Building ethics into the research design

Asking questions of participants

By far the most common methodological approach in direct social science research involves asking questions of participants, by interview or questionnaire.  Whichever method you are using, the following general questions should be a starting point in designing your research:

  • Is it appropriate to ask questions that might offend or upset people? How do you decide what might offend or upset? If you are going to be addressing sensitive issues that could cause such offence or emotional upset you will need to be confident that you can justify very clearly why that was necessary and appropriate, and what steps you’ve taken to deal with the possible consequences.
  • How do you make sure questionnaires or structured methods allow respondents to give you additional information that they consider vital, or that helps them to make sense of questions they don’t understand?
  • Do the questions and approaches respect people’s backgrounds, literacy, and experiences?
  • What will you do if someone discloses something that gives cause for concern – about them or about someone else?  What are your legal and ethical responsibilities regarding this information? 


Interviews range from highly structured question-and-answer sessions to informal conversations. They may happen individually, or in groups.  The researcher may expect to be in control of the questions, but care needs to be taken to respect people’s willingness to respond, and not to exert too much pressure or make people feel uneasy.

Hopefully, interviews are based on mutual respect, trust and rapport, but this can be difficult to establish. An important issue to consider is whether or not you will be doing all the interviews yourself, or in a team.  However experienced a researcher you are, it’s a good idea to practice first with other team members, friends or colleagues, if appropriate. Build in interview training for team members, if necessary, depending on their level of experience.  Questions to consider in training and preparation include the following:

  • What are you going to do if people seem bored, shy, or embarrassed? How will you tell, and how will you respond?
  • What if someone gets upset when you are interviewing them?  You should plan to stop the interview, and give them a chance to decide whether or not they want to stop completely, re-schedule, or carry on.  Remember that participants should know they can withdraw from the research at any time – so it is up to them if they want to stop the interview.
  • Will people be asked for consent to be voice-recorded? If they chose not to be voice recorded, are they happy for notes to be taken?
  • Are the interviews to be held in a quiet or private place? Is the setting important for the types of content that are gong to be discussed – e.g. requiring privacy to discuss delicate matters?
  • Can people choose for someone else to be present if necessary? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having someone else there?
  • Do you need to interview with an interpreter?  Who decides who that should be?  What training do you need to give the interpreter?  Do they fully understand and agree to follow your requirements for ethical conduct – for example, in consent and confidentiality?

Work with fieldwork teams can raise particularly complex ethics questions in international research.

 Group interviews

In group discussions, how is confidentiality for the people in the group maintained?   You need to establish ground rules for the group, to ensure that all participants have a chance to be heard, and that the group clearly agrees the bounds of confidentiality for the discussion. For example, is everything discussed totally confidential, and not to be shared at all?  Or can you allow limited information sharing, such as: ’After the group discussion, you can talk of other people about what we said. But please do not tell them the name of the person who said, it, or the names of any people they were talking about’.

Most important, you need to consider whether the questions to be discussed in the group are really suitable for a group setting? Group discussions are useful for ascertaining people’s shared experiences of a particular phenomenon, but not for eliciting personal, intimate information.  

 Interview data

Will you send respondents a transcription or note of their interview for checking? Or a copy of the interview recording?  Are there questions related to privacy that you need to think about if you do decide to do this?

For example, if you were interviewing young people in care, and you want to send them a transcript of the interview, do they have any privacy where they could keep such a transcript? The same issue could apply to adults living in group settings – such as adults in residential care or hospitals, or maybe even military personnel?  It may contain sensitive information about their current situation, and may compromise them if it is accidentally discovered.

You need to decide whether it is appropriate to give the interview participants the opportunity to comment on or change their interview transcripts. Sometimes interviewees feel that a transcript misrepresents their ideas or words and may ask to have certain sections changed, or even to withdraw from the study altogether.  Whatever you decide, remember that you must do what you promise the participant – so if you say you will send the transcript, you must do that.


Some ethical questions in relation to use of questionnaires are also about good research practice more generally.  For example, how clearly are the questions worded?  Will the questionnaire be understandable by all potential participants?  Are any of the questions confusing or ambiguous?  Does it need to be accessible to people with low levels of literacy, or who speak English as an additional language?  Does it need to be translated into other languages?  Are all of the questions absolutely necessary?  How long do you expect the participants to spend completing it?  Addressing these issues will increase your response rates and improve the quality of your data, but they are also ethical considerations, because they make sure that your participants aren’t made to feel stupid or irrelevant to your research.

You also need to consider where your questionnaires will be answered – in a public or in a private setting? Will you be there to answer questions?  Research using computer-aided survey methods may raise particular ethical questions A lot of survey research is now conducted using computer aided methods (CASI) – what ethics questions do these methods raise? What happens when personal questions are being asked that may cause distress, but the researcher is not actually present to detect the distress and to respond ethically?

What about group distribution of questionnaires, for example, to groups of students or children in class context – what are the implications for consent?  How will you make sure that people can opt out if they want to? For example, you can make it very clear to them that they can hand in blank questionnaire if they want to.