Paper Review: Ethical considerations in social work research

Ana M. Sobočan, Teresa Bertotti & Kim Strom-Gottfried (2019) Ethical considerations in social work research, European Journal of Social Work, 22:5, 805-818, DOI: 10.1080/13691457.2018.1544117


This is a paper whose aim is to place is looking at the ethics of research through a specific social work lens. What is it that might make social work research and the ethical considerations of it, different from other types of research in other fields. Although there are books devoted specifically to this (Morris, 2006, D’Cruz and Jones, 2013, Hardwick and Worsley 2011 and many others) it is a useful introduction to some of the key tensions and considerations which exist in the field. Not least, for me anyway, because it comes from a perspective of authors from Slovenia, Trento and the United States where most of my reading has been UK-based.


In terms of methods, this is more of a piece combining literature relating to research ethics with some of the literature about social work research. Referencing BASW (British Association of Social Work) Code of Ethics and the IFSW (International Federation of Social Workers) Statement of Principles, it pulls apart from of the considerations that make social work research ethics different from research ethics, by adding an additional layer of professional responsibilities and values rather than by removing anything.

It does this with two case study examples illustrating where the values of a social worker as a professional may be at odds with the purity of the research process. In these two examples they are focusing on two particular ‘research values’ and explaining where the conflict could potentially arise.


The examples they give as ‘case study’ type relate to the principle of nonmaleficience. This basically means that the researcher should not cause any harm, obviously not intentionally but unintentionally as well through their research with people. The authors draw on this fundamental principle of bioethics where there may be medical treatments involved and extrapolate to social work where there may be ‘harm’ that isn’t easily identified.

In their example, they refer to research in the field of child protection where there were potentially sensitive issues discussed but the research was around understanding the quality of services delivered from the view of families who received services.

This research was carried out in a focus group and this presented some stresses regarding the role of confidentiality and the use of a group setting where sensitive issues were discussed.

The dilemma identified stemmed from the formation of self-help and support group between people who were the ‘research subjects’ during the focus groups. Should the professional stop these conversations where those who were using services were providing advice and support to each other, talking about how they ‘managed’ poor services and provided useful help within the group? Or should they return the conversation and the group focus to the research questions?

The researcher in question moved the focus back to their research and away from the emergent discussion about how participants may help each other, but the authors leave us with the question about whether this was a misuse of power on the part of the researcher who is also a social worker?

The second case given relates to a social worker/researcher whose roles potentially overlap. On the one hand, the social worker is the ‘agent of change’ but the role as a researcher is to document what is.

In this case, the social worker was researching same-gender parented families. The researcher had personal experiences in this area which is what had led them to the research and in order to aid conversation and discussion, told the participants, so they knew they were speaking to someone who intrinsically supported their families and relationships.

In some conversations, the researcher, on listening to some of the challenges and discrimination faced, was faced with the dilemma of whether they advocate for the families who are ‘research subjects’. Would that change the focus of the research so that some stories became stronger if they were to give a view that might help the family?

These were some of the dilemmas that the authors saw as stemming from the dual role of social work practitioner and researcher.

Key Learning

By presenting case studies, the authors invite us to ask questions about potential ethical dilemmas across social work research, and to explore how these issues may be addressed in writing about social work research, for example, in papers that are published. How do we establish that the research has benefited the participants and social work itself rather than provided a professional stepping stone for the author? This is a useful challenge to reflect on as I make my way through research in the field.

The authors looked at the role of social justice in social work research which had taken place and how often it may have been referenced in studies over the years. They are particularly interested in the role that virtue ethics may play in research with researchers, particularly in social work, exploring their motivations behind the research and ensuring the research is beneficial to participants who are not seen as a means to an end.

The paper asks that universities who train novice researchers from the first steps, engage with ethics by ensuring the language is ethics is central because language feeds attitude.

They present models they have considered about how to review ethical impact, particularly looking at some generic ones which they transpose to a social work framework. The authors then demonstrate how the dilemmas presented in the case studies might work through these frameworks.


I enjoyed reading this paper as it was clearly written and easy to follow. I enjoy reading about ethics anyway and placing research ethics within a social work context was immediately useful to me so it may have made my perception of interest stronger.

Some of the issues raised about ethics are specific to research. How do we choose research and subjects? Sometimes this is an individual decision, sometimes it relates to funding availability but it should have a purpose that serves the aims of the profession in terms of growth.

I enjoyed the case study examples as well, they were easy to follow in any context and not specific to social work in a particular area but they made the examples clearer.

Use in Practice

As I am increasingly moving into a different stage of research, this has provided practical contexts for me to reflect on how I design research to ensure that social work principles and standards are embedded in the design from the start, but it is also providing me with a template, through the models given, to review the research but also some of the work we might do on a day to day basis when we try to gather feedback or run QI-type projects, of being aware of any potential harm that may be caused.

It also reminded me of the need to look beyond some of the UK texts I usually turn to and broaden my understanding of professional literature internationally.


This was a useful paper both in terms of research ethics, where it is most relevant but also worth considering some of the points in a more general exploration of social work ethics and how we make decisions about priorities in a work role.

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