Research ethics is a field which is constantly changing, and its boundaries are at times quite fuzzy. What might be acceptable research behaviour one year may be unacceptable the next.
Research ethics is discussed in all research methods texts – or if it is not, then it should be. Although many of these texts will tell you the same, or similar, things, there is some conflict of opinion. A very public and often cited example of this conflict can be seen in the reaction to the research of Laud Humphreys (cited in Punch, 1994). Humphreys investigated the behaviour of homosexuals in semi-public places. His research was primarily concerned with the social background of the men who met for casual encounters in public toilets. From a vantage point in a city park he observed the behaviour of the men and secretly recorded their car number plates. Using this information he located the individuals, then visited them at their homes; this time he was in the guise of a medical survey researcher. In this way Humphreys acquired a considerable quantity of personal information about these men, which he later published. The reaction to his work demonstrates the conflict of opinion regarding research ethics. Humphreys was awarded one of the highest accolades available by an American research association for his work, but at the same time there was a campaign going on to have his PhD revoked for misconduct; he even received a thump in the jaw from another researcher (Punch, 1994).
Although this rather extreme example is in no way typical of the majority of social science research today, it raises a number of issues that, to a greater or lesser extent, face all researchers when engaging with other human beings in the research process. I would like to point out that although there is a school of thought that advocates that covert research is acceptable, the stance taken here is that research should be overt, meaning that all research participants have the right to know they are being studied and why they are being studied (Bell, 1999). Their knowledge of the research activity may well have an impact on their behaviour but that will be discussed in Part 2 as we look at individual research methods.