This is how we do research ethics at the SFM (update)

A while ago, I shared how we do research ethics at the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies (SFM). Given that we often do commissioned research at the SFM, it’s important that the administrative burden is kept low, but we do and want to take ethical questions serious. Here I share the updated guidelines that I have put together for the institute, recently further streamlined. The aim remains to encourage all researchers 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 flowchart to deal with the most common cases. The list of exempt cases is now more explicit, with the understanding that if researchers identify ethical questions in seemingly benign approaches such as a literature review (e.g. because of the way the research question is posed, or because of the funder) can require a more thorough reflection (and thus the checklist to be filled in).

The core of the guidelines remains 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.

Where some of the answers are “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.

An uncontroversial list of ethical principles like “no harm to subjects and researcher” or “informed consent should normally be obtained” is included at the end of the checklist.

With the streamlined design, for some projects the ethical checklist takes only a short moment (e.g. literature review, analysis of secondary data where individuals are not identifiable). For other projects, we can typically handle the situation at the institutional level (e.g. interviews), while occasionally we want to have a thorough examination by the ethics commission of the university (e.g. field experiments).

AS Checklist for Articles

Here’s a quite helpful checklist for research articles from the Academy of Sociology.

I guess ‘checklist’ is the wrong way to describe it; it’s more like a list of desiderata for good research articles to be considered before starting to write. I mean who’s going to go through 11 pages before submitting an article?

The points are quite helpful, but they are only starting points — follow the links and do your own research on the topics.


The reviewer raises an important point…

It’s common practice to respond to reviewer comments with the phrase “The reviewer raises an important point”, I’ve seen it recommended on many occasions. Today, I had this following gem:

Me (aka reviewer 1): Major point ….

Response: The reviewer raises an important point …

Didn’t I just say so?

How to blind your manuscript

I come across this ever so often when doing a review, and there are even journal guidelines giving bad advice on how to blind a manuscript for double-blind peer review.

A good guide can be found here at Oxford Univeristiy Press.

What gets me every time is violations of this:

Do not employ (Author 2016) and similar devices.

While it may look like a good way to anonymize, it actually encourages guessing who the author may be more than anything I know. Often it provides good clues, especially if we can read the titles in the reference list. The funny thing is that as a reviewer, typically I do not want to know who you are (at least not until I have completed the review).

The guidelines cited above are pretty clear:

  • do cite yourself if it is relevant
  • use appendices/supplements to describe methodology
  • do not use (Author 2019)
  • do not cite unpublished work