Ten ethical principles for public policy research

Emir Efendić

A number of institutions dedicated to social research[i], especially those dedicated to research that depends upon human participation, regularly publish and update their ethical standards. As an example, we can highlight the code of the American Psychological Association , which is the most popular ethical code currently in use within the social sciences. However, there are other similar codes that are not specifically limited or tied to an explicit scientific area or field. The Canadian government, for instance, recently (2010) presented a revised “Tri-Council-Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research” (TCPS-2) which is the working result of three different research agencies: the Institute of Health (medical sciences), the Institute of Natural Sciences and Engineering, and the Institute of Social Sciences. It is also worth mentioning that academic institutions often have so-called IRBs – Internal Review Boards or ERBs – Ethical Review Boards, which, based on assessments of whether a certain research proposal takes into consideration ethical principles, make decisions on whether to accept or deny the proposal and give feedback. Comparably to academic institutions, think tanks and other similar organizations that deal with research in the area of public policy more often than not have their own ethical guidelines and principles. Thus, for instance, the Brookings Institution has published a special code that pledges to identify and work on potential financial conflicts of interest in researching public policies in the area of health, while the Urban Institute has a document about principles according to which they define their ethical relationship with financial donors and funders. Furthermore, the PASOS network of think tanks, which includes more than 50 organizations from Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, has adopted an extensive code dedicated to good governance, which was primarily designed as an ethical guide for independent think tank organizations.  

Box 1. Useful sources for ethical standards in research

In the Western Balkan countries, there has been a distinctive lack of discussion about ethical principles in the domain of public policy research. Even though we cannot talk about a complete devaluation and neglect of ethical standards in the conduct of public policy research, there is a marked lack of systematic approach to these issues. This is mainly reflected in the lack of existence of official standards, as well as an apparent lack awareness on the subject. Therefore, the main objective of this short blog is to highlight key principles that should be taken into account whilst conducting public policy research, by taking into account and relying on already established ethical codes.

