This is how we do research ethics at the SFM

At the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies (SFM), we take ethical questions serious. Here I share the guidelines I have put together for the institute in an attempt to formalize and clarify research ethics without becoming an administrative burden. The aim is to encourage all researcher to think about and take research ethics serious, and the guidelines are a synthesis of other ethics guidelines (duly acknowledged).

The guidelines begin with a short and uncontroversial list of ethical principles like “no harm to subjects and researcher” or “informed consent should normally be obtained”. Given that we often do commissioned research at the SFM, it was important to include “ensure that funders appreciate the ethical obligations of researchers”.

The core of the guidelines is a checklist with 11 question. Each question — like “Does the research involve sensitive topics?” — comes with a few examples, and there are three possible responses: yes, uncertain, no. Researchers can tick the appropriate boxes, but it proved useful to use numbers for “yes” and “uncertain” answers to facilitate cross-referencing with part 2 of the guidelines.

The checklist is followed by a list of common cases. This is an important feature of the ethics guidelines to reduce administrative burden. For example, a literature review does not normally require ethical clearance, nor does the secondary analysis of secondary data where individuals are not identifiable. This means that for many projects, the ethical checklist takes only a short moment.

Where some of the answers as “yes” or “uncertain”, researchers fill in part 2. Now more detail is required, including a brief description of the work, but normally the longest part is “Steps taken to address ethical issues”. Here the cross-references come in handy. If I identified 3 issues in part 1, I can now refer to them by number.

The end of the document includes a flowchart to clarify the procedure. In many cases, no checklist is needed, or the checklist can be put on file with only part 1 filled in. Where there are ethical issues, and part 2 is filled in, they are reviewed by the institutional board (“ComCoor”). The board has the possibility to add comments, and the document is put on file by the researcher. In case the board does not feel qualified enough, it can refer the project to the ethics commission of the University.

SMF Ethics Guidelines (PDF)

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