5.4 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 involves examining the way that research is conducted and how the findings will be used. In this section, we’ll consider research ethics from both angles.

Doing science the ethical way

As you now know, researchers must consider their own ethical principles and follow those of their institution, discipline, and 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 subject identification and recruitment, data collection and analyzation, as well as being transparent with the study’s ultimate findings.

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, the researcher assures their readers that they have conducted a legitimate study and that they didn’t simply come to whatever conclusions they 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 raise questions about the study’s legitimacy. 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 (https://www.art.com/products/p15063407512-sa-i6847806/dana-fradon-filing-cabinets-labeled-our-facts-their-facts-neutral-facts-disput-new-yorker-cartoon.htm?upi=PGQTTQ0) that depicts a set of filing cabinets that aptly demonstrates what we don’t want to see happen with regard to 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 cartoon insinuates that someone could open the file drawer of their choice and pick out the facts that they happen to like the most. While this may occur when using the unscientific ways of knowing described in Chapter 1, it is fortunately not how facts are discovered in social work, or any other science for that matter. There is a method to this madness that 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 may prove extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, to achieve with long-term ethnographic studies. Nevertheless, replication sets the standard that all social science researchers should provide as much detail as possible about the way conclusions are reached.

The word "honesty" visually constructed using other smaller words

Full disclosure also includes being honest with oneself and others about the strengths and weaknesses of a study. Being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your own work can help a researcher 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 readers 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, but medical researchers aren’t the only ones who need to be honest about their funding. For example, if we know 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. There are many ways that science can be understood and applied. Some use science to create laws and social policies, while others use it to understand themselves and those around them. Some people rely on science to improve the life conditions of themselves and others, while others may use it to improve their business or other undertakings. In any case, there are ethical ways to use science. We can use it to learn about the design and purpose of studies we want to utilize and apply. We can recognize the limitations of our scientific and methodological knowledge and analyze how this impacts our understanding of research. Further, we can learn to apply the findings of scientific investigation to the proper, relevant cases and populations.

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 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.


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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Scientific Inquiry in Social Work Copyright © 2018 by Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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