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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Sage Methods Minute. January Spotlight: Research Ethics0


January’s Methods Minutes, a monthly newsletter produced by Sage Publishing, is a special issue focused on social research ethics. It reviews two articles and one book from Sage’s extensive collection on research ethics and also links to an article by Janet Salmons on the importance of research ethics in an ethics-challenged world. Finally, it introduces a video of Mark Israel (AHRECS) discussing the importance of integrating ethical principles in the design of the project from the outset.

The full page can be seen at

Dr Mark Israel. Senior Consultant AHRECS

This post may be cited as:
Israel, M. (26 February 2019) Sage Methods Minute. January Spotlight: Research Ethics. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

AHRECS Human research ethics workshop in Thailand0


One of our consultants (Dr Lindsey Te Ata o Tu MacDonald) recently facilitated a seminar on research ethics in the department of politics and governance at Mahasarakham University, Thailand. After 5 minutes setting out the institutions and codes of Thailand, Lindsey’s session was a practical ‘how to guide’ on research ethics for students and staff. Lindsey has often been called on to give such talks as Chair of the New Zealand Ethics Committee (see and in his earlier role as Chair of the University of Canterbury Human Ethics Committee. Interestingly, the way in which Lindsey asks researchers to ‘imaginative engage’ with the ethics of their project by asking them how they would design their project if their Grandmother wanted to participate, and it was a stranger doing the research – what Lindsey calls the ‘grandmother test’ – translated directly in to Thai, as the ‘Yai test’.

For more on ‘imaginative engagement’ see Guillemin, M., Gillam, L., Rosenthal, D., & Bolitho, A. (2008). Investigating human research ethics in practice: Project report. Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Centre for Health and Society, The University of Melbourne. , and For Lindsey’s first paper setting out the ‘grandmother test’ see. MacDonald, L. T. A. O. T. (2018). Ethics and Politics. In M. Tolich & C. Davidson (Eds.), Social Science Research in NZ (4th ed.). Auckland: University of Auckland Press.

Participants in the seminar on Ethics in human subject research at the College of Politics and Governance, Mahasarakham University, Thailand

Prof Cherngcharn Chongsomchai, Dean and Head of the College of Politics and Governance, debating a point with students and staff during the seminar.

AHRECS Team | Our Services |

This post may be cited as:
MacDonald, L. T. A. O. T. (22 December 2018) AHRECS Human research ethics workshop in Thailand (2018). Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

Stop centring Western academic ethics: deidentification in social science research – Anna Denejkina0


This blog will provide a discussion of issues present in deidentifying marginalised research participants, or research participants who request to be identified, in the publication of qualitative research. As my research is mixed-method (quantitative and multi-method qualitative) it included several data collection techniques and analyses. For this discussion, I will specifically focus on the face-to-face and Skype interviews I conducted with participants in Russia and the United States.

My PhD study investigates intergenerational transmission of combat-related trauma from parent to child, focusing on the Soviet–Afghan war, 1979–89. This research includes interviews with Soviet veterans and family members of veterans; it was these interviews that raised questions of participant erasure and agency. From 12 face-to-face and Skype interview participants, one participant requested complete deidentification; one requested that their real name not be used but their location and other identifying details remain; two participants requested that only their first names be used and their location and other identifying details remain; the eight remaining participants requested that they be fully identified, with some participants sending me photographs of them and their families for inclusion in research publications. Given the social and political sensitivity that persists in Eastern Europe around the discussion of the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, I had to consider and discuss with participants that requested they be identified the issue of their safety.

My research participants are marginalized participants by virtue of the topic of my research, the Soviet–Afghan war, and the ongoing silencing treatment they’ve received during and following the war by the state:

To take just two examples: in the hope of obscuring the true impact of the war, some local authorities refused to allow special areas in cemeteries to be set apart for the graves of soldiers killed in Afghanistan; while others forbade the cause and place of death to be stated on gravestones or memorial shields. (Aleksievich, Whitby & Whitby 1992, p.5–6)

Given academic broad-stroke standards of deidentifying research participants, we must review the ethics of this practice as it can promote and perpetuate erasure of marginalised participants and the silencing of their voices. Some textbooks on the topic of ethics in the social sciences approach anonymity and deidentification of participants from the angle that anonymity is part of the basic expectations of a research participant, without elaborating that anonymity is not always desirable nor ethical (see for example Ransome 2013), essentially replicating the medical model of human research ethics developed for the regulation of biomedical research in the United States (Dingwall 2016, p.25). Such an approach does not address the issues of presenting anonymity as a status-quo in social research, and makes a sweeping – and a Western academic – generalisation that anonymity is one of the vital assurances researchers must give to their participants to keep within their duty of care (that is, that researchers have at least some obligation to care for their research participants).

