In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Research Ethics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Ethics in Scholarship

Social Work Research Ethics
Jeane W. Anastas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0124


As research activity in social work has increased, so has attention to ethics in research. Research ethics guide the relationship between researcher(s) and research participant(s), researchers’ relationships to the organizations and communities in which their studies are conducted, and relationships among researchers and scholars. They also safeguard the integrity of knowledge development and dissemination activities, serving society by ensuring that science generates findings that can be trusted. Social work research adheres to the ethical principles and practices that guide the responsible conduct of research (RCR) in the biomedical and social sciences. However, social work research must also reflect the professional and ethical aims of all social work activities.

General Overviews

In the social sciences and in biomedical fields, research ethics are now generally termed responsible conduct of research (RCR), and social work research is guided by the prevailing standards in these fields. Writings on RCR or ethics in social work research either aim to provide an overview of all of the important issues in the field (Anastas 2008, Council on Social Work Education 2007, Nichols-Casebolt 2012) or they argue that the ethical commitments of social work as a profession impose some additional requirements on RCR in social work (Antle and Regehr 2003, Barsky 2010, Butler 2002, Hugman 2010). The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics (National Association of Social Workers 2008), used in social work and social work education in the United States, has content addressed to research and scholarship. The concept of RCR is useful because it includes both investigator behavior toward those being studied and the ethics of scholarship as they apply not only to specific empirical studies but also to mentoring, collaboration, and peer review (Nichols-Casebolt 2012, Shamoo and Resnik 2009). Social work research is moving to defining research ethics more broadly as RCR and emphasizing the virtues required in research, not just the avoidance of harms to participants (Macfarlane 2009). All general research methods texts and research handbooks in social work and related fields have sections or chapters on ethics in research that are useful. The works included here make research ethics or the responsible conduct of research their sole focus.

  • Anastas, J. W. 2008. Ethics in social work research. In The encyclopedia of social work. Edited by T. Mizrahi and L. E. Davis, 151–158. 20th ed. Vol. 2. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

    This entry describes the general ethical principles guiding research involving human beings; the ethical review of studies involving human beings; ethical issues in research on vulnerable populations such as children and adolescents, recipients of care, and other socially marginalized groups; plagiarism, authorship, and conflict of interest; and current topics such as the use of clinical and audio/video data, participatory action research, and Internet-based studies.

  • Antle, B. J., and C. Regehr. 2003. Beyond individual rights and freedoms: Metaethics in social work research. Social Work 48.1: 135–143.

    DOI: 10.1093/sw/48.1.135

    Written in the Canadian context, this article gives an excellent overview of ethical issues that must be addressed in all social work research, with tips on how to reduce risks to participants. It ends with some additional points to be addressed, such as whether the research will contribute to efforts to improve the situations of vulnerable people and benefit the group being studied.

  • Barsky, A. E. 2010. The virtuous social work researcher. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics 7.1.

    Using a virtue ethics framework, Barsky argues that ethical social work research. incorporates three virtues informing social work: caring, generosity of spirit, and concern for others. Caring social work researchers do research that “promote[s] social justice, human growth, and social development.” Generosity of spirit leads researchers to value the expertise of those studied. Trustworthiness and fortitude are needed in protecting research participants.

  • Butler, I. 2002. A code of ethics for social work and social care research. British Journal of Social Work 32:239–248.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/32.2.239

    The ethical principles guiding social science research are congruent with social work ethics, but Butler argues that a “four principles plus scope of practice position” would add social work’s commitment to social justice and empowerment of the marginalized. Two of the fifteen items in his research code of ethics refer to “empower[ing] service users” and “achiev[ing] research agendas that respect fundamental human rights and . . . aim towards social justice” (p. 245).

  • Council on Social Work Education. 2007. National Statement on Research Integrity in Social Work. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

    This document covers issues in the protection of the people and communities studied; responsibilities to trainees and mentees; how to avoid or handle conflicts of “interest and commitment”; data sharing and ownership; publication and authorship issues, including peer review; and research misconduct. The statement is consonant with, but helpfully goes beyond, the research ethics discussion in the NASW Code of Ethics (National Association of Social Workers 2008).

  • Hugman, R. 2010. Social work research and ethics. In The SAGE handbook of social work research. Edited by I. Shaw, K. Briar-Lawson, J. Orme, and R. Ruckdeschel. 149–163. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    In addition to discussing institutionalized procedures to protect human research participants, Hugman analyzes research ethics in terms of duty, consequences, and character (“virtue ethics” or the “ethics of care”). The chapter includes case examples and analyzes the power relations between researchers and study participants, arguing that ethics procedures need to be “more subtle . . . and responsive” throughout the research process.

  • Macfarlane, B. 2009. Researching with integrity: The ethics of academic enquiry. New York: Routledge.

    Using a “virtues” approach to research integrity, six “best practices” are discussed: courage, respectfulness, resoluteness, sincerity, humility, and reflexivity. “Vices” can ensue from deficits or excesses in these qualities. These are illustrated in the phases of the research process, from framing a study; negotiating access, support, and consent; generating data and ideas; creating an account of the findings; disseminating findings; and reflecting on what has been learned.

  • National Association of Social Workers. 2008. Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

    Subsection (5.02) of the Code of Ethics, titled “Evaluation and Research,” lists sixteen essential principles. Standard 1.03 covers informed consent to treatment—principles that also apply to consent to research participation. The section on confidentiality does not note that research data enjoys less protection under state law, but informing people about the limits of confidentiality (harm, mandated reporting laws) does apply to research.

  • Nichols-Casebolt, A. 2012. Research integrity and responsible conduct of research. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195378108.001.0001

    This first writing in social work based in the concept of the responsible conduct of research includes chapters addressing mentors and mentoring, professional collaboration and conflicts, data management and data sharing, and publication processes and authorship. It includes discussion of how new technologies are affecting the collection, storage, and sharing of research data; the increasing use of biological specimens in social work research; and international and cross-cultural research.

  • Shamoo, A. E., and D. B. Resnik. 2009. Responsible conduct of research. 2d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195368246.001.0001

    The first edition of this book helped establish the concept of RCR. The expanded second edition spans social responsibility in research and specific issues, including discussion of the protection of research participants, including the especially vulnerable. It includes ethical issues in mentoring and collaboration, authorship, publication and peer review, intellectual property, misconduct like the fabrication or falsification of data, conflicts of interest, and international research.

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