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Scoping and Literature Review: Guidelines for Ethical Research Practice with Children and Young People


Recent years have seen an increase in interest and activity in social policy research involving children and young people as direct participants in research studies. More and more studies have sought to conduct research not only on and about children, but with them and for them. Across the globe, researchers are busy gathering children's experiences of all kinds, from bereavement and abuse to how public spaces can be made more 'child friendly', to quote just a few examples. Irrespective of the topic it is now almost obligatory to capture 'the child's perspective' in social policy research, with whole research programmes presently being funded that are dedicated to this aim. However, many researchers remain concerned about the ethical issues that emerge during the course of these activities. For example, although the principle of 'informed consent' to participate in a research study may be recognised, how can researchers ensure that young people are always able to exercise it? When researchers promise children confidentiality in research, what are the risks and how can they be minimised? What differences might a child's age, sex, social situation, or physical or mental health status make to ensuring that these principles are honoured?

An international meeting of research centres specialising in social policy research on children, young people and their families, was convened in 2001 by Chapin Hall Children's Research Centre, University of Chicago. This meeting provided an opportunity for senior researchers from centres in ten countries, including U.S.A., South Africa, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Brazil, Spain, Israel and the U.K., to discuss their organisational and research practices. The project arose directly out of one strand of debate that recurred consistently through the meeting: the emerging issues connected with developing and implementing ethical research practice in social policy research. PRB was funded to conduct a literature review by Chapin Hall Children's Research Centre. The work was intended as a preparatory, scene-setting exercise which we hope to use to inform the development of an international, cross-disciplinary set of guidelines for ethical research practice with children and young people.

What did the research focus on?

The research reviewed current developments in theoretical and other research work concerning ethical research practice with children and young people. The objectives of the review were firstly, to review and define key terms and concepts and provide an overview of current developments and knowledge in the field. Secondly, the review aimed to gather, describe and compare existing ethical guidelines, identifying and mapping shortcomings in their application to social policy research involving children and young people. Thirdly, the review aimed to identify key themes emerging from existing ethical codes or statements setting out principles for ethical conduct. The review also provided suggestions and recommendations to inform a future project that aims to develop concrete, international, inter-disciplinary guidelines for ethical research practice with children and young people.

What did the research involve?

Literature was collected using electronic databases and by carrying out hand searches of relevant journals. Existing ethical guidelines were qualitatively analysed to extract themes, commonly agreed principles and areas of disagreement or debate. Finally, the review provided a succinct summary of commonly agreed ethical principles that could be implemented in a relatively standardised way across cultural and professional boundaries.

Timescale and final product of the research

The review ran for five months from September 2003 to the end of January 2004. The main outputs of this research were a written report, giving conclusions and recommendations for the development of international ethical guidelines, and hopefully a booklet or journal article for publication.

Last updated January 2004