This approach to research ethics negates participant agency, particularly those participants that request they be identified in research. Furthermore, forced anonymity can be an act of disrespecting participants (Mattingly 2005, p.455–456) who may have already experienced invisibility and who are then further erased through anonymity by researchers (Scarth & Schafer 2016, p.86); for example, “in some Australian and, in particular, some Indigenous cultures, failing to name sources is both a mark of disrespect and a sign of poor research practice” (Israel, Allen & Thomson 2016, p.296).

As researchers, we must also question if presenting this approach as a vital tenet of social research can become a damaging rule-of-thumb for new researchers who might, therefore, not question the potential undermining of participant agency, and use deidentification unethically as a sweeping regulation within their research without consideration for the individual situations of their research participants. This is part of the issue created by applying a medical model of ethics assessment processes to the social sciences, in which the prevailing interpretation is that deidentification is also required within social research, whereas the reality is that specific agreements between the researcher and the research participant must be honoured.

The ethical dilemma, therefore is: can researchers ethically deidentify participants at the expense of the participants’ agency, potentially perpetuating the historical and symbolic erasure of their voices and experiences? I argue that, based on research design and data collection methods, this decision-making process is an ‘ethics in practice’ and must be approached in context, individually for each study, and for each individual participant.
As scholars, we want to minimise or eradicate harm that might come to our participants through our research. While we think “in advance about how to protect those who are brought into the study” (Tolich 2016, p.30) this must be a continual process throughout our project, in which we “work out the meaning of what constitutes ethical research and human rights in a particular context” (Breckenridge, James & Jops 2016, p.169; also see Ntseane 2009). This is important to note, because protection does not only refer to participants but also to others connected to them. For example, the use of a real name at the request of a participant may expose their family member(s) who were not part of the research.

Consequentialist approaches to ethics suggest that “an action can be considered morally right or obligatory if it will produce the greater possible balance of good over evil” (Israel, 2015: 10; also see Reynolds, 1979). This is an approach we could take to issues around deidentification; however, this also means that researchers must know what is good or bad. In studies like mine, this would mean knowing (or making an attempt, or an assumption to know) what is good or bad for my research participants. This action is infantilising, and places the researcher above the research participant by making the final call ourselves, which is to remove participant agency – if we can assume participants are autonomous during the research consent process, we must also assume that they are autonomous in making decisions with respect to their identification (Said 2016, p.212). Additionally, this action may be culturally insensitive given that Western human research ethics committees follow Western cultural guidelines, centring the dominance of Western academia.

The ethical issues I faced during my PhD research highlight why researchers cannot take a sweeping approach to deidentification in qualitative research – not even for a single study. ‘Ethics in practice’ means that each participant’s situation is analysed individually, and issues around erasure, safety, and their agency weighed against each other to reach a conclusion. I propose that if this conclusion is at odds with the preference of the participant, that it must then be taken back to the participant for further discussion. Not implementing this aspect of ‘ethics in practice’ goes against social science ethics, that we must avoid doing long-term and systemic harm, both of which come through erasure and silencing. We must also remember that “any research project has the potential to further disenfranchise vulnerable groups” (Breckenridge, James & Jops 2016, p.169), and ignoring the wishes of participants regarding their identification due to a Western model of ethics can cause further damage to these groups.

Aleksievich, S., Whitby, J. & Whitby, R. 1992, Zinky Boys: Soviet voices from a forgotten war, Chatto & Windus, London.

Breckenridge, J., James, K. & Jops, P. 2016, ‘Rights, relationship and reciprocity: Ethical research practice with refugee women from Burma and New Delhi, India’, in K. Nakray, M. Alston & K. Whittenbury (eds), Social Sciences Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Routledge, New York, pp. 167–186.

