The term 'research ethics' refers to the moral principles and actions guiding and shaping research from its inception through to completion, the dissemination of findings and the archiving, future use, sharing and linking of data. While research ethics has a long history, originating with medical ethics and then extending to other forms of research with humans, it also has a history of evolution and development. Research ethics in the social sciences initially drew on the 'patient protection' model of medical research, but has more recently broadened in scope to include consideration of benefits, risks and harms to all persons connected with and affected by the research and to the social responsibilities of researchers.

Reference to 'benefits, risks and harms' suggests a 'consequentialist' form of moral reasoning where the consequences of conduct frames ethical practice, but this is not the only philosophical perspective that has been employed. 'Deontological' approaches have also been applied, suggesting that guided and rule-governed research practice can serve to fulfil the moral obligations. 'Virtue ethics' is a third perspective that stresses a context-dependent and pervasive concern with all aspects of a researcher’s professional behaviour, emphasising a need for rigour in ethics reasoning with regard to the particular circumstances and phases of the research.