Ethics of research design


Ethics of research design


Following the completion of this unit you should be able to:

  • Identify examples of ethics in research.
  • Apply ethics in research to different stages of the research process.
  • Analyze issues of access when conducting research


When we talk about ethics in research, we are referring primarily to the ethical issues involved in the implementation and execution of a good project. In other words, making distinctions between what can be considered right and what can be considered wrong. As an MBA student, it is important that you understand what may constitute unethical practice, given that it may provide the grounds upon which your research could be queried or questioned. The purpose of this unit is to provide you with the key ethical considerations that will affect the way in which you approach and conduct your research.

Ethical Issues
The research relationship
When analyzing research ethics, it needs to be viewed from the point of view of those who are likely to be involved in the research process as shown in Figure 4.1


Think about the types of areas/topics in business and management that might cause concern if they were studied.


I am sure that you have come up with quite a full list that is likely to relate specifically to your organization and area of work. As a general guide some of the areas that you may have considered are presented below:

  • Research that may have an impact on employment; for example, the implementation of new technology or machinery.
  • Marketing techniques that may impinge upon privacy laws; i.e. data protection
  • Research may look at introducing systems that will benefit the organization at the expense of the customer; such as information systems with a built-in bias towards financial institutions.
  • Any form of experimenter bias is caused by the role of the researcher, particularly in giving instructions to subjects who are being observed. Obligations of and to clients As we have already shown in Figure 4.1, the client may be the organization on which you are carrying out the research or indeed a sponsor who is supporting and funding your research. Whatever their basis, they will have a vested interest as to the outcome of your study in
    terms of adding value to them. Given this situation, do not feel tempted to present them with ‘what they want to hear’. You need to show a high degree of integrity and be totally honest in your research findings despite the fact that it may not be the result that both you and the client were hoping to attain. Obligations with the respect to the relationship between the Supplier (you) and the Client is a two-way process as summarized below in Figure 4.3.

Conducting the Research
Evidence collection methods
Depending upon your chosen area of study and methodology, there are a number of ways in which you will gather evidence. This may involve the use of quantitative methods such as questionnaires or experimentation or the use of qualitative methods such as interviews or observations. Regardless of the type of data that is obtained, it is imperative that you make no attempt to forge the results, i.e. that you do not record observations that you have never actually made. Another ethical issue when collecting data is the tendency to ‘trim’ data which shows large variances from the mean so that your results display high degrees of accuracy. Closely allied to this is making numerous


Statistical packages exist which can detect ‘manipulated’ data. Remember your
project tutor is also likely to be highly experienced and well-used to assessing candidates’ work. A good assessor will detect any forging of data.
Integrity of the evidence
Be prepared to verify your evidence collected if necessary. To do this it is useful to keep copies of all raw data or information for a period of time. Also make sure that when you report your evidence in the main body of your project that you do not include any statements or assumptions that cannot be underpinned by hard evidence. Presenting evidence as valid and correct which you know is based upon suspicious or incomplete evidence is not acceptable.
Honesty and trust

To carry out your research you are in a position of trust. The University has placed trust in you that you will comply in an honest and ethical manner throughout your research. This means that in the context of data collection, you must respect the confidentiality of any information that is supplied to you, particularly if it is of a sensitive nature.

Processing Data
Research participants
Your research is likely to involve research participants. This could be in an experimental sense, through observation or interviews. There are a number of rights that must be considered from the point of view of the research participants:

  • The right to privacy or non participation – This requires that consent should be obtained from them to participate in the research. Also it demands that if the person does not wish to take part that this should be allowed. For example, it is unethical of a senior manager to demand that all staff take part in a particular procedure, such as a
  • The right to remain anonymous – You need to explain that your research focuses upon group data and not individual and, therefore, specific names do not need to be discussed. Assigning a subject ID code or number is the usual way to record data anonymously.
  • The right to confidentiality – You must make it clear to the participants about who will have access to the original data.
  • The right to have access to all information – Subjects should be made aware of be used.
  • The right to be protected – As a researcher you must at all times protect the rights and wellbeing of the research participants. This will usually involve you completing a form which explains the research and how it will be conducted. Depending on the participating organisation(s), this will then be sent to the most relevant person / committee for approval. An example of the typical components required for approval of doing research involving participants are:
  1. Project title
  2. Purpose of the research
  3. Project description
  4. Age of research participant
  5. Number of research participant
  1. Gender of research participant
  2. How the research participants will be selected

