Consideration of ethics in an international context

When undertaking research outside the UK, issues may be raised about what is meant by ethics, and how we conceptualise notions of individual rights (eg consent, choice, volition or self-determination) and the handling of personal data or linking and sharing of data where data handling may not be subject to the UK Data Protection Act 1998. This also applies to internet-mediated research that may cross international boundaries. Researchers may need to consider whether there are different cultural approaches to ethics and consider the diverse views on ethics, as well as political and cultural sensitivities within the research context and area where the study is conducted. In many cases it is good practice to collaborate with a local research organisation or other relevant local experts (eg an NGO). In all cases, relevant national legal requirements should be followed.

Situations of conflict and disadvantage

Ethics issues relating to power differentials may be more prominent in international research conducted or involving low-income countries, or countries experiencing conflict and political instability. In such contexts, the researchers will need to consider the actual or perceived notions of power between UK-based and local researchers as well as between the researchers and the researched. Researchers need to be mindful of how the actual or perceived asymmetry in power may influence the principle of voluntary participation, freely-given informed consent and participant expectations on the benefits and consequences of participation in research.

Voluntary participation 

In some international contexts, it will be important for researchers to consider what participants understand research to be, and whether (and how) participants can be appropriately informed to understand the purpose and long-term intended benefits or economic and societal impact of the research project. Managing expectations in low-income countries, especially among populations and communities who receive aid or have experience of intervention projects, may prove ethically challenging if participants do not understand the difference between intervention projects and research. Researchers should give due consideration to any incentives or compensation for participation in research, and how this may jeopardise the principle of voluntary participation or be seen as (or induce feelings of) exploitation by the local population.

Informed consent

The process of eliciting informed consent should be guided by accessible and meaningful information to participants (for example, translated or presented orally to non-literate participants). It should address ESRC’s core principles and include participants’ right to withdraw, intended uses and potential sharing of research data, and explanation of the limits to confidentiality and circumstances where this may occur. 

Researchers should be mindful of difficulties in following an individualised consent approach in contexts where gatekeepers play a powerful role in determining the participation of an individual (eg a husband may wish to decide consent on behalf of his wife). The implications of specific social and cultural contexts for consent processes should be addressed with regard to ethics principles concerned with rights, dignity and voluntary participation.

Political and cultural sensitivities

Researchers should be sensitive to differences of cultural, political or other opinion as well as awareness of actual or perceived differences in income, status or power. Researchers are encouraged to form relationships with local organisations (eg NGOs) or those who may act as gatekeepers in accessing the researched population. Local organisations and local researchers may prove valuable in terms of advising on cultural, moral and political sensitivities and local customs, as well as assessing or assisting with communication.

Researchers should also consider ethics issues arising from their relationship with the local gatekeepers. They should assess whether the relationship will be long-term or short-term, benefit-sharing with local stakeholders, the level of engagement, and how the research or the researchers’ presence in the field may affect the local organisations’ relationship with the population - during as well as after the fieldwork or research project has finished.

Researchers’ responsibilities

Researchers working internationally with vulnerable populations or populations seen as being at higher risk of harm and exploitation or coercion (for example due to the issues described above) should develop a framework of responsibilities in advance. In these contexts, the researchers may find themselves in situations of increased responsibilities or expectations which they may not have anticipated, eg where there is an urgent need for intervention that does not fall within the research’s objectives and scope and researchers’ responsibilities. Strategies for benefit-sharing with participants and communities should also be addressed.