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What do we mean by ‘ethical research principles’? What does that mean in practice?

Front cover of TSRF guide to applying ethical research principles

We all want to ‘do’ research well and ensure that as we find out the answer to our questions we don’t upset or harm those that we work with, those we interview and involve in the research or ourselves. It all sounds easy but when it comes to practice sometimes its easy to fall foul of best practice without really realising.

Having a set of principles is at the heart of making good ethical decisions about how to undertake your research. In our new guide, TSRF guide to applying ethical research principles, Scotland’s Third Sector Research Forum sets out some research principles and checklists to help you think about how to ensure your research process will keep both participants and researchers safe.

Our five core principles are:


Research should only be carried out where there is a clear evidence of need for the research.
This means knowing why you are undertaking your research and being able to tell others the practical value and benefit of your research to participants and your organisation.


Research should have integrity and be undertaken in an honest, open, and respectful way.  Throughout the research you should involve and inform your participants about all aspects of your research from collecting data to how findings will be published and disseminated. This will involve sharing power and decision making with participants.


The researcher and the organisation undertaking or commissioning the research should be accountable to participants and stakeholders.
This means doing what you say you will. Not making false promises. Choosing safe research methods and being considerate to your participants about what you ask and how – being aware of the impact your research may have.


Research should ensure the confidentiality and anonymity of participants.
Keeping service users’ confidentiality is common place in our work in the third sector but it can be tricky when researching smaller, specific populations. Ensuring that you keep confidentiality even when reporting your research findings is very important.


The researcher and the organisation should ensure the safety and wellbeing of both participants and researcher.
This means ensuring the physical, social and psychological wellbeing of the participants are not adversely affected by your research processes and you should be knowledgeable and sensitive to the potential risks to your participants.

The above is a short summary of the principles. For more detail on each please see the guide.

Following these principles will give you the confidence that you will be able to justify the decisions you’ve made in how to conduct your research to your organisation, to research participants, to people reading the findings and to funders. It will demonstrate you have considered how to undertake good research practice and are satisfied that you have done your best to conduct ethical research.

Download the guide here. It has lots of examples of good and ‘not so good’ practice and a case study showing how to apply the principles throughout a research project.

If you want to learn more about the ethics guide and applying it in your own organisation, TSRF and Policy Scotland (University of Glasgow) are organising an online seminar on Tuesday, 31 August from 1:00 – 2:30 pm. Take a look at the event and register if you are interested here.