3.4 The practice of science versus the uses of science

Learning Objectives

  • Identify why researchers must provide a detailed description of methodology
  • Describe what it means to use science in an ethical way


Research ethics has to do with both how research is conducted and how findings from that research are used. In this section, we’ll consider research ethics from both angles.

Doing science the ethical way

As you should now be aware, researchers must consider their own personal ethical principles in addition to following those of their institution, their discipline, and their community. We’ve already considered many of the ways that social workers strive to ensure the ethical practice of research, such as informing and protecting subjects. But the practice of ethical research doesn’t end once subjects have been identified and data have been collected. Social workers must also fully disclose their research procedures and findings. This means being honest about how research subjects were identified and recruited, how exactly data were collected and analyzed, and ultimately, what findings were reached.

If researchers fully disclose how they conducted their research, then those who use their work to build research projects, create social policies, or make decisions can have confidence in the work. By sharing how research was conducted, a researcher helps assure readers she has conducted legitimate research and didn’t simply come to whatever conclusions she wanted to find. A description or presentation of research findings that is not accompanied by information about research methodology is missing some relevant information. Sometimes methodological details are left out because there isn’t time or space to share them. This is often the case with news reports of research findings. Other times, there may be a more insidious reason that that important information isn’t there. This may be the case if sharing methodological details would call the legitimacy of a study into question. As researchers, it is our ethical responsibility to fully disclose our research procedures. As consumers of research, it is our ethical responsibility to pay attention to such details. We’ll discuss this more in the next section.

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that depicts a set of filing cabinets that aptly demonstrates what we don’t want to see happen with research. Each filing cabinet drawer in the cartoon is labeled differently. The labels include such headings as, “Our Facts,” “Their Facts,” “Neutral Facts,” “Disputable Facts,” “Absolute Facts,” “Bare Facts,” “Unsubstantiated Facts,” and “Indisputable Facts.” The implication of this cartoon is that one might just choose to open the file drawer of her choice and pick whichever facts one likes best. While this may occur if we use some of the unscientific ways of knowing described in Chapter 1, it is fortunately not how the discovery of facts works in social work or in any other science for that matter. There actually is a method to this madness we call research.

Honesty in research is facilitated by the scientific principle of replication. Ideally, this means that one scientist could repeat another’s study with relative ease. By replicating a study, we may become more (or less) confident in the original study’s findings. Replication is far more difficult (perhaps impossible) to achieve in the case of ethnographic studies that last months or years, but it nevertheless sets an important standard for all social scientific researchers—that we provide as much detail as possible about the processes by which we reach our conclusions.

Full disclosure also includes the need to be honest about a study’s strengths and weaknesses, both with oneself and with others. Being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their own work can help researchers make reasonable recommendations about the next steps other researchers might consider taking in their inquiries. Awareness and disclosure of a study’s strengths and weaknesses can also help highlight the theoretical or policy implications of one’s work. In addition, openness about strengths and weaknesses helps those reading the research better evaluate the work and decide for themselves how or whether to rely on its findings. Finally, openness about a study’s sponsors is crucial. How can we effectively evaluate research without knowing who paid the bills?

The standard of replicability along with openness about a study’s strengths, weaknesses, and funders enable those who read the research to evaluate it fairly and completely. Knowledge of funding sources is often raised as an issue in medical research. Understandably, independent studies of new drugs may be more compelling to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) than studies touting the virtues of a new drug that happen to have been funded by the company who created that drug. But medical researchers aren’t the only ones who need to be honest about their funding. If we know, for example, that a political think tank with ties to a particular party has funded some research, we can take that knowledge into consideration when reviewing the study’s findings and stated policy implications. Lastly, and related to this point, we must consider how, by whom, and for what purpose research may be used.

Using science the ethical way

Science has many uses. Here, the word “use” means the ways that science is understood and applied (as opposed to the way it is conducted). Some use science to create laws and social policies; others use it to understand themselves and those around them. Some people rely on science to improve their life conditions or those of other people, while still others use it to improve their businesses or other undertakings. In each case, the most ethical way for us to use science is to educate ourselves about the design and purpose of any studies we may wish to use or apply, to recognize our limitations in terms of scientific and methodological knowledge and how those limitations may impact our understanding of research, and to apply the findings of scientific investigation only in cases or to populations for which they are actually relevant.

Social scientists who conduct research on behalf of organizations and agencies may face additional ethical questions about the use of their research, particularly when the organization for which a study is conducted controls the final report and the publicity it receives. There is a potential conflict of interest for evaluation researchers who are employees of the agency being evaluated. A similar conflict of interest might exist between independent researchers whose work is being funded by some government agency or private foundation.

So who decides what constitutes ethical conduct or use of research? Perhaps we all do. What qualifies as ethical research may shift over time and across cultures as individual researchers; disciplinary organizations; members of society; and regulatory entities, such as institutional review boards, courts, and lawmakers all work to define the boundaries between ethical and unethical research.


Key Takeaways

  • Conducting research ethically requires that researchers be ethical not only in their data collection procedures but also in reporting their methods and findings.
  • The ethical use of research requires an effort to understand research, an awareness of your own limitations in terms of knowledge and understanding, and the honest application of research findings.


Image attributions

honesty by GDJ CC-0



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Foundations of Social Work Research Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca L. Mauldin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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