As recognised elsewhere (eg Canada's Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (external website)), research may be 'deliberately and legitimately opposed to the interests of the research participants or organisations' in cases where the objectives of the research are to reveal and critique fundamental economic, political or cultural disadvantage or exploitation. Much social science research has a critical role to play in exploring and questioning social, cultural and economic structures and processes (for example relating to patterns of power and social inequality, and institutional dynamics and regimes that disadvantage some social groups over others, intentionally or not). Such research results may have a negative impact on some of the research participants/organisations, but may also have significant societal benefit. Principles of justice should, however, mean that researchers should seek to minimise any personal harm to individuals.
Researchers should consider how to balance potential risk to research participants, including immediate, short-term risks and longer term risks (eg reputational damage), against the benefits and longer-term gains to future beneficiaries. It is the responsibility of the researchers to make such a case in detail to a research ethics committee. In making a decision RECs should weigh up the benefits of the research and consider safety issues and participants' protection.