Dingwall, R. 2016, ‘The social costs of ethics regulation’, in W.C. van den Hoonaard & A. Hamilton (eds),The Ethics Rupture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 25–42.

Israel, M., Allen, G. & Thomson, C. 2016, ‘Australian research ethics governance: Plotting the demise of the adversarial culture’, in W.C. van der Hoonaard & A. Hamilton (eds),The Ethics Rupture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 285–216.

Mattingly, C. 2005, ‘Toward a vulnerable ethics of research practice’, Health: An Inderdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 453–471.

Ntseane, P.G. 2009, ‘The ethics of the researcher-subject relationship: Experiences from the field’, in D.M. Mertens & P.E. Ginsberg (eds), The Handbook of Social Research Ethics, 1st edn, Sage, Thousand Oaks, pp. 295–307.
Ransome, P. 2013, ‘Social research and professional codes of ethics’, Ethics and Values in Social Research, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, pp. 24–53.

Said, D.G. 2016, ‘Transforming the lens of vulnerability: Human agency as an ethical consideration in research with refugees’, in K. Nakray, M. Alston & K. Whittenbury (eds),Social Sciences Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Routledge, New York, pp. 208–222.

Scarth, B. & Schafer, C. 2016, ‘Resilient Vulnerabilities: Bereaved Persons Discuss Their Experience of Participating in Thanatology Research’, in M. Tolich (ed.), Qualitative Ethics in Practice, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 85–98.

‘Tolich, M. 2016, ‘Contemporary Ethical Dilemmas in Qualitative Research’, in M. Tolich (ed.), Qualitative Ethics in Practice, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 25–32.

Statement of interest
No interests to declare.

Anna Denejkina | Casual Academic and PhD  candidate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, researching intergenerational trauma transmission UTS | Staff

This post may be cited as:
Denejkina A. (24 May 2018) Stop centring Western academic ethics: deidentification in social science research. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

‘Don’t mention the c word: Covert research and the stifling ethics regime in the social sciences’0


Covert research is associated with deliberate deception in social research and equated with harm and risk to the researcher, the researched, the institution and the field. It is a controversial and emotive tradition that runs counter to and violates the received orthodoxy and professional mantra of informed consent enshrined in various ethical committees, institutional review boards and professional codes of practice. It is a methodological pariah and last resort position that is frowned upon, submerged, marginalized, stigmatized and effectively demonized (Calvey, 2017) in the social sciences. Indeed, to some in that community, to even contemplate a covert move is a belligerent step too far, which displays a cavalier attitude and belligerent lack of ethics. This view of deliberate misrepresentation (Erikson, 1967) accurately represents the received tone of much of the debate around covert research for a lengthy period of time. For many, despite the growing critical literature on informed consent as ideologically idealistic and disconnected from field realities, this derogatory and simplistic characterization of covert research has not altered.

I call for a fairer reading of the covert tradition and, hopefully in turn, a greater appreciation and recognition of the disruptive and invigorating role that covert research has brought to the social sciences. By using covert research, one enters into an ethical labyrinth and moral minefield, saturated in ethical dilemmas and puzzles, but it does not automatically follow that covert researchers have no ethical conscience. Often what are displayed are complex ethical self-regulations and guilt syndromes. Ethics then becomes a situated matter of application as well as a textbook understanding. What is partly called for is a broader and more nuanced way of understanding research ethics in practice.

From my own covert ethnography of bouncers in the night-time economy of Manchester, I experienced a series of ethical moments around witnessing violence and gaining deviant knowledge, that I managed in the field. Part of my sustained passing in the setting was accepting and not altering their moral code and sensibility about events, even though I might have a different personal interpretation. After my lived experience of six months as a covert nomadic bouncer doing different doors in the city, I felt that I had a richer appreciation of their subcultural values and cultural realities. Part of my investigation was in debunking the moral panics and stigma around bouncing being by one of them from the inside.

