NEWS15 March 2017

Research ethics ‘is not just common sense’

Impact 2017 News UK

UK – Anyone who thinks that market research ethics is simply a matter of ‘common sense’, hasn’t thought it through.


That was the message from Agnes Nairn of Hult International Business School at Impact 2017 in London today.

Nairn took the audience through a selection of deceptively simple questions on research ethics, whose answers are anything but simple. Should you incentivise research participants? How much? Should a company’s own staff be allowed to test new products? From whom should we seek consent for children to take part in research?

“The ethics of what you ask and of whom, and how or whether you ask permission, is absolutely not black and white,” said Nairn.

Various industry codes of practice exist to help us with these questions, includes those published by the MRS, Esomar and industry bodies in other countries. But it’s not clear whether they’re actually much help. Anca Yallop of Auckland University of Technology recently conducted a study among researchers in New Zealand, and found that codes “do not appear to have a significant effect on ethical behaviour”. Opinion is divided among academics on whether or not codes really guide the decisions of research practitioners. In many cases, people don't know their industry codes well enough, the codes are not reinforced through regular training, or people simply feel the codes reinforce their existing values.

So how can we make sure industry codes are adhered to? Nairn, who recently ran a course on research ethics for Unilever CTI, gave some advice.

Make sure you boil down how you want people to behave into memorable core principles, Nairn said, and that it has support from the top people in the organisation. Make the learning process enjoyable for people, and give them the freedom to learn from their mistakes, rather than feeling like they may be punished. Most importantly, make each individual personally responsible for ethics in their work.

Following Nairn’s training at Unilever, 96% of participants said they found the training useful, and 69% said challenged existing practices within 12 months.