Issues in Establishing and Enforcing Professional Research Ethics and Standards

ABSTRACT - Several issues are examined that are central to the establishment and enforcement of research ethics and standards: the question of who benefits from the standards; methods of formulating standards and codes; the costs associated with enforcement. Examples are drawn from recent work on the Standards Committee of the American Association for Public Opinion Research.


Charles C. McClintock (1977) ,"Issues in Establishing and Enforcing Professional Research Ethics and Standards", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 258-260.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 258-260


Charles C. McClintock, Cornell University


Several issues are examined that are central to the establishment and enforcement of research ethics and standards: the question of who benefits from the standards; methods of formulating standards and codes; the costs associated with enforcement. Examples are drawn from recent work on the Standards Committee of the American Association for Public Opinion Research.


A number of professional associations, representing a wide range of social scientific inquiry, are currently wrestling with the related issues of establishing and enforcing standards for ethical and scientifically responsible research practices. A series of recent meetings related to a project on confidentiality in social science research sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation (Carroll and Knerr, 1975), illustrated the variety of association positions on these matters. Representatives from groups such as the Oral History Association, American Psychological Association, American Economic Association, Association of American Law Schools and the American Association for Public Opinion Research indicate that while there may be a relatively uniform desire for ethical codes as a matter of principle, there is little agreement on the specific content or on the means for enforcement of such codes. Indeed, some of the groups represented on the project have no codes of research ethics or standards, while others who have such codes have no mechanisms for enforcement. There are several groups (e.g. AAPOR, American Psychological Association) who have procedures for and experience with the enforcement of research standards.

There are several key issues that are pertinent to the establishment and enforcement of standards for professional conduce in research. Each issue will be briefly explored with particular reference to experience with AAPOR's Code of Professional Ethics and Practices, the Schedule of Procedures for dealing with alleged violations of the Code, and the Standards for Reporting Public Opinion Polls.


Who Benefits

On the basis of a cursory examination, it is difficult to separate the concern of social science associations for established codes of research conduct from the social-legal atmosphere surrounding issues of privacy, confidentiality and the rights of research subjects in general. A cynical interpretation would claim that the interest of professional associations was directly related to the threat of or actuality of governmental intrusion into research activities. While there may be some truth to this, it is also clear that professional research codes were around before the development of any widespread concern at the Federal level regarding the research activities of social scientists. Regardless of what caused them, the most immediate benefits of professional research standards to those who participate as subjects in the research. [There are a variety of terms that are advocated as less condescending substitutes for the term subjects (e.g. respondents, informants, participants). We do not necessarily interpret the terminology as indicative of a demeaning status, and will use the labels interchangeably.]

These benefits would not be limited to protection from abusive coercion, stress, deception, and the like, but would extend to the realm of the interpretation of research findings. The AAPOR Code, for instance, includes specific principles that apply to the design of research, collection, processing and analysis of data, and the interpretations that are given to the results of research. The AAPOR Standards Committee has attempted to communicate these principles to the general public in order to protect individuals from being mislead by those who would claim research status for pure advocacy activities. In this sense, AAPOR attempts to apply the Code to those who would claim research status for pure advocacy activities. In this sense, AAPOR attempts to apply the Code to those -who are outside the organization as well as its own members. While there is no enforcement power against non-AAPOR groups or individuals, the very existence of the Code gives credibility to any public expressions of concern that AAPOR might make.

The researcher is also a clear beneficiary of professionally promulgated research standards. The existence of professional standards on the protection of subjects' confidentiality can be a significant aid to researchers whose data are under legal subpoena, and who are not covered by the few limited statutory protections that now exist (Feuillan, 1976). Association standards will also serve to influence the content of statutory privileges for research data, as well as other emerging forms of governmental regulation related to social science research (e.g. L.E.A.A. requirements for researchers who are under contract).

Clearly, the clients who sponsor research and society in general will benefit from a situation in which the representativeness and validity of data are maximized. Tybout and Zaltman (1974) have argued that research data will be more valid if produced under conditions favorable to the rights of subjects. Their position centers around the assumption that if subjects are fully informed about research procedures and are confident that their data will remain confidential, they will be more likely to participate openly and honestly in the study. Whether or not these procedures will always lead to improved response rates and more accurate data is to some extent an empirical question; one that the Census Bureau has contracted out for extensive investigation. It is safe to say that improving the public image of social science research can do no harm. Based on the findings of the American Statistical Association's Conference on Surveys of Human Populations (1973), it seems certain that professional associations have a lead role to play in creating this image, and their attitudes towards ethical research practices will be a critical aspect of that role. There is no doubt that AAPOR and its Standards Committee have made good use of the Code of Professional Ethics and Practices and the Standards for Reporting Public Opinion Polls in Enhancing the meaning and values of survey research as a uniquely important aspect of a democratic society.

Methods of Formulation

There are some who would agree that benefits do not naturally derive from ethical standards as applied to research practices. The question is not so much whether we should have professional research standards, but rather how they should be formulated. Gergin (1973), for one, has stated that questions of harm and benefit from research procedures should be an empirical question based on subjects' evaluations. Indeed, several researchers have followed this advice in evaluating subject's and researchers' perceptions of stress, discomfort, or immorality associated with a wide range of potential experimental procedures (Sullivan and Deiker, 1972; Fart and Seaver, 1975), and in examining the effects of informed consent procedures on dependent measures (Resnick and Schwartz, 1973). One general finding among these studies is that research subjects had greater tolerance than researchers for the procedures in question. On the issue of informed consent, Rubin and Mitchell (1976) have seriously questioned how far the researcher should go, with the fear that one might create in the subjects some of the potential ill effects of a study through a self-fulfilling prophecy process.

The point to be emphasized in that the actual formulation of ethical standards can be very difficult in several ways. First, there is the question of what is good and bad practice. In some instances, as noted above, there are those who would argue that this is an empirical rather than a philosophical/ethical question. Second, there is the problem of defining terms. Is it deception to tell a respondent that an interview will last thirty minutes when it may go for forty-five minutes? Is it a form of coercion to suggest that the results of a study may be helpful to the residents of the sample area, as a means of gaining respondent cooperation? Is it a violation of confidentiality to pursue 100% validation even if it means checking with someone other than the respondent? Finally, even where there is agreement that a questionable procedure is being used, there may be competing values that argue for its ethical justification. For instance, Miller's (1972) review of the literature has shown that under many circumstances there were no procedural substitutes for deception that would produce equally valid data. To ban deception as a research practice is to sacrifice the values of the investigator's commitment to valid research and the potential societal benefits that might derive from the research.

A solution to these problems lies in the methods used by the professional association to establish and publish research standards. AAPOR is quite through in its dissemination of its Code. However, in comparison to the American Psychological Association, for example, there is relatively little context provided in the AAPOR Code itself. The APA Code provides, as background information, operational examples of terms and principles which not only helps with the definitional problems, but also gives the reader a sense of the competing values that always exist in a decision about the conduct of research. The values in competition may be within the Code itself (e.g. maximizing validity vs. maximizing subjects' rights), or they may exist in a broader social context (e.g. researchers vs. legislators vs. subjects vs. courts). The APA Code is exemplary in terms of the extensive documentation and contextual discussion surrounding each principle. While the method is undoubtedly expensive in t/me and money, it serves as a more adequate educational too -- an ideal towards which any code of standards should strive.

Observance and Enforcement

The method for formulation of a professional standards code will be one important factor in its observance, and will also have a bearing on the cost and effectiveness of enforcement. To issue a list of prescriptions and proscriptions is to take only the first step in dealing with the maintenance of ethical principles. As suggested in the previous section, extensive documentation of a code may provide the necessary sense of context for judging whether to pursue an alleged act of misconduct. The alternative is to form ad hoc committees who will have to create that sense of context in each instance. The cost will have to enter at some point if enforcement is to be taken seriously.