8. How they will be informed of procedures, the intent of the study and potential risks to

9. What the procedure is for research participants to withdraw at any time
10. How research participants’ privacy may be maintained and confidentiality guaranteed

In order to protect the most vulnerable, research projects involving the health service and people with learning disabilities among others, require clearance by the University’s ethics committee. This can be a lengthy and time consuming process, and you are advised to seek


It is likely that if you include this information as part of your research proposal in the ‘Research Participants’ section of your outline methodology, any ethical issues can be addressed at this stage by your Project Tutor.

Data accuracy

If the data is quantitative you need to need to make sure that any mathematical methods employed and the result obtained is accurate. Issues surrounding the accuracy of qualitative research are more complex given that analysis is subjective rather than objective. As a result, it can often lead to subconscious research bias where too much of the researcher’s views or personal prejudices are presented rather than a balanced argument (which is what is required). In other words, do not simply support your own opinions without taking into account those of others who may conflict or disagree with what you are hoping to find.

Data protection

It is important that you have an understanding of the legalities of individual’s rights to the protection of their data as prescribed under the Data Protection Act 1998. It is particularly pertinent to the compilation and use of databases such as those to whom you may send out questionnaires.


The role of sampling will be discussed in more detail in Unit 5 but it is appropriate to mention it briefly here in relation to ‘whether the sample has been manipulated to show a particular result’. For example, you may choose subjects on the basis of:

  • Their likelihood of reflecting the values and opinions that you advocate.
  • Their likelihood of exhibiting the characteristics which you wish to demonstrate and, therefore, not be representative.
  • Discarding evidence of those subjects who do not fit your model or hypothesis. Reporting the Research
    It is important that you aware that your research should only be used for ethical purposes. In that respect it should be available to the public domain. This will involve you being able to publish your work. If you have already had publication, it is certainly not acceptable to have the same piece of work presented as part of a course at another University.
    Plagiarism refers to presenting work, whole or in part which is not your own and which you have not acknowledged as being the work of someone else. As such, it is considered a highly unethical practice which in extreme cases can mean that you fail your dissertation or are even
    expelled from your course. You will, of course, in your studies be relying quite heavily on the work of others and, therefore, you need to develop the techniques required to précis, summarize or paraphrase passages of text or, if you use their words verbatim, know how to acknowledge and reference these correctly in your work.
  1. ACTIVITY Many students plagiarize unknowingly because of poor academic practice.
    Here is a quiz to test your knowledge (adapted from Burkhill and Abbey, 2004):
  1. You are searching the web for inspiration for your assignment. You find a website that contains a paper with a similar title. You decide to take on the main ideas without acknowledging their origin. Is this plagiarism?
  2. You have spent ages on your research plan, but your computer crashes. A friend of yours, who is studying for an MBA or BBA at another university offers you his/her research proposal. Would using your friend’s work be plagiarism?
  3. You have worked on an assignment as a group of students for your individual assignment. A few group members submit their assignments with sections that are almost identical. Have they plagiarized?
  4. You are very busy at work, and your research proposal is almost due. You decide to piece together large sections of the literature review by taking paragraphs out of different books, which are linked together in your own words. You make use of the in-text references provided by the books. Is this plagiarism?
  5. After trying to randomly sample participants to complete a questionnaire, you are still a few answers short. You are frustrated about how unhelpful people can be and decide to fill in the remaining few questionnaires yourself. Are you plagiarizing? You may wish to discuss your answers on the Virtual Campus. The answers to this quiz are provided in Appendix C. The University of Sunderland library WebPages also contains useful information on how to reference and how to avoid plagiarism.