  1. The principle of informed consent: Participants in any research that includes data collection must give their consent based on complete and valid information about the nature of the research, about the usage of the research results, and the possible implications for the participants. The researcher is obliged to deliver this information to the participants in order to obtain informed consent. It is necessary to highlight several key issues in this: participation is voluntary, participants have a right to, at any time, decline to answer certain questions, and they have the right to discontinue their participation for any reason that they see fit. Furthermore, participants should not feel that they are in any way forced to participate in the research. Similarly, research that involves children demands special application of several principles (for a more in-depth look, see principles that were adopted by the Society for Research on Child Development). Above all, it is important to ask for explicit consent from the parents, but also allow them to be present with the children during the research process if the parents so demand. Finally, the parents have a right to at any moment refuse or end the participation of their children in the research.
  1. The principle of full participation: Certain social groups may not have the opportunity to participate in the research process even though their participation would increase the quality of research. In these cases, it is ethical to deliberately work on their inclusion. For example, people from a socially at-risk population, such as ethnic minorities or persons with special needs can be restricted from participating in the research for different reasons. Nevertheless, in order to secure a more representative sample and more relevant research results, researchers should work towards ensuring the participation of all relevant social groups. The difficulties of inclusion could be overcome using and applying some of the following measures: covering the costs of participation, securing transportation and access by offering different options for participation (e.g. face to face, via phone or the internet), as well as consulting the representatives of certain groups in order to secure and facilitate participation.
  1. The principle of avoiding harm or injustice: Physical and mental welfare and the protection of participants must be maintained at all times. A participant may feel that their welfare is compromised if the research is inappropriately handled (e.g. in cases where physical welfare is limited), if the research affects their reputation, or if it adversely influences their emotional state or causes anxiety and distress. Researchers should try to predict potential causes of inflicting harm and injury. Techniques for reducing the risk of this happening could include the following: avoiding unnecessarily long interviews, ensuring that the methodology is appropriate to the research question, training interviewers to adequately recognize potential ethical breaches, getting acquainted with the target population of participants in a timely manner, or, as mentioned above, an extensive informed consent form for the participants to give them the opportunity to review the process. Objective assessment about the possibility of causing harm should already be stated in the research proposals and the application for financing. If there is a high risk of causing harm and distress (e.g. if the research will include interviewing victims of violence) it is especially important for the researchers to provide arguments for why such research is needed.
  1. The principle of anonymity and data protection: The identity of the participant should remain protected during the entire research process, including recruitment, data collection, data storage, analysis and reporting. Even if the participants did not express concern regarding their privacy, the researcher should still maintain the principle of anonymity and data protection. Reporting the names of participants or publishing information in a way that allows someone to be inadvertently identified, can only be allowed on the basis of participants’ explicit consent. In these cases, it is necessary to allow the participant to authorize the final draft of the publication before the publishing and dissemination of the research. With this, participants should be allowed to withdraw their participation and consent if they could be unintentionally identified in the final publication or other materials that resulted by the research process.
  1. The principle of adequate application of the research methodology: It is the ethical concern of the researcher to conduct research in concordance with methodologically appropriate research questions and to conform to the highest standards of quality. It is necessary to define precise research questions and design a methodological approach that takes into consideration potential ethical implications when it comes to research results. For instance, if research participants, for whatever reason, have limited capacity to express themselves in written form, using questionnaires that need to be filled out, limits the responses they can give. Researchers are thus left with a loss of valuable data that was explicitly caused by a misapplied methodology, and the validity of the research itself and the collected data is endangered. Similarly, this is the case with the use of leading questions that influence the quality of responses and validity of results.
  1. The principle of copyright and referencing: Plagiarism, that is, the use of other people’s ideas and texts as one’s own, is ethically and professionally unacceptable. Plagiarism can manifest itself in several forms. For instance, authors can directly copy other people’s work but also change the form and style of certain arguments in order to present them as their own, as well as simply fail to reference and credit work of other authors, or their co-authors and other contributors. Similarly, in the case of auto-plagiarism, authors can publish an already published piece on a different platform and with minor modifications, presenting it as the original. Given that plagiarism violates the basic principles of intellectual rights, researchers have an obligation to reference every source that they have used in the development of their research topic, to mark directly taken lines of text as quotes, and to attribute every paraphrased line of text to the original source. 
  1. The principle of declaring conflict of interest: A researcher’s task is to try and stay objective during the entire research process by limiting their own influence on the results. However, it is often impossible to separate a research project from an ideological, political, financial, or proprietary affiliation of the researcher, author, and publisher.  Precisely because of this, there is an ethical need for researchers, authors, and publishers, to declare publically any conflict of interest – this includes, for instance, an affiliation with a political movement or party, their source of funding, or the existence of any familial or proprietary link with the subject of research or the commissioner of the research. Declaring conflict of interest projects a sense of credibility as it allows readers and users of the research to take into consideration all factors when they evaluate the validity of the results. On the other hand, withholding information on possible conflicts of interest undermines the credibility of individuals and organizations conducting research.
  1. The principle of full disclosure: The results of given research can influence public policy only if they have been published or disclosed outside of the research team. It is ethically responsible to notify the public and the end beneficiaries of a certain policy about research results, i.e. about potential consequences of policy changes that the research may be suggesting. When discussing research financed from public funds, results should in principle be available to citizens without the unnecessary restrictions and added costs (certain caveats do exist in this matter, e.g. concerning privacy of research subjects). Besides this, research results should not be modified in any way as to be more aligned with certain political, cultural, or financial preferences or ideologies of the commissioners of the research, or its clients, funders, researchers, authors, or publishers. Moreover, it is ethical to incorporate other conflicting results from previous research findings and reflect on their relevance as to present a clearer and unbiased picture of the research subject.
  1. The principle of openness of data usage: Data obtained from human subjects deserves special attention. Participants must be informed about how their data will be used, who will have access to their data and information, where the data will be published, how long it will be stored, and finally, they should be given the opportunity to demand for the data to be deleted after a certain amount of time.
  1. The principle of access to source data: After research has been conducted, the owner of the data (whether the researcher or an organization) should allow for other researchers to have access to the source data collected during the research process. This allows for an independent evaluation of the methodological validity of the research and the quality of analysis and given conclusions, if necessary. Thus for instance, the British Economic & Social Research Council states in their ESRC Data Policy (2000) that all data should be available to a wider, interested audience. One of the consequences of allowing researchers access to data is that they are now usually required to present valid arguments on why they would want or need more data collection. In order to actually allow data access, the owners of data are obliged to store the data for a certain period of time, usually not shorter than three years. Certain approaches to data archiving highlight that before the actual archiving, there is a need to clearly define the life cycle of the data, to take into account legal ordinances, as different countries stipulate different time frames on how long data can be stored, and check the feasibility of the data being archived, since certain information can change (especially if the information is of a personal nature). However, some initiatives, like the British “data-archive” initiative, have the aim of long-term preservation of data on secure servers, practically for an indefinite period of time. Besides this, access to data of public significance should be allowed at reasonable or no cost as long as it does not influence commercial and other business interests of data owners.

Given that public policy research tries to understand complex social phenomena and that, like other forms of social science research, it can have implications for many individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions, it is necessary to clearly define and apply proper ethical standards and principles during and after the research process. However, the existence of such principles will not serve its purpose if researchers, analysts, authors, publishers, as well as the donors and clients are not acquainted with them. In order to ensure continuous and consistent practice of applying ethical principles in public policy research, it is necessary to define ethical guidelines on the level of organizations conducting the research. This can be done by taking into account established principles and existing guidelines in this area. Furthermore, procedures for implementing ethical guidelines need to be defined and control mechanisms established, as to ensure their enforcement. In this way, organizations and researchers will allow for greater quality of their inquiry in the domain of public policy.



American Psychological Association (2002). „Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct”. American Psychologist, 57(12), 1060–1073.

Cohen, A. I. (2014). Philosophy, Ethics, and Public Policy: An Introduction. Routledge.

Gutmann, A., and Thompson, D. (2005). Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments, 4th edn. Chicago: Nelson Hall/Thomson

Moran, M., Rein, M., & Goodin, R. E. (2008). The Oxford handbook of public policy. Oxford University Press.

Ritchie, Jane; Spencer, Liz (1994) “Qualitative data analysis for applied policy research”, in Alan Bryman and Robert G. Burgess (eds.): Analyzing Qualitative Data. London: Routledge.


[i] Klein, N. (2008). The shock doctrine. Toronto: Random House.