Working as a consultant or research adviser?
It is becoming more common for funders or organisations to ask researchers to design projects for other people (e.g. their employees) to do, for example in a consultancy role. This form of advisory work is increasingly popular, as a ‘third stream’ source of income for universities or research consultancies, but it raises particular ethics questions – many of which are the same as in work with subcontractors.
The basic issue is one of supervision and training: how are you going to be sure that the people doing your data collection for you are going to act in ways that are sensitive to research participants and to the ethics questions involved in the research? It may (or may not) be the case that the people collecting data for you have a good deal less training than you do. Depending on your role – and contract – with the organisation that has commissioned you, you may be limited in how much influence you can have over key ethics issues.
In practical terms, you need to be sure that your role as a consultant or adviser does not leave you, or your institution, liable for the research conduct of another organisation. Remember that research misconduct and/or ethics problems in the research could not only be a source of financial liability, but could do reputational damage to you or your institution. The research and consultancy department (or equivalent) in your institution should always check the contract you have with the external agency, to address these questions of liability. However, we would argue that you have a wider responsibility to satisfy yourself that the research will meet high standards of ethics, even though you do not have direct responsibility for research conducted by an external agency.
Therefore, we recommend that you carry out the kind of checks that you would if you were subcontracting the external agency. For example,
- Do their researchers have appropriate training to address eventualities that could arise in the course of the research, such as disclosure by research participants of criminal behaviour, or of sensitive events from their past?
- Do they adhere to any code of conduct for research ethics?
- What procedures and checks are in place to ensure ethical conduct in the research?
- Have they conducted an assessment of potential risks and harms?
- Refer to our section on international research for more information about the particular ethics issues that can arise in working overseas.
If you are not satisfied that the research conducted by agency you are advising meets core standards of research ethics, you should question seriously whether it is wise to commit yourself, or your institution, to their research. If in doubt, seek advice from a line manager or experienced colleague, or ask the advice of your institution’s ethics committee.