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Ethical issues

Credible research can account for itself in the way it is implemented according to a clear set of 'rules' or a code. Being research minded means being able to assess whether a piece of research has been ethical in its design, delivery and reporting.

In order to use research undertaken by other people or organisations to inform your practice or studies you need to be able to trust its ethical base. You should be able to identify this in the written or verbal reporting of the research; it is acceptable to ask researchers to justify their methods and approaches. The Social Research Association has published Ethical Guidelines Also the BSA guidelines Statement Of Ethical Practice For The British Sociological Association are excellent and in use by many courses.

Ethics Committees and other review procedures

If research has been undertaken in partnership with Health services and involves service users who are also 'patients' it is probable that a regional Health Ethics Committee has assessed the ethical basis of the study.

Proposals for research studies require approval via a stringent process before being allowed to commence. However, because of the medical dominance of research approved by these committees their emphases may be somewhat different to those of social researchers, particularly in relation to service users' interests. For example the notion of not harming research subjects (a passive approach) compared with involving subjects as participants in the planning, delivery, or feedback loops of studies (an empowering approach) imply rather different base-line values towards the relationship between the researcher and researched. Feminist research writers like Liz Stanley have contributed significantly to the rethinking of these divisions and labels and approaches such as Participatory Action Research (PAR) provide the practical means of shifting boundaries.

The implementation of the Research Governance Framework for Health and Social Care, heralds significant changes for the approval of social care research, which previously often was reliant upon the integrity of individual researchers and commissioners to meet exacting ethical standards. The Research Governance Framework for Health and Social Care defines the broad principles of good research governance and is key to ensuring that health and social care research is conducted to high scientific and ethical standards.

The publication of the Research Governance Framework in 2001 was aimed at improving and supporting a reduction in unacceptable variations in research practice across health and social care. It documented standards, detailed the responsibilities of the key people involved in research, outlined delivery systems and described local and national monitoring systems. Ethical review features within the Framework and whatever system is implemented as the ADSS suggests it is ethical conduct that is the lynchpin of good research (ADSS).

The results of the Alder Hey Enquiry of 1997 were reported in the Caldicott Report. This led to the creation of the Caldicott Standards, (use search function on DH site to find Caldicott documents) as detailed within the Department of Health Circular HSC 2002/03 LAC(2002)2. The Caldicott principles provide a framework of quality standards for the management of information and confidentiality within the NHS and these standards have now been extended to all councils with social care responsibilities. They provide an important backdrop to wider ethical considerations in research.

Local authorities and higher education institutions now have formal arrangements for research proposal approval. Whether students, academics or agency staff want to conduct research for a dissertation or placement project or million pound projects rigorous procedures will have to be followed. These procedures should be designed to protect the well-being and best interests of prospective research participants.

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