There is a very useful section in your Student Handbook which covers the area of plagiarism. You are well-advised to study it carefully and also read Burkhill and Abbey (2004), which is available via Sunkist. Please be advised that your assignment will be automatically checked by plagiarism detection software and that assessment offenses will be penalized. For details, please refer to the University’s regulations.


Refer to Chapter 6 of your key text and make notes regarding negotiating access. Show your notes to a fellow student or colleague and ask them to compare your paraphrasing with the text in the book for any perceived plagiarism.


Taking effective notes is a skill in itself and one which will alleviate the problems associated with plagiarism. If you are finding it difficult to paraphrase other people’s work, you are directed to the numerous Study Skills textbooks and websites available which cover this subject in detail. Referencing

The need to reference all sources using an approved referencing system cannot be overstated. You should also avoid quoting a source that you have not actually read yourself, but which you have seen cited somewhere else (secondary reference); this is regarded as unethical. In addition to the guidelines given in the Student Handbook and on the University of Sunderland webpage’s, you are advised to refer to ‘Cite Them Right’ (Pears, 2005) for details on how to reference correctly and how to deal with secondary references. This technique can be easily

learned and any failure to comply with the standard practice will be penalized. See the University’s guidelines on assessment offenses for details.

Intellectual property rights

In terms of the relevance of intellectual property rights to academic studies, there are three areas that you need to be aware of:

  1. Patents – this is a monopoly right granted by the state in return for adequate disclosure to it and in turn the public, through the written specification of a new invention which the inventor could otherwise have kept secret. In other words, an investor may wish to have a new type of technology or discovery patented to safeguard it from being copied or replicated. Patenting is a
  2. Copyright – this protects the particular expression of an idea or ideas as being that of the creator. At present, the duration of copyright in European terms spans the life of the author plus 70 years. In the UK, you do not have to register in any way for copyright to exist, it arises automatically upon creation of the work and allows the creator to do things such as copy the work and distribute it to the public. It is an infringement by law, therefore, for someone else to do the same unless they have been given express permission to do so by the creator. Therefore if there are any types of information that you need to use, make sure that you contact the creator and ask for their permission to use it. This is particularly

relevant to the use of diagrams, models, and figures that you may well wish to use in your

3. Designs – this protects any original design in relation to it being an aspect of the shape or

configuration of a 3D article, i.e. design for a type of machine part.


In order to be aware of Intellectual Property Rights an understanding and adherence to the following is useful:

  • Understanding of intellectual property rights by staff and students and in which situations they are likely to occur.
  • Maintain detailed and accurate laboratory notebooks regarding new inventions including dates, etc.
  • Implement procedures to maintain confidentiality.
  • Establish who owns the intellectual property rights. Assistance for others How much assistance you are allowed from others to complete your dissertation is an ethical issue. For example, it is likely to be considered unethical if you get someone else to type up your project for payment or you got a knowledgeable statistician to complete your analysis on your behalf for payment. Of course, you will use your project supervisor for help and this is to be encouraged but what you need to remember is that a supervisor’s role or any other external’s role for that matter is to guide and advise you, where the actual implementation and interpretation of that assistance should be your own. In most instances when you submit your
    dissertation you will be required to sign a declaration that the work that you are submitting is your own and not attributable to any great extent to the work of others. Misinterpretation of the work done This is very closely linked to data inaccuracy and is based upon the tendency of the researcher to exaggerate work that they have not completed. For example, saying that you conducted 100 interviews when in fact it was only 50 or fabricating questionnaires that were not filled out. This type of unethical practice would also relate to the inclusion of studies that were alluded to in the Literature Review that clearly were not read or examined. Misinterpretation of work is a serious

research offense and as a result, perpetrators if found out are often dealt with harshly by being asked to surrender their university registration.


This unit has presented you with a number of issues relating to the ethical nature of research. As such, it is important that you take note of its contents and apply the principles of what is considered ethical to your own research. Nonadherence to ethical standards in research can
have serious repercussions, not least of which may mean failing your course of study. In addition, your reading should also have provided you with a clear understanding of the practicalities of gaining access and strategies for doing so successfully.

August 6, 2021
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