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Ethical Research

Should you want to raise a query or question the ethics of an observed research project then you should feel free to do so in the knowledge that your query will be investigated thoroughly.  The process to follow along with all the contact details of key people is provided in this document: ‚ÄčEthics Complaints Process.

Code of Ethics for research on human subjects

The interaction between a researcher and the people investigated falls broadly into two categories. The respondent can be either a subject or an informant. In those areas of research where the individual, as an individual, (the `subject'), is the object of study, the potential problem of invasive techniques, invasion of privacy, and so on, is clear. These are handled by university ethics committees.

On the face of it, the case of 'mere' informants seems to present little problem, especially as it tends to involve voluntary interaction and informants can choose to withhold cooperation. In fact, however, there are more subtle ways of exerting coercion, often unintentionally. It is essential that all researchers in the humanities and social sciences who have occasion to use informants should be aware of the ethical problems this can pose. In order to alert researchers to these dangers, the following list of precepts (based on the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association) is presented:

  • A researcher's paramount responsibility is to those studied. Where there is conflict of interest, they must come first. Researchers must do everything within their power to protect their informants' physical, social and psychological welfare and to honour their dignity and privacy. 
  • The aims of the investigation should be communicated as well as possible to informants.
  • Informants should have the right to remain anonymous.
  • Questions asked should not be insulting or embarrassing.
  • The use of monitoring devices such as tape recorders and cameras should be open, and fully understood by the people concerned. They should be free to reject them if they wish. Results should be consonant with the informant's right to welfare, dignity and privacy.
  • There should be no exploitation of informants for personal gain. Fair returns should be given to them for all services. There is an obligation to reflect on the foreseeable repercussions of research and publication on those studied.
  • The privacy and wishes of informants should at all times be respected.
  • No reports should be provided to sponsors that are not also available to the general public and, where possible, to the group studied itself, subject to the policy laid down in the document, Policy on Matters Relating to Sensitive and Confidential Research.

The onus is on the researcher to comply with these guidelines. Where there is doubt in the mind of the researcher, the proposed research project should be referred to the Chairperson of the relevant HERC.

More information about our Human Research and Animal Research Committees can be found here.

Enquiries to:
The Research Office: Compliance Manager
Eleni Flack-Davison at eleni.flack-davison@wits.ac.za 

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