Building ethics into the research design


The third ESRC ethics principle states that:

the confidentiality of information supplied by research subjects and the anonymity of respondents must be respected’. 

But what do you do if you observe something or hear something that gives you cause for concern? As we note in our section on legal requirements, case law in this country recognises that confidentiality may be limited in some instances, and most professional guidelines in social science allow that there are limits to promises of confidentiality.  You need to make sure that participants are clear of the limits of confidentiality in your project, and plan for the unexpected, in as much as you can.

 Planning for the unexpected

A range of situations – across disciplinary domains – might prompt you, or a member of your team to consider the need to breach confidentiality.  

One reason for breaching confidentiality relates to a duty of care if you are concerned that someone could be at risk of harm.  That could arise because a participant tells the researcher something that causes significant concern, or it could be something that is observed during fieldwork – such as an illegal activity. See our section on limits of confidentiality:  duty of care?

Alternatively, confidentiality may be limited because the nature of the research means that interviewees are potentially identifiable - as can be the case when you are doing small numbers of elite interviews - or because you have a public interest duty because of something that a participant reveals. See our section on limits of confidentiality:  elite interviews.

For more information, see: