Ethics in International studies

Is ethics relevant to research in international studies?
A recent scandal resulting from a researcher’s misconduct draws attention to the need to consider ethics in international research, just like all other research.

Any research has the potential to disrupt the way things are in society, and for individuals. Before you start planning your own research, the effects on others has to be considered.

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Ethical principles to keep in mind

Research Merit & Integrity

  • Justifiable by its benefit:

Of course, the benefits of scientific research to science and society are that it advances scientific knowledge and can contribute to the welfare of society. A risk to society is that research results could be misunderstood or misapplied with harmful consequences.

  • Conducted and supervised by researchers with experience, qualifications and competence:

Researchers must act responsibly and with integrity. This means carrying out their research in a thorough and competent manner, meeting their professional obligations, and being truthful. Acting with integrity is important because it promotes trust, which is an essential element of all effective human relationships. Misconduct can harm trust towards the entire research community.


  • Fair distribution of benefits and burdens:

Researchers must conduct their research in a just manner. They should treat their participants fairly, for example, by giving them adequate compensation for their participation and making sure that benefits and risks are distributed across all participants.

Fair treatment in recruitment

  • Respect for Human Beings

Researchers must respect people’s rights and dignity as human beings. This is particularly important if your study involves participants (who fill surveys, participate in interviews, or join focus groups). University research ethics guidelines mean you will need to consider the following elements:

  • Informed consent:

This means that researchers obtain and document people’s agreement to participate in a study after having informed them of everything that might reasonably be expected to affect their decision. You will need to make participants aware of what the research is for, what it will require of them (for example, how much time a focus group will take), what the risks are (for example, that they may be confronted with strong opinions of others), and how you will address them (for example, you will facilitate the discussion and make sure it remains civilised, and you provide the details of a free counseling service if they need support afterwards).

  • Voluntary participation:

Participants have the right to make their own choices and take their own actions free from coercion. This means that if you have a position of power, you may not exploit to make people participate in your research. For example, if you are a manager in a fast-food shop, and you would like to interview your employees about their views on refugee integration, you must make sure they participate voluntarily. You can’t make their participation part of their job! You may have to ask someone else to conduct and transcribe the interviews, so you don;t know who participated and who did not. That way, employees will not feel pressured to participate.

  • Confidentiality:

Essentially this is an agreement not to disclose participants’ personal information without their consent or some appropriate legal authorisation. You need to make sure that participants’ identities are protected even when the study is over. Any information you may have of participants needs to be securely stored, or securely destroyed after an appropriate time.

  • Anonymity:

Sometime, even one’s participation in the study should be confidential. Also, some international research involves controversial issues, and in some countries, this could have serious consequences. For example, if you interview Saudi students about their drinking behaviour while in Australia, you will need to make sure that they cannot be recognised from the evidence you provide in your work. You may need to use pseudonyms, anonymise the name of their city of residence (“a regional city in Australia” rather than “Wollongong”), and remove any identifiers they may provide during the interview (“my family members do not like that I drink” instead of “My three older brothers think I should not drink”).


  • Assessing harms (harm minimisation) and benefits

The benefits of the research must be greater than its potential harm.
Sometimes it can be very hard to predict the benefits of the research, so we have to think as broadly as possible about the harm. For example, if you ask people to participate in a survey, the obvious “harm” is the time they invest in it.
But there may be other issues: Is the survey presented as part of an foreign aid program? could participants feel pressure to participate in it, in fear that if they don’t the aid program will be stopped? If this is a potential risk, as a researcher, it is your duty to inform participants that their refusal to participate will not affect their reception of aid.


Reflection activity

  • Think of your research topic or research area. Which of the ethical dimensions are most relevant to you?
  • Are you aware of any cases of misconduct or unethical research in your area? Search “ethical misconduct” + “your research area” and take a look at the results.