The classic covert exemplars of Cressey and his study of sex work, Festinger et al and their study of religious cults, Goffman’s study of Asylums, Milgram’s torture and pain experiments, Humphreys’ study of  public sexual deviance and Rosenhan’s pseudo-patient study of psychiatric diagnoses are found in most ethics textbooks and are clearly seminal and instructive work with a significant ongoing scholarship about them, which tend to conventionally frame the field of covert research. However, these classics, or what I call usual suspects, can also limit and narrow our understanding of the covert diaspora, with many other covert gems staying submerged. Also, some might erroneously draw the conclusion that covert research is an older tradition that is not conducted anymore. Indeed, the contemporary covert diaspora, on further investigation, is very diverse in the social sciences and spans several topics and fields including, and not definitively, crime, education, health, leisure, politics, religion and work.

On further granulation, these covert studies are rarely purist and employ more mixed strategies involving gate-keeping and key informants. Some studies, moreover, involve more unwitting types of concealment, rather than being designed deceptively. The diaspora then is more akin to a continuum rather than a fixed state of deception. Because the field of covert research is not incremental, integrated, or cross-fertilized, some of the studies have a stand-alone status in their respective fields. This is also compounded by the dearth of dedicated literature on covert research.

There has been a revival of sorts in covert research, although it is ultimately still likely to remain a relatively niche position. This revival, in part, comes from the significant rise in popularity of autoethnography and cyber ethnography, particularly forms of online lurking. A significant amount of them have covert dimensions, both witting and unwitting. A diverse range of sensitive and controversial topics has been explored by both methods.

The classic ethical question of do the means justify the ends often trades on an ideal-type view of informed consentand an inflated and exaggerated view of the potential harm, risk, and danger of covert research.

The hyper-alarmist response to covert research is partly based on a caricatured picture of covert research as heroic. Related to this, the image of the covert researcher is also tied up with versions of undercover research from popular culture in the sense of filmic and television sources, which can give an overly romanticized and glamorized view of the field. Covert research has also been a long accepted and normalized investigatory strategy for a range of practitioners and professionals, particularly in the police, the military and investigative journalism. Some of these covert investigations have had significant impact and influenced reform and change.

Covert research thus becomes a convenient scapegoat for those ethicists who quickly and strictly oppose it in any format, even if it could be used in a complementary way as part of a mixed or multiple methods approach. Covert work can be justified by providing a different type of insider insight, particularly in secretive settings and with illicit topics.

That is not to say that covert research can be zealously seen as a panacea. Nor is it the case that we no longer need robust ethical review processes and that ethical boards and committees are thus rejected and redundant. Such processes and organizations are useful and necessary but they need to refine, connect and adapt their policy sensibilities and mentalities to the messy nature of fieldwork realities.

In the current increasingly corporate climate of research, there has been what Hammersley (2010) cogently describes as creeping ethical regulation and the strangling of research, with covert research being particularly stifled. Miller (1995) described covert participation as the least used method and called for its reconsideration. Roulet et al (2017), in their more recent reconsideration of the value of covert research, argue that it has had a profound role in shaping the social sciences. Covert research can be a creative way, and certainly not the only way, to positively disrupt how we think about applied ethics. It offers an alternative way of doing situated ethics rather than being utterly devoid of them. Covert research is not to everyone’s taste, and will probably continue to offend some, but it should, nevertheless, be considered. Covert research will no doubt remain an object of both fear and fascination.


Calvey, D. (2017) Covert Research: The Art, Ethics and Politics of Undercover Fieldwork, London: Sage.

Erikson, K. T. (1967) ‘A comment on disguised observation in sociology’, Social Problems, 14 (4): 366–373.

Hammersley, M. (2010) ‘Creeping Ethical Regulation and the Strangling of Research’, Sociological Research Online, 15 (4) 16.

Miller, M. (1995) ‘Covert Participant Observation: Reconsidering the least used method’, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 11 (2): 97-105.

Roulet, T. J., Gill, M. J., Stenger, S and Gill, D. J. (2017) ‘Reconsidering the Value of Covert Research: The Role of Ambiguous Consent in Participant Observation’, Organizational Research Methods, 20 (3): 487-517.

Dr David Calvey
Senior Lecturer | Manchester Metropolitan University | Staff profile |

This post may be cited as:
Calvey D. (2017, 6 February 2018) ‘Don’t mention the c word: Covert research and the stifling ethics regime in the social sciences’. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from