Childhood Studies Ethics in Research with Children
Ann Farrell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0070


Contemporary research with young children is informed by the growing multidisciplinary field of research ethics. While the discipline of ethics can be traced back to the Hippocratic school, its current applications in the worlds of children are gaining traction from a wide range of theorists, practitioners, and those involved in policy. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1979) has provided a robust platform for international attention to children’s rights to provision, protection, and participation in everyday contexts, including those in which research occurs. Most recently, the global pandemic fueled by the COVID-19 virus has brought into even sharper focus the need for ethical conduct of research cognizant of children’s rights. Understandings of research ethics and of children’s involvement in research relate to broader understandings of children and childhood drawn from developmental science, sociology, human geography, health sciences, and children’s human rights. Key understandings pertain to children’s competence to participate in research, to operate as reliable informants with respect to their own lives, to provide voluntary informed consent and dissent in research, and to make meaningful decisions about the nature and extent of their participation. The field is international and interdisciplinary, although bounded by legislative, policy, and jurisdictional requirements governing research—its conduct and dissemination. So, too, the critical work of ethics committees, whether in relation to health research or social research, is evidence of a sharpened focus on the governance of child research. Oxford Bibliographies offers a suite of perspectives, resources, and strategies to guide the researcher, practitioner, and policymaker and serves to challenge readers to interrogate diverse conceptual understandings, methodologies, and dissemination of research with and about children. Exploration of the suite opens up new possibilities for considering children’s rights to participation in matters that affect their lives and for children to be seen and heard in research.

General Overviews

Foundational 18th-century work by Immanuel Kant (Kant 2003, Kant 1997) remains a pivotal conceptual basis for human research ethics adopted in the twentieth century. Following World War II and the historic Nuremburg Military Tribunals, the Declaration of Helsinki (World Medical Association 2022) (originally published in 1964) laid the foundation for the significant body of work on children as active participants in research that emerged in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. This corpus is evidenced in Bourke 2018; Lundy, et al. 2022; and O’Reilly, et al. 2013. Attention is being devoted to the conduct of ethics committees within social sciences research as distinct from biomedical disciplines, as in the works Carniel, et al. 2022 and Head 2020.

  • Bourke, Roseanna, ed. Ethical and Inclusive Research with Children. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2018.

    This edited volume is devoted to the ethical conduct of educational research involving children and young people. It addresses ethical dilemmas faced when children and young people are included in research agendas within cultural, political, and social contexts of the lives of participants. The work highlights the importance of building trust in ethical engagement with young people and their families.

  • Carniel, Jessica, Andrew Hickey, Kim Southey, et al. “The Ethics Review and the Humanities and Social Sciences: Disciplinary Distinctions in Ethics Review Processes.” Research Ethics (2022).

    DOI: 10.1177/17470161221147202

    The article highlights the disciplinary distinctives of humanities and social science (HASS) research in contrast to biomedical research and the importance of ethical review that reflects the conceptualization of HASS research. The work considers the generative possibilities of greater collaboration between HASS researchers and ethics review boards (ERBs).

  • Head, George. “Ethics in Educational Research: Review Boards, Ethical Issues and Researcher Development.” European Educational Research Journal 19 (2020): 72–83.

    DOI: 10.1177/1474904118796315

    The article discusses the work of review boards approving educational and social science research and highlights the importance of researcher formation and development in the process of ethical review. Ethical research in education is seen as a moral rather than administrative process.

  • Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals; and, What Is Enlightenment? 2d ed. Translated by Lewis White Beck. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997.

    Kant’s foundational 1797 work provides readers with insight into what was seen as revolutionary thinking in describing ethics, or moral laws, as categorical imperatives.

  • Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

    A 1781 seminal work in philosophy, Kant’s classic offers a historical lens for framing the topic of ethical research.

  • Lundy, Laura, Michelle Templeton, and Katrina Lloyd. “Addressing Ethical Issues with Children: A Children’s Rights-Based Approach.” Ethical Research Involving Children (blog). 2 February 2022.

    Authors provide commentary on projects drawing on the child-rights-based approach to research. The work addresses the need for a process of compliance with children’s human rights including rights to participate without discrimination.

  • O’Reilly, Michelle, Pablo Ronzoni, and Nisha Dogra. Research with Children: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2013.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781526486653

    This work discusses the often overlooked matters associated with doing research with vulnerable children, such as those with learning disabilities and mental or physical health issues, or both, as well as with young offenders and looked-after children. The authors consider theoretical and practical issues in the design and conduct of child research.

  • World Medical Association. Declaration of Helsinki: Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects. Adopted by the 18th World Medical Association General Assembly, Helsinki, Finland, June 1964. Fernay-Voltaire, France: World Medical Association, 2022.

    The Declaration of Helsinki was originally published in 1964. The Nuremberg Military Tribunals drew the ten basic principles for ethical research with humans and mandated that research contribute to the good of society. The World Medical Association published principles concerned with research in the form of the Declaration of Helsinki. These principles came to frame ethical research in the decades that followed.

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