Ethics rules and procedures for political science research

Most funding agencies, professional associations and universities have established ethics rules and procedures for research (see e.g. here and here). By and large, and in global comparison, these rules and procedures are weaker with reference to political science than the life sciences. The main reason is that lab and field experiments affecting humans have become more popular in political science only in recent years. As to Switzerland, which I know best, I can’t think of any political science research project in recent years that voluntarily or involuntarily went through formal screening by a governmental or university-based ethics committee. (Note that I am not talking about codes of conduct concerning authorship, plagiarism, etc., but rules and procedures designed to protect the targets of research activity against negative effects that may result from such activity).

In my view, it is only a matter of time before some political science project in Switzerland runs into trouble on this account. Think of field-experiments in which politically contested information treatments affect political behavior, where privacy issues arise, or where informed prior consent is not possible.

My reading of my own university’s (ETH Zurich) current ethics committee guidelines is that field experiments in political science do not require formal approval by the committee because they are not covered by the committee’s mandate. Where to go next, assuming that I have an interest in obtaining “ethical cover” before I start a potentially sensitive research project? The Swiss Political Science Association? It has no rules and no committee that would be of any help here. The same holds for the Swiss National Science Foundation and existing federal or cantonal ethics committees in Switzerland.

The EU has established ethics rules that are relevant for social sciences research as well. So it should be quite easy to set up a tailor-made system for political science. Who could, should or will take the lead?

3 thoughts on “Ethics rules and procedures for political science research

  1. The SPSA has an ethics code, but I do not know if it stipulates anything about such cases. Recently the committee was requested to give its advice on a research project that raised similar issues.

  2. I recently was involved with a study through the R & D Agency of the Canadian military and the Royal Military College (RMC) of Canada.

    In both cases, ethical clearance was a required aspect of getting approval to conduct research.

    At least in Canada, the moment you want to “deal with people” in any way you must get ethical coverage. Here’s what RMC says on the matter:

    http://www.rmc.ca/aca/gsr-esr/reb-cer/index-eng.asp

    If you fail to get clearance when you should have, you’re looking at never getting research funding again, so the incentive is there.

  3. The Ethics Code if the Swiss Political Science Association SPSA, adopted in 1995, contains rules for conducting research, for example, informed consent etc. Obviously, this Code has only a very limited coverage and profile among SPSA membership.

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