Research strategy and research ethics

Research ethics is not a one size fits all approach. The research strategy that you choose to guide your dissertation determines the approach that you should take towards research ethics. Even though all dissertation research at the undergraduate and master's level should adhere to the basic ethical principles of doing good (i.e., beneficence) and doing no harm (i.e., malfeasance), this does not mean that the approach you take towards research ethics will be the same as other students. Rather, the approach to research ethics that you adopt in your dissertation should be consistent with your chosen research strategy. Since your research strategy consists of a number of components, the approach you adopt should reflect each of these components.

In our Research Strategy section, we introduce these major components, which include research paradigms, research designs, research methods, sampling strategies and data analysis techniques. Whilst all of these components can have ethical implications for your dissertation, we focus on research designs, a couple of research methods, sampling strategies, and data analysis techniques to illustrate some of the factors you will need to think about when designing and conducting your dissertation, as well as writing up the Research Ethics section of your Research Strategy chapter (typically Chapter Three: Research Strategy). The impact of each of these components of research strategy on research ethics is discussed in turn:

Research designs and research ethics

Each type of research design that you can use to guide your dissertation has unique ethical challenges. These types of research design include quantitative research designs, qualitative research designs and mixed methods research designs. The impact of each of these types of research design on research ethics is discussed in turn:

Quantitative research design

Compared with qualitative research designs, the more structured and well-defined characteristics of quantitative research designs allow researchers to plan much of the research process before it starts. Even during the research process, there tends to be relatively little drift from these plans. From an ethical perspective, this makes it easier to: (a) understand what ethical challenges you may face; (b) plan how to overcome these ethical challenges; and (c) write a more robust Ethics Proposal and/or Ethics Consent Form.

This is the case whether your dissertation involves experimental or non-experimental research. In the case of non-experimental research, this can often mean that instead of having to submit an Ethics Proposal to an Ethics Committee, you may only have to convince your supervisor that you have addressed any potential ethical challenges you expect to face. This will save you time. However, if you are conducting experimental research, especially involving human subjects, there is a greater likelihood that you will need to submit an Ethics Proposal to an Ethics Committee, which can slow down the research process. Despite this, the pre-planned and procedural nature of quantitative research designs does make it easier to understand what ethical challenges you may face, which avoids potential ethical issues arising during the research process that may affect the way you can analyse and present your data.

Qualitative research design

Qualitative research designs tend to be more evolutionary in nature when compared with quantitative research designs. For example, data collected during the research process can influence the choice of research methods in subsequent phases of a qualitative research design. As a result, it is often only during the research process that potential ethical issues that may be faced in the next phase of a research project become clear. This can make it harder to: (a) understand what ethical challenges you may face; (b) plan how to overcome these ethical challenges; and (c) write an Ethics Proposal and/or Ethics Consent Form that are considered robust; at least at the outset of the dissertation process.

If your research involves (a) controversial practices (e.g., covert observation) and/or (b) sensitive groups (e.g., children, marginalised people), where ethics approval may be more challenging, the addition of a qualitative research design, with its uncertainty, may make achieving approval more difficult. However, Ethics Committees are increasingly recognising the evolutionary nature of qualitative research designs and the potential ethical uncertainties they sometimes create. For the most part, you should be able to recognise most of the potential ethical scenarios you may face during the research process and propose in advance how you would overcome these.

Mixed methods research design

If you are using a mixed methods research design, you will need to take into account the ethical challenges inherent in quantitative and qualitative research designs. After all, you will be using both qualitative and quantitative research methods. To some extent, this may put a greater burden on your dissertation, slowing down the research process, especially if you need to conduct a qualitative research phase (e.g., interviews) before you can settle on the appropriate type of quantitative research phase (e.g., experimental or non-experimental).

Whilst quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods research designs all present ethical challenges, most are easily overcome. Even when using mixed methods research designs, you should be able to recognise different ethical scenarios; that is, different ethical issues you would face if using one research method before another, or one research method in conjunction with another. Recognising the basic ethical principles that dissertations should adhere to is a good starting point [see the article: Principles of research ethics].

