2 Research ethics

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, students must:

  • understand the role and importance of ethical research
  • be familiar with the application of ethical conduct during the research process
  • be aware of the Code of Professional Behaviour for Marketing Researchers.


What is research ethics?

Ethics is defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour, especially when this individual is a member of a professional body. Ethics are based on an individual’s choice and are not governed by law. Legal matters involve the law, and not adhering to them is punishable (e.g., drunk driving).  On the other hand, ethics are individuals’ principles and values such as,  accurately presenting information to customers. While ethical beliefs are held by individuals, they can also be reflected in the values, practices, and policies that shape the choices made by decision-makers on behalf of their organizations. Professions and organizations regularly establish a “Code of Ethics” that serves to guide the behaviour of members of the profession or organization.[1]

In Australia, The Research Society – the peak body for everyone involved or interested in the market, social, and opinion research – provides codes and guidelines regarding ethical conduct in research. All Research Society Members and Company and Client Partners must comply with the Code. It applies to the professional activities of Members and Partners. Company and Client Partner organizations are required to ensure that all individuals employed or engaged by them (whether Research Society Members or not) comply with this Code. The Research Society Code of Professional Behaviour (the Code) was introduced in 1955 and has been reviewed regularly since then. The Code is designed as a framework for self-regulation. Its aim is to foster public confidence in research and to demonstrate that activities carried out by Members are carried out in a professional and ethical manner.

Code of Professional Behaviour in Research

While industry associations have their set of codes and guidelines, any research undertaken at academic institutions involving human participants (or animals) has to obtain ethical clearance from the university’s Ethics Committees. Academic institutions also expect their researchers to abide by a code of practice to ensure integrity and responsibility during the research process. Some of the highest standards of conduct are expected from researchers by Australian universities and the Research Society. The key points are discussed below. A full document is available on The Research Society [2] and National Health and Medical Research Council websites [3].


Respect for all research participants is a key value that researchers and their organisations need to abide by. This is discussed in the context of respect for participants’ privacy, confidentiality, and sensitivity around cultural matters. Any agreements with research participants need to be fulfilled.


When conducting their professional activities, researchers must ensure that their work is carried out in accordance with appropriate scientific research principles, methods, and techniques. No doubt, this is a key requirement for all projects seeking ‘ethical approval’ at universities and research institutions. Research must be carried out honestly, following the recognised principles of research conduct. Research findings – whether favourable or unfavourable – must be communicated/disseminated – so they can contribute to better knowledge and understanding.

Misleading information

Researchers must not make false or misleading statements about their own or their organisation’s skills, experience, or activities. A researcher must not mislead participants when soliciting their assistance. It is acknowledged that all research causes some levels of discomfort and inconvenience. For instance, responding to lengthy surveys may result in annoyance for some respondents. At no stage should the researcher attempt to ‘hide’ the actual time needed for research participation. Similarly, some research questions may cause participants anxiety or distress. This could relate to a medical condition or religious views etc. Researchers need to be mindful of how to manage such a ‘risk’, even if they feel the likelihood of it happening is very small.

Distinguishing research from other activities

Any marketing activity aimed at individual participants, such as sales promotion, direct marketing, direct selling, and similar activities, must be clearly distinguished and separated from research. At all stages of the research process ( proposal development, data collection, analysis, and reporting) a researcher must never engage in activities that aim to manipulate, mislead, or coerce individuals.

Consent and voluntary participation

If the researchers intend to disclose identifiable research information about participants, they must obtain consent. Participants, for example, must be informed before observation techniques or recording equipment are used for a project.  At all stages of a project, participants’ participation is entirely voluntary and a participant must be able to voluntarily opt-out of providing information at any point during the data collection process.

Disclosure of participants’ information

Researchers must inform participants at the start of the project whether the project is anonymous or identifiable. If anonymous, a participants’ anonymity must be strictly maintained. If identifiable, participants must be informed at this stage of the purpose and the recipient of identifiable research information, unless there are methodological reasons not to do so at this point. Once the data has been collected, researchers must inform participants of the purpose and request that they reconfirm their consent for disclosure. Researchers must inform participants who will receive the research information and for what purpose it will be used.

Sugging and a related practice of frugging bring market research into disrepute. Undertake the following activity to guess what the two terms mean.


Consideration for vulnerable groups

At times information needs to be collected from specific groups of people. Such groups may consist of people who are pregnant, require constant medical care, or have a cognitive or physical disability. On other occasions, researchers may need to interview people who have been involved in illegal activities. Due consideration needs to be given in the design and conduct of research with such population segments. The well-being of both the participant and the researcher is of utmost importance.

When gathering information from children and young people, researchers must exercise extreme caution. Before gathering information, a parent or responsible adult’s permission must be obtained. Moreover, the child or young person’s safety, emotional and psychological security should be assured.

In some situations, a person can be in an unequal or dependent relationship (e.g., an employee of an organisation being asked to participate in a study by his employer) and may feel coerced into participating in a research study.  The researcher would need to consider all such situations and take steps to minimise the detrimental effect of such a situation on the study as well as on the participants’ relationships.

Data storage and security

Researchers must ensure the security of all project-related information. Researchers must take reasonable precautions to safeguard identifiable research data. Identifiable research data collected and stored in accordance with this Code must be kept for no longer than is necessary for the purpose for which the data was collected or further processed. When identifiable research information is no longer required, reasonable steps must be taken to destroy it or ensure that it is de-identified.



  1. Lumen Learning, Ethical and legal behaviour, n.d.
  2. The Research Society, Code of professional behaviour, 2022.
  3. National Health and Medical Research Council, National statement on ethical conduct of research: (NHMRC manual):2018.


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