Researchers and research teams are encouraged to engage in self-critical ethical reflection throughout the lifecycle of the research. They should design and conduct research in accordance with recognised best practice and ethical standards and ensure that at a minimum research is subject to appropriate professional and institutional oversight. In all cases, researchers and ROs must comply with all relevant legal requirements.

Ensuring that all research is conducted ethically is a collective responsibility of the researchers, the ROs and the appropriate research ethics committee (REC); it is less about compliance and ‘getting through’ the ethics process, and more about mature, constructive and collaborative ethical deliberation, mutual learning and shared action aimed at maximising benefit and minimising harm.

Research should aim to maximise benefit for individuals and society and minimise risk and harm

Researchers should ensure that their research is of benefit to participants, individuals, science and society, and be realistic about the benefits that the research is likely to deliver. Research may be considered ethical when there is a positive risk-benefit ratio - that is, the risks and intrusions for people taking part in research (and those affected by the research) are minimised and justified by the expected benefits for the participants, science or society.

Researchers should consider the risks and benefits of their research at all stages of the project. They should endeavour to determine possible risks and risk management (not least through the methodological strategy and instruments they adopt) prior to the start of a project, which may then require more formal ethics review.

Our ethics case studies illustrate how different projects cope with a range of different risks, and how they anticipate and deal with difficulties encountered in the research process.

The rights and dignity of individuals and groups should be respected

Research should be designed and conducted in a way that respects the rights, interests, values, dignity and (whenever possible) autonomy of research participants (including individuals, groups and communities). Ethics issues around privacy, equality, diversity, health and safety are especially likely to arise in research.

Wherever possible, participation should be voluntary and appropriately informed

Researchers should inform participants of their right to refuse to participate free of consequences, and of their right to withdraw from the research for whatever reason they wish. Researchers should indicate the point at which data cannot be excluded, for example after data has been anonymised and amalgamated. Where this is the case, participants should be given a date after which they cannot withdraw consent or ask for data destruction. 

Research should be conducted with integrity and transparency

Research should be conducted with integrity in a clearly transparent way. Integrity demands that there is a clear fit between what researchers say they will do and how they actually conduct the research. Transparent research will be delivered when researchers are clear about the nature of their research and communicate this appropriately to those involved, when researchers can be easily contacted and respond to queries, and when they are as open and accountable as possible.

As a signatory of the Universities UK Concordat to support research integrity (external website), the ESRC expects all individuals involved in those communities, including researchers (academic and non-academic), research support staff, research managers, administrators and collaborating research partners, to abide by the principles set out in the Concordat and to work with due respect for one another within a supportive and open environment.  

Lines of responsibility and accountability should be clearly defined

There are interlocking responsibilities in creating ethical research. Researchers must exercise self-critical responsibility in the planning and conduct of their research. Research ethics committees and research organisations have a responsibility to guide and support researchers, especially when the research involves difficult ethical decisions. Researchers have a responsibility to respect the rights and dignity of research participants and users who, in turn, should treat researchers and the research process with appropriate respect, and not attempt to influence either in a way that would distort the research.

The principal investigator has primary responsibility for the ethical conduct of research.  Responsibilities should be agreed and assigned from the outset of the project. This includes agreements with co-investigators and researchers, non-academic partners, collaborative academic research teams and gatekeepers.

The principal investigator should support ethical reflection within a team, even when this involves some appropriate delegation and review the ethics issues of the research before it commences. All researchers on a project should be able to demonstrate commitment to the ethics approach and ongoing ethics reflection. Where needed, the principal investigator and research team should engage with their REC throughout the lifecycle of the project. The responsibility to seek advice or further review from the REC lies with the principal investigator. It is the responsibility of all team members to raise ethics concerns that they identify or are brought to their attention with the principal investigator or, where necessary, the appropriate REC.

The independence of research should be maintained, and where conflicts of interest cannot be avoided they should be made explicit

Independence of research, which is built upon academic credentials and professional standards, expertise and experience, is free from personal, organisational and political bias, dishonesty, and considerations of gain and should be safeguarded at all times.

Researchers should consider whether there is any actual or perceived conflict between the private interests of the researcher and the objectives of the research, or conflict between the interests of the researchers, research beneficiaries, research participants and participating organisations. Conflicts of interest should be disclosed and managed in line with RO policies.