Research methods and research ethics

The potential ethical issues raised by different research methods not only differ from one type of research method to the next (e.g., surveys versus in-depth interviews), but also the way in which a research method is used (e.g., overt versus covert observation). To illustrate some of the different ethical issues you will face across research methods, we discuss surveys and structured interviews, observation and informal and in-depth interviews. Each of these research methods is discussed in turn:

Surveys and structured interviews

By their very nature, surveys and structured interviews have to be designed before the research process starts. In fact, since these two types of research method typically use closed questions where respondents must choose from pre-defined options, most of the potential answers to questions are known in advance.

From an ethical perspective, this makes it easier to get informed consent from respondents because most aspects of the survey and structured interview process are fairly certain. Before you start the survey or structured interview process, you can clearly explain what you will be asking potential respondents, and even show them the entire research instrument (i.e., survey and interview questions and options) before they start. This can not only help you achieve informed consent, but also ease the mind of the research participant, minimising the potential for distress, which is an important basic principle of research ethics [see the article: Principles of research ethics].


Observation, whether overt or covert, faces additional ethical considerations when compared with the use of surveys and structured interviews. Covert observation, where participants are unaware that you are conducting research, raises particular ethical issues. However, even when using overt observation, where those individuals being observed know that they are being watched, there are some specific ethical challenges that you need to overcome. Let's look at overt and covert observation in turn:

Overt observation

Most research that uses observation as a research method will be overt in nature; that this, the research participants will be aware that you are observing them and should know what you are observing. In this sense, it should be possible to obtain informed consent from those individuals that you are observing.

However, this is not always the case. In some instances, access to research participants in an observational setting such as an organisation may have been granted by a gatekeeper; an individual that has the right to grant access (e.g., a senior manager in an organisation). In such instances, permission may have been granted to carry out your research and participants may be aware what you are doing, but they have not necessarily given you their informed consent. In fact, gatekeepers such as senior managers with organisations may have required employees to take part. As such, participants may not have been given the right to withdraw from your research, which is one of the basic principles of research ethics [see the article: Principles of research ethics].

Furthermore, even if an individual has been granted the right to withdraw from your research, you will need to think about how can manage this if you are observing a large group interaction (e.g., a meeting) where everyone else in the group has given their informed consent. Whilst we are not suggesting that you cannot continue with such observation, you would need to have thought about the ways that you can separate the data provided by this individual during the observation when analysing and reporting the data.

Covert observation

Covert observation can be viewed as ethically problematic because it is a form of deceptive practice. Not only are respondents not giving you informed consent, but you may also be keeping the observation covert because you feel that respondents would be otherwise unwilling to take part in your research. Whilst such covert research and deceptive practices, especially where used intentionally, can be viewed as controversial, it can be argued that they have a place in research.

Sometimes it is simply impossible to get informed consent from each participant, especially if you are accessing a group through a gatekeeper or are observing people on the move. Furthermore, if you have not been introduced to each person being observed and/or you do not have access to their contact details, it may be difficult to get informed consent later on, as well as get permission to use and/or publish any data you have collected (e.g., quotations, summaries of what was said, specific facts discussed, etc.). This could jeopardise the protection of data and individuals? confidentiality, which is a basic principle of research ethics [see the article: Principles of research ethics].

Therefore, you will need to provide strong justifications why covert observation is necessary for the success of your dissertation, and why other, less deceptive research methods could not have been used instead.

Informal and in-depth interviews

Compared with structured interviews (and surveys), there is potentially greater uncertainty for research participants when taking part in informal and in-depth interviews. There are a couple of broad reasons for this:

Irrespective of the research method that you use, you will need to think about what data you will be recording, how that data is to be stored, and whether research participants know how their data will be used. This is an important part of gaining informed consent.

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