ARTICLE 100: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation Part 4 of 9 Parts: Ethics Part 2 of 3 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

What does ethics in research entail?

Some post-graduate students will think that not committing plagiarism is what it is all about.

And they will not be entirely wrong.

Not committing plagiarism is an element of ethics.

However, there are many other facets to the concept.

Ethics are not only important for writing your thesis or dissertation, but also for the safety and integrity of the participants.

Especially the target group for your research.

I discuss the following issues on ethics in this article:

  1. Axiology.
  2. Codes of consent.
  3. No harm to participants.

Axiology. The quality of our research will be judged according to the criteria of validity and authenticity. This brings us to the concept “axiology”. Axiology addresses the nature of ethical behaviour. In research axiology refers to what you belief to be ethical. Basic beliefs about what is ethical are embedded in research paradigms and guide the researcher’s decision making. The purpose of the research needs to be balanced with what you value as well as other ethical considerations in the conduct of research, notably validity and authenticity.

Validity and authenticity are prerequisites for understanding. It is in this that epistemology and ethics are brought together. It is also a meeting point between epistemology and ontology because what we know (ontology) is tied up with what we understand (epistemology).

Ontological and educative authenticity, on the other hand, were designated as criteria for determining a raised level of awareness; in the first instance, by individual research participants and, in the second, by individuals who share a particular value system and, therefore, maintain contact for some social or organisational purpose. That is why the validity of your epistemological approach starts with ontology. It is rather difficult and mostly unnecessary, to separate epistemology from ontology, because they form a unified system and are highly interdependent. Epistemology is the declarative extension of ontology and often includes additional ontological statements.

It is, however, important that you do not confuse ontology and epistemology. As a matter of routine, it helps to mention ontology first, and then epistemology, since it enables you to base your study on a statement of “fact” (which can include your target group, world or society) before you do any explaining and theorising.

It is, sometimes, necessary and useful to develop models of real-life situations or artefacts for research purposes. Choice of representation (i.e., the way in which models must be articulable) does, in fact, have real implications for what aspects of the research target receive the most attention – what the model handles well, and what gets minimised or left out. On the other hand, models of what there is (ontology) need to be explained by what can be known and how it can be known (epistemology). We know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line – this is what we know, or the ontology. How we know this, that is. the evidence that the shortest route between two points is a straight line, is the epistemology.

Epistemology is not just a way of knowing. It is also a system of knowing through cognitive reasoning based on internal logic (contextualising information gathered to your research purpose) and the wider applicability of the knowledge, that is external validity (ensuring that findings are in line with the general environment and that they will be acceptable to other stakeholders).

Epistemology is intimately linked to a world-view. People from different continents, countries and even regions will often not have the same outlook or frame of reference towards the world around them. Thus, the conditions under which people live and learn, shape both their knowledge and their world-views.

Codes of consent. Codes of consent deal with if the target group for the research participates voluntarily or not. Qualitative research can be an intrusion into people’s lives, especially if it is social research. The interviewer’s knock on the door or the arrival of a questionnaire in the post or by email signals the beginning of an activity that the respondent has not requested, and one that may require a significant portion of his or her time and energy. Participation in a social experiment disrupts the subject’s personal and work schedule.

What is needed is informed consent, meaning that the research subjects need to know that they are being researched and what the nature and purpose of the research are. Participants in research should base their voluntary participation on a full understanding of the nature of the research and possible risks involved. When obtaining their consent, you need to appreciate that the participants may be under subtle pressure to co-operate, and you should take this possibility into account.

Consent is considered ‘informed’ when, in a language that the participants understand, you explain to them the nature of the research, their right to refuse to participate or withdraw from participation at any time, factors that may influence their willingness to participate, and the data collection methods to be used. The participants must have a complete understanding of the nature, aims and processes of the research, its intended outcomes, as well as any consequences that may follow from participation and publication.

Participants in research are often required to provide personal information about themselves, such as their age, weight, eating habits, drinking habits, smoking habits, etc. Such information may be unknown to their friends and associates and they might not want people close to them to know. Furthermore, research on human activities often requires that such information be revealed to strangers. Other professionals, such as physicians, and lawyers, also require such information. Their requests, however, may be justified because the information is required for them to serve the personal interests of the respondent. Social researchers can seldom make this claim. Like medical scientists, they can only argue that the research effort may ultimately help all of humanity.

No one should be forced to participate in research. This norm, however, is far easier to accept in theory than it is to apply in practice. It is unlikely that people will participate voluntarily if they do not believe that they will, somehow, benefit from participating. That is probably the most important reason why the response rate to questionnaires is often low, and you should plan on receiving only a fraction of the questionnaires back that you send out. Any response rate higher than 10% is good, unless you take special steps, like delivering and collecting the questionnaires personally.

