Researchers should consider potential physical or psychological harm, discomfort, stress or reputational risk to participants and their associates (and participating groups, organisations and funders). Research, though it may carry no physical risk, may be disruptive and damaging to participants as individuals, or to whole communities or categories of people impacted by the research. For example, social science research on those affected by HIV infection may impact both those engaged as participants and other individuals or groups affected by the infection.

Social science research raises a wide range of ethics issues that need to be considered by researchers, their research organisation and the appropriate research ethics committee. These include, but are not restricted to, risk to a participant's personal social standing, their privacy, personal values and beliefs, their links to family and the wider community, and their position of employment, as well as the potentially adverse effects of revealing information that relates to studied or disclosed behaviours, for example illegal or sexual behaviour.

The ethics review of a research project should be proportionate to the benefit, risk and harm of the research; while research involving high risks or with more questionable benefits must be subject to a high level of ethical review, very low-risk, clearly beneficial research need not be subject to the same level of scrutiny. Each project must be judged and justified on its own terms.