Best-laid plans

Working ethically involves more than thinking about ethical matters when planning your project and completing a checklist. That is only the start. No matter how carefully you plan, things sometimes happen that you had not predicted

Throughout your project, you need to be aware of how you are working, looking out for potential problems and thinking how to avoid them. You should aim to work carefully and respectfully and, as far as possible, avoid upsetting people. If unfortunate things happen, you need act swiftly to minimise the damage.

The following two case studies illustrate some of the sorts of things that can happen in the course of a project. In each of these examples, the student carrying out the project was in a difficult position and had to think ‘What is the right thing to do?’

Case study 5: Weathering

For her EPQ, Petra was investigating the weathering of materials used for buildings in her local area. Her research question was ‘Does atmospheric pollution in towns increase the rate at which building materials become damaged by weathering?’ Her project involved laboratory work with samples of stone and other materials in different conditions, as well as internet research. She also wanted to gather data on how materials weathered naturally over time. She realised that one way to do this would be to look at the weathering of gravestones in a local churchyard, which contained a large number of gravestones with dates ranging from a few hundred years ago to the present day and showing various degrees of weathering.

Petra explained her project to the church verger and vicar, who gave her permission to gather data using the gravestones. To help with her data collection, she took a few friends along to the churchyard. As they were working, cars drew up outside the church for a funeral. Some of the mourners noticed Petra and her friends at work and became quite upset, thinking that the students were being disrespectful. Petra had to decide, quickly, what to do.

Activity 6: What to do?

Here are some things that Petra might have considered doing:

  • explain to the mourners that she had permission, and continue working
  • explain that she had permission, apologise for any upset, and leave
  • continue working without saying anything
  • leave immediately without saying anything
  • write a letter apologising for any upset

Working in a pair or small group, discuss what you think Petra should have done. Suggest whether Petra could have done anything to prevent the problem arising.

Case study 6: Sports

Seb’s main interest was in sport. For his EPQ he was organising a event at his school with the aim of getting younger students to take part in sporting activities. As part of his preparation, he used a questionnaire to research students’ attitudes towards sport and to find out what might encourage them to take part in sports activities.

With the permission of their teachers, Seb gave his questionnaire to some Year 9 classes, explaining to the students that their responses would be confidential and that any information included in his project report would be anonymous. When he came to look at the completed questionnaires, he found that some students had written silly and hurtful comments about a teacher. Seb had to decide what do to.

Activity 7: Show and tell?

Here are some things that Seb might have considered doing:

  • nothing – analyse the questionnaires as if the comments were not there
  • destroy the relevant questionnaires and analyse the rest
  • ask his friends or family what to do
  • identify the students and tell them their comments were unacceptable
  • tell the teacher what had been written
  • show the comments to his EPQ supervisor

Working in a pair or small group, discuss what you think Seb should have done.

Seb collected the questionnaires himself and stored them in a secure place. Discuss the problems that might have arisen if he had asked the teacher or another student to collect the questionnaires for him.

The Research Ethics Guidebook contains other examples of problems arising during research, and explains how the researchers addressed them. 

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Go Further: A practical guide to extended science projects’ in October 2016.

Statistics and maths, Careers, Psychology
Go Further: A practical guide to extended science projects
Education levels:
16–19, Independent research projects, Continuing professional development