Guidance notes for reviewers and policymakers on covert, deceptive and surveillance research

Ron Iphofen*, Simon Kolstoe, Kevin Macnish, Paul Spicker, Dónal O’Mathúna

*Corresponding author for this work

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Covert research is research which has not been declared to research participants or subjects. Surveillance research is a form of covert research which involves undeclared monitoring of a subject’s actions and/or their data which may or may not be personal. Deceptive research is research whose nature has been misrepresented to the subject; it may be covert, but more usually it is not. Deception may form an element in any research approach. Covert, surveillance and deceptive research are often treated as raising similar ethical concerns, but they are different kinds of activity. Each category of research includes variable forms of data gathering, analysis and reporting, and therefore raises a variety of ethical issues, some distinct and some overlapping.

Care must be taken with a great deal of existing guidance and advice on these types of research. Some guidance can include misunderstandings of the nature of covert, surveillance and deceptive research, and should not be endorsed. For example, much advice suggests that these forms of enquiry are rare, have always been rare and that alternative methods should always be preferred. This is not the case. Most of the chapters in this volume contain some degree of challenge to that sort of advice. A great deal of research, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, has benefitted from either one or a combination of these approaches. A lengthy tradition, going back at least to the 1940s, uses these kinds of approaches. Indeed, it might be said that ALL public research has some undisclosed elements.

Research proposals which include methods that do not disclose that research is being done, or do not obtain full informed consent from participants, often raise ethical concerns for reviewers. Equally policymakers and their advisors may have concerns about either using or commissioning evidence from surveillance, covert or deceptive research. The following points are provided as a concise summary of the issues addressed in greater detail throughout the open access volume within which these notes are first produced (Iphofen, R., & O'Mathúna, D., (Eds.). (2022). Ethical issues in covert, security and surveillance research (Advances in Research Ethics and Integrity, Vol. 8). Bingley: Emerald Publishing). These considerations were written with a broad set of reviewers in mind, including those reviewing proposals under consideration for funding, ethics ‘approval’, ethics ‘opinion’ or publication. We do not provide simple categorisations of specific research methods as either ethical or unethical, but offer these considerations as prompts to facilitate further reflection and consideration of the details of each proposal that will allow more complete assessments of the proposed research.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEthical Issues in Covert, Security and Surveillance Research
EditorsRon Iphofen, Dónal O’Mathúna
PublisherEmerald Publishing Limited
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781802624113
ISBN (Print)9781802624144
Publication statusPublished - 9 Dec 2021

Publication series

NameAdvances in Research Ethics and Integrity
PublisherEmerald Publishing
ISSN (Print)2398-6018


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