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How to... conduct research ethically

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Data collection and protection

In this section, we look at some further problems with data collection, and at related legislative issues.

Data collection

When you are actually collecting data, objectivity and anonymity are of the highest importance.

Data must be collected fully and accurately, with everything being recorded. Avoid being selective in what you note.

When you record data from interviews, preserve anonymity by giving your participants a letter or number code. Some questionnaires may ask the respondents to provide information for which the participants may not wish to identify themselves, in which case you can ask them to provide you with their own code (in case you need to go back to them).

Particular problems arise from data collected via the Internet. Online surveys and e-mail are often used as a way of gathering information, however, the following behaviour is considered unethical:

  • spamming, i.e. sending e-mails to a large number of people or organizations,
  • collecting data through tracking devices – you will not have gained the participants' consent,
  • conducting research without identifying the sponsor,
  • hacking into an organization's website,
  • contacting people repeatedly – an invasion of their privacy,
  • forwarding e-mails to another person – as it is possible to identify the author, it compromises anonymity.

Having to reply in writing by e-mail may also be considered time-consuming and therefore intrusive. So in addition to compromising privacy, quality and reliability of data may also be affected.

"" by Joel R. Evans and Anil Mathur, Internet Research, Vol. 15 No. 2, 2005 pp. 195-219, looks at the pros and cons of obtaining data online.

Data protection

Owing to advances in technology and the ability to store data in digital databases long after the use for which it was originally intended, there are ethical problems inherent in data collection. The researcher needs to be aware of the legislative restrictions to obtaining and storing data. European member states are governed by the European Directive 95/46/EC. The UK has the UK Data Protection Act 1998. Many other countries have similar legislation.

Full details of the UK Data Protection Act can be seen on . Its principles are summarized below:

The Data Protection Act 1998

The Act requires that personal data must be:

  • lawfully and fairly processed;
  • obtained for lawful and explicit processes;
  • adequate, relevant and not excessive to the purpose;
  • accurate and up to date;
  • be kept no longer than necessary;
  • processed in accordance with the rights granted to the subjects by the Act;
  • be held securely;
  • be transferred only to countries outside the jurisdiction of the EC which afford similar rights to those within.

There are certain exemptions for research, but these are limited. Where data are not processed in a way to cause distress or damage to a subject, then personal data may be:

  • processed further for research, although subjects may need to be informed;
  • stored indefinitely;
  • exempt from the provision that data subjects may request information.

Image: warning sign. There is a particular category of personal data, known as sensitive personal data, which relates to such matter as ethic origin, political or religious opinions, trade union membership, sexual orientation or criminal record. You will need explicit consent to obtain this.