No harm to the participants. Research should never physically, psychologically or financially injure the people involved, regardless of whether they volunteer for the study. Questions that would embarrass people or endanger their home life, friendship, career, etc. should not be asked or, if asked, be done with the consent of the participants. Sometimes subjects are asked to reveal deviant behaviour, attitudes they feel are unpopular, or demeaning personal characteristics, such as low income, the receipt of welfare payments, etc. You, as the researcher, should agree not to reveal such information and you must keep your undertaking. You must look for the subtlest dangers that information might end up in the wrong hands and guard against them.

The ethical norms of voluntary participation and no harm to participants have become formalised in the concept of informed consent, which we touched on under the sub-heading “codes of consent”. 

To avoid harm to respondents, you as the researcher should have the firmest of scientific grounds for asking questions that may cause injury to others. The objective of informed consent may be rather difficult to achieve and maintain in the case of internet or other electronic research contexts. You might not even have physical contact with the participants in the research. The challenge is exacerbated if the maintenance of anonymity is also needed. With this as background, informed consent can sometimes cause harm, be counterproductive or simply impossible to achieve.

Qualitative research projects may also force participants to face aspects of themselves that they do not normally consider. The project can be a source of continuing, personal agony for the subject. If the study concerns codes of ethical conduct, for example, the subject may begin questioning his or her own morality, and that personal concern may last long after the research has been completed and reported.

Subjects can also be harmed by the analysis and reporting of data. If the respondent reads the research report it might happen that he or she may find themselves characterised in an index, table or description. Having done so, they may find themselves portrayed – though not identified by name – as bigoted, unpatriotic, irregular, etc. 

An obvious and generally applicable concern in the protection of the participants’ interests and well-being is the protection of their identity, especially in survey research. Two techniques – anonymity and confidentiality – can be used in this regard.

Anonymity. A respondent may be considered anonymous when you cannot link a given response with a given respondent. This means an interview survey respondent can never be considered anonymous, since an interviewer collects the information from an identifiable respondent. Assuring anonymity makes it difficult to keep track of who has or has not returned the questionnaires.

Anonymity relates to the issue of privacy and is especially difficult to maintain on the internet. Privacy is regarded as the right to withhold information from public consumption. People often use publicly accessible information spaces, like Facebook, but maintain strong expectations of privacy. Because of this, privacy often refers to the way information is used rather than how easy or difficult it is for people to gain access to such information.

Confidentiality. Confidentiality means that you, as the researcher, should protect your participant’s identity, places of work and stay, and the location of the research. In a confidential survey, the researcher can identify a given person’s responses but essentially promises not to do so publicly.

You can use several techniques to ensure the maintenance of confidentiality. All stakeholders in the research team who might need to maintain confidentiality and who will have access to data and findings should be trained in their ethical responsibilities. All names and addresses should be removed from the questionnaires as soon as they are no longer needed and replaced by special identification numbers, not their national identification numbers. A file should be prepared linking special identification numbers or codes with real identification numbers. This file should be kept in a safe or lockable filing cabinet to which only people who need to know have access.  

It is your responsibility to inform the respondent if a survey is confidential rather than anonymous. Do not use the term anonymous if you mean confidential.  


Axiology addresses the nature of ethical behaviour.

Basic beliefs about what is ethical are embedded in research paradigms.

You need to achieve a balance in your research between ethics, your values, validity and authenticity.

Validity and authenticity are prerequisites for understanding.

Ethics is based on the ontology and epistemology of your research topic.

Codes of consent deal with if the target group for your research participates voluntarily or not.

Participants in research need to be informed about the purpose and nature of the research, how they will be involved and possible risks.

Participants are sometimes asked to share personal information with the researcher.

No one should be forced to participate in research.

You should keep in mind that the response rate to especially questionnaires is often low.

Research should never physically, psychologically or financially injure participants in the research.

Participants must not be harmed by the collection, analysis or reporting of data.

Questions asked to participants must be relevant and necessary for the research.

Anonymity and confidentiality should be maintained if necessary.

Anonymity is difficult to maintain.

Confidentiality means that the participant’s identity, places of work and stay and where the research took place must only be revealed on a need-to-know basis.


Maintaining sound ethical standards is important for the protection of the interests of others who participate in your research.

However, most importantly, you should protect your own interests.

It is in your interest not to cause damage to other people.

And it is in your interest to submit good quality work.

Because gaining higher qualifications is supposed to prepare you for a career and quality life.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.   

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