The Jan 2014 Conference


Research ethics across the Social Sciences


On the 10th of January 2014 around 100 delegates from across the social sciences gathered for a conference at the British Library. One of the aims of the day was to promote discussions of a working paper drafted by Professor Robert Dingwall on behalf of the project working group. The paper is titled ‘Towards Common Principles for Social Science Research Ethics?’ and grew out of the discussions that took place as part of the 2013 symposia series. The first conference session was dedicated to a oral presentation of this paper, delivered by Robert Dingwall and John Oates. The paper had been made available to delegates in advance. This was then followed by a presentation from Felice J. Levine, who is a Member of a National Research Council (of the National Academies) Committee on Revisions to the Common Rule for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research in the Behavioral and Social Sciences. She offered her ‘Reflections and developments in research ethics and Governance’ in the context of the revisions to the US ‘common rule’ that had been published that day. The slides of the presentation can be found here. The rest of the session before lunch was dedicated to small group discussion of the presentations but focused particularly on the paper on Common Principles. Note-takers were present at these sessions and comments were fed back to the authors. The participants were also encouraged to submit responses to the project’s working group via email following the conference.

After lunch the conference was reconvened in the following four workshops:

  • Researching children and vulnerable adults led by Gemma Moss, British Educational Research Association (BERA) and Institute of Education.
  • Using social media led by Kandy Woodfield, NatCen Social Research and Rose Barbour, BSA Ethics Advisor and Open University.
  • Data sharing led by Libby Bishop, UK Data Service, University of Essex.
  • Researching across cultures led by Lucy Pickering, Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) and University of Glasgow

The aims of the workshops were to to consider, for each of the `issue areas’ what specific/particular ethics concerns arose with regard to this topic area and how the principles work might best be carried forward within the topic area. A wide range of points were made some of which were common across most of the groups, such as:

  • the need to acknowledge diversity and avoid discriminatory language and practice;
  • the need to make explicit the nature of harms and the potential recipients of harms;
  • the need to balance harm and benefit and ask `to whom’ the benefit and `to whom’ the harm.

Specific issues were naturally identified in the individual groups. For example, the group on vulnerable children discussed the issue of children’s capacity to consent; in the social media group discussion ranged widely around the distinction between public and private spheres and overt and covert research on the internet with anonymisation and protection of confidentiality being seen as increasingly difficult; the need to distinguish secondary analysis from data sharing and that the ethics of secondary analysis should precede the ethics of data sharing were among the many issues discussed in the third group; while the difficulty of explaining what research was to people from some other cultures and the need for ‘ethics’ to be central to cross-cultural research from the beginning were topics discussed in the fourth group.

There were comments in three of the groups that RECs did not always have expertise in specialist areas and that additional training for REC members could be beneficial.

A number of ideas emerged for the next steps that could be taken and these are being pursued in a variety of different ways.

The final session of the day was a Plenary discussion chaired by Janet Lewis and featuring Felice Levine, Phil Sooben of the ESRC and Jonathan Montgomery of the HRA. Comments stemming from the days presentations and discussions were solicited from the floor and the panel were invited to comment.


Details about the updated position paper ‘Towards Common Principles for Social Science Research Ethics?’ can be found here.