannot be inferred (as much as possible) from the data presented

Devise clear guidelines on expectations for confidentiality for anyone who has access to the data e.g. another member of the research team or the person transcribing the data such as:

  • not disclosing to any other persons what an individual has said during an interview, and in particular things that could reveal the identity of participants;
  • keeping the identity of participants in the research confidential at all stages of the research.

If you intend to involve someone else in the transcription of interview data, it is good practice to:

  • have a formal agreement with this person relating to your expectations with regard to confidentiality;
  • anonymise the recordings of the interviews by giving pseudonyms prior to providing the person transcribing the data with access to the files.
  • inform the participant of your plans to involve someone else in the transcription of the interview and ask permission for this to take place.

If there is something that a participant says that is particularly controversial or sensitive you may consider editing the sound file and removing those sections of interview prior to the transcriber accessing it. This can be done easily if you record using Audacity and you can keep a copy of the original and transcribe these sections yourself. If participants are unhappy with the involvement of another person in transcribing their interview you need to transcribe the data yourself. Also it is important to have a clear decision making process where consideration is given to whether it is appropriate to include certain sensitive information in the research data.

Some researchers have raised the possibility of enabling participants to choose or at least comment on their own pseudonyms (Wiles, Crow, Heath and Charles, 2006). Related to this issue is the possibility that some participants might want their own names to be used in any publications. This could raise a whole series of ethical considerations in itself, even for what at first appears to be data that does not raise any sensitive issues and possibly best avoided. An alternative is the option of attributing a letter or number to individuals, but it does depersonalise the research to some extent.

Also you need to think about what you would do if something is revealed during the data collection phase that indicates the participant needs external help. During interviews in particular, there are instances where evidence of abuse may come to light. In the case of vulnerable adults researchers should seek the participant’s permission to report this abuse to an appropriate person, who should be chosen depending on the circumstances revealed. This matter becomes more complex if the participant refuses permission and in this case expert advice should be sought. However where the person making the disclosure is a child, local safeguarding procedures must be followed.


Safeguarding procedures in the case of a disclosure

General safeguarding guidelines for researchers working with children or young people published by Sheffield Hallam University include the following advice:

  • Take seriously what the child is telling them.
  • Ask the child if they have told you everything they want to.
  • Listen, encourage, but avoid asking questions that assume anything.
  • Tell the child that you will need to talk to someone else to help you to decide what to do now.
  • Check that the child understands what you are going to do.
  • Record their observations and what the child has said at the earliest appropriate opportunity, including dates and times.
  • If another adult is present, record details of this.
  • When the disclosure takes place within a children's setting, inform the setting's Designated Child Protection Person.
  • If you are working with a university contact the university ethics committee or research support team
  • Provide reassurance to the young person, who may feel scared, unsure and disloyal. The child may think they have done something wrong by telling you, may feel a sense of panic or be scared of losing control of what will happen next.

Further information:

Sheffield Hallam University (undated) Safeguarding Children in Research Contexts


Practical Challenges

The process of thinking through the ethics underpinning your research at the planning stage is very important. However this is only the first stage in the process and actually ensuring that these ethical standards are implemented in your project is what matters in the end, and is what is the most difficult to achieve. Some of the challenges to ensuring that highest possible standards of ethics are explored in this section.


Challenges to negotiating access

A significant challenge that a researcher faces in the process of gaining informed consent is negotiating access to participants within a particular context where a professional gatekeeper is legally in charge of ensuring the well-being of the individuals they are responsible for within that context e.g. an educational setting. In order to achieve this it is essential that you present an overview of your research clearly and professionally to the professional gatekeeper, demonstrating how you have taken into account all the possible ethical issues that may arise. In this way the professional gatekeeper will be able to make an informed decision about whether to enable you to proceed further with your research in their organisation. NOTE a gatekeeper cannot provide informed consent for you to engage with participants in your reserach, their role is to decide whether it is appropriate for you to engage in the process of gaining informed consent from participants and parents/guardians (where appropriate). It is possible that you may not be successful in negotiating access to an educational context, and often this is not a reflection on the way you presented your research plans, but rather the current circumstances surrounding the organisation, for example there may be particular challenges that are facing at that time or else the views and attitudes of the professional gatekeeper to research in general or the aspect of research you are focusing on.

If you are successful in negotiating access to the organisation, your next challenge is to gaining consent from potential participants or their parents / guardians. At this level the ethical consideration that you need to focus on is ensuring that the participants themselves are enabled to exercise their own free will with regard to whether they themselves want to participate in the research. In a school setting there is the danger that children or young people feel pressurised to participate as the research project is perceived to be part of the programme of the class and because the majority of the class are participating (David, Edwards and Aldred, 2001). This can be further complicated by parents / guardians agreeing to the involvement of a child or young person, without gaining their views on this first. Therefore it is your duty to ensure, as far as possible, that the way in which involvement is portrayed enables individuals to make their own choices about whether they want to be involved. 


Challenges in information sharing

An issue that arises often for researchers is how much information to provide to participants to enable informed consent to be achieved. The tension arises due to the potential for the information given to participants about the project may result in them saying things or behaving in ways that they would not have done if they had not known this information. For example if a group of children are being observed and their discussions recorded to find out about the factors influencing the types of talk taking place, they may try harder to work collaboratively and engage in discussion than they would have under normal circumstances.

So the research process itself will then have an impact on the findings of the research. The ethical considerations in the decision about how much information to share with participants relate to whether you have provided enough information for informed consent to be achieved. A useful question to consider is whether the information that you decide not to share with participants would have resulted in them making a different decision about their involvement in the research.

The other aspect of relating to the information that you share in the information sheet which is a particular issue in qualitative research relates to the fluid nature of the research design. In a qualitative research study, it is often the case that from the data collected early in the research, interesting themes emerge from preliminary analysis of the data which you had not anticipated when you produced your research proposal and went through the process of gaining consent. These themes may result in you wanting to modify the research questions and take the research in a different direction.

If the discovery of emergent themes results in the need for significant changes to the research design, for example the use of different methods in the next phase of the research, then you need to inform participants (and gatekeepers where appropriate) of this and gain informed consent for these changes. Also it is important to keep the Ethics Committee which is supporting your research informed of any significant changes and where appropriate to re-apply for consent to continue with the research. However if the impact of these emergent themes on your research results only in a change in the focus of some of your research questions, and unlikely to have any impact on the ethical considerations for the participants in the research, gaining of further participant and institutional consent will not be necessary. However where possible it is good practice to share any change of direction with participants and keep the Ethics Committee informed through periodic updates of the progress of your research.


Exercising the right to withdraw

In practice, exercising the right to withdraw from a research study may be difficult for certain groups of participants. In particular children may be reluctant to tell the researcher that they do not want to be involved in the project any more, particularly if that person is their teacher due to the power dynamics involved (Alderson, 2004). A related issue may be that the participant may just not want to answer a particular question, but feel obliged to do so. There is no easy solution to this problem, however sensitivity on your part as the researcher to the reactions and body language of participants can give you insights into whether a participant is feeling uncomfortable or under pressure (Langston, Abbot, Lewis and Kellett, 2004). You will then be in a position to explore the reasons for this further, and take appropriate action.

An approach that has been used in research being carried out with children, and people with limited communication, is the use of a ‘stop’ card. Before each part of the research it is important that participants are reminded of how to use the cards and they are given opportunities to practice using them. They can hold up the card if they decide they do not want to answer a particular question or if they no longer want to participate in the project (Wiles, Charles, Crow and Heath, 2004).