An essential feature of any enforcement proceeding is an established set of procedures. AAPOR and its Standards Committee labored for several years to define a Schedule of Procedures for dealing with alleged violations of the Code of Ethics. The procedures must be fair to the accused and the accuser, they must be legally sound, they should strive for efficiency, and they will have to take account of the organizational structure of their parent association.

Needless to say, without enforcement any set of professional standards are likely to become window dressing. They will not be taken as seriously be courts or legislatures, and they will fall short of their educational goals. This is not to suggest that well documented, democratically derived standards cannot be useful on their own. However, in light of the emerging Federal concern with the regulation of social science research (Carroll, 1976), an association's active engagement in self-regulation would serve as an important protection against the loss of professional autonomy in research activities.

There are several costs that can be anticipated in connection with enforcement. One, that was alluded to earlier, has to do with a tightening of the boundaries of acceptable research practice. As was suggested in the minority report of AAPOR's investigation into the Opinion Research Corporation's consumer advocacy poll (AAPOR, 1976), there may be certain methodological practices that are better judged in the scientific market place than in the confines of an ad hoc committee. This is an issue that cannot be separated from questions about methods of formulation and decisions about the focus of benefits.

There are also the very burdensome administrative costs associated with enforcement. Recent experience with AAPOR Standards Committee suggests that the salience of a code of ethics and its active enforcement require a substantial time commitment from a committee chairman. He or she must not only call matters to the attention of the committee and the association's leadership and general membership, but they must also respond to inquiries, complaints and the like. Individual committee members will also need to make sacrifices of time and energy. There are the direct costs associated with developing, publicizing and enforcing a code -- telephone, travel, printing and re-printing, legal consultation. There are less direct and more psychological costs such as the reasonable apprehensions of association officers regarding lawsuits stemming from enforcement proceedings. The association can obtain indemnification insurance but that too is a cost, and requires something more of a psychological commitment to the idea of standards for professional conduct in research. To make professional standards a visible part of an association's creed requires the recognition that all of these costs are inevitable, and the commitment from the association's leadership that the benefits are worth the sacrifice.


American Association for Public Opinion Research, Report of the Ad Hoc Evaluation Committee Appointed to Investigate the Survey Conducted by Opinion Research Corporation on the Issue of Consumer Advocacy, (New York: Author, 1976).

American Statistical Association, Report of the ASA Conference on Surveys of Human Populations, Washington, D.C.: Author, 1973).

James D. Carroll, "Confidentiality in Social Science Research, Final Report," (Department of Public Administration, Syracuse University, 1976).

James D. Carroll and Charles R. Knerr, "A Report of the ASPA Confidentiality in Social Science Research Data Project," PS, 8 (Summer, 1975), 258-261.

James L. Fart and W. Burleigh Seaver, "Stress and Discomfort in Psychological Research: Subject Perceptions of Experimental Procedures," American Psychologist, 30 (July, 1975), 770-773.

Jacques Feuillan, "Every Man's Evidence Versus a Testimonial Privilege for Survey Researchers," Public Opinion Quarterly, 40 (Spring, 1976), 39-50.

Kenneth J. Gergin, "The Codification of Research Ethics: Views of a Doubting Thomas," American Psychologist, 28 (October, 1973), 907-912.

Arthur G. Miller, "Role Playing: An Alternative to Deception?: A Review of the Evidence," American Psychologist, 27 (July, 1972), 623-636.

Jerome H. Resnick and Thomas Schwartz, "Ethical Standards as an Independent Variable in Psychological Research," American Psychologist, 28 (February, 1973), 134-139.

Zick Rubin and Cynthia Mitchell, "Couples Research as Couples Counseling: Some Unintended Effects of Studying Close Relationships," American Psychologist, 31 (January, 1976), 17-25.

David S. Sullivan and Thomas E. Deiker, "Subject Experimenter Perceptions of Ethical Issues in Human Research," American Psychologist, 28 (July, 1973), 587-591.

Alice M. Tybout and Gerald Zaltman, "Ethics in Marketing Research: Their Practical Relevance," Journal of Marketing Research, XI (November, 1974), 357-368.



Charles C. McClintock, Cornell University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04 | 1977

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