Sneaky and dishonest?: Covert research a much maligned, forgotten jewel in the crown

Posted in Guidance by Julie Northam

Prof Jonathan Parker, School of Health and Social Care, reflects on covert reseach methods and their use in the social sciences…

There have been a wide range of important studies that have used covert methods, that have collected data from people who do not know they are being studied at the time, who would not give permission or, had permission been sought, where the data may have been dubious or biased. Researchers justify their actions by stating the need to gain access to inaccessible groups, to illuminate important social issues, and to uncover the unpalatable. Famous examples include, of course, Rosenhan’s[1] study of the ways in which mental illness may be attributed by location and situation (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/179/4070/250.short), Holdaway’s[2] insider research into the police, and Hunter S. Thompson’s[3] research into Hell’s Angel communities.

Covert methods have fallen out of vogue and are often difficult to get through postgraduate committees or, indeed, university and other research ethics committees, which increasingly promote a risk averse and pedestrian approach to scrutiny. The reasons for this include the important focus, within disciplinary ethical codes, academic and professional ethics committees, on informed consent, and promote a seemingly natural desire for excising duplicity and dishonesty from data collection in research. However, there are arguments that suggest covert methods may not always be dishonest or duplicitous and, indeed, not to use them in certain circumstances, may be, unwittingly, unethical (see Parker et al., forthcoming[4]).

The use of undercover reporting in investigative journalism, for example relating to NHS hospitals and patient treatment, and more recently non-NHS hospitals; whilst not research, illuminates many hidden and dubious practices in current society, representing some of the social good that can be drawn from such methods, and indeed ‘impact’ (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/226545.php).

Where do our research ideas come from in the social sciences? Often from lectures and dialogue within these with students, from supervision, and observations we make in everyday life. That we have collected initial soundings and thoughts from these settings and situations, which has not been scrutinised or completed without informed consent is not questioned: it would be ridiculous to assume we needed informed consent to undertake our daily practices!

There are inherent dangers in covert research which cannot be nor should not be ignored. We have a responsibility as a university to our research students and academic staff and their safety and there are, in some cases, dangers of physical violence or personal abuse in researching undercover. There are also potential reputational and relational issues for universities to consider. These risks must be assessed but we must also ask who shoulders the responsibility for the risk and whether it is important to support cover research because of its illuminative, social importance. We must acknowledge too that some unpalatable areas or risky areas can be negotiated, such as in Fielding’s[5] study of the National Front. However, permissions themselves may detract from the study quality, raise the potential for social desirability responses and selecting data collection methods requires careful thought for the best research and best practices.

As we strive for research excellence and relevance here at BU, we should grapple enthusiastically with the issues and challenges involved in covert research and back it wholeheartedly where its importance is clear. A flaccid response can lose the excitement and challenge involved in the production of new knowledge from in depth engagement with individuals, groups and societies. URECs need to highlight legal challenges, of course. Current mental capacity legislation (which my own research for the Social Care Institute for Excellence and Department of Health suggests transposes ethical scrutiny drawn from moves to protect the public from dangerous medical experimentation Parker et al. 2010[6]) demands ethical scrutiny by appropriate committees, but used well can promote and support ethically-driven knowledge creation and exploration of hidden issues that require methods that cannot and should not involve informed consent. To avoid or proscribe such research methods in all cases leads us down a safe but uninteresting and, potentially, unethical, track.


[1] Rosenhan, D.L. (1973) On being sane in insane places, Science, 179, 4070, 250-258.

[2] Holdaway, S. (1983) Inside the British Police: A force at work, Oxford: Blackwell.

[3] Thompson, H.S. (2003/1965) Hell’s Angels, London: Penguin.

[4] Parker, J., Penhale, B. and Stanley, D. (forthcoming) Research ethics review: social care and social science research and the Mental Capacity Act 2005, Ethics and Social Welfare

[5] Fielding, N. (1982) Observational research on the National Front, in M. Bulmer (ed.) Social Research Ethics: An examination of the merits of covert participant observation, London: Macmillan.

[6] Parker, J., Penhale, B. and Stanley, D. (2010) Problem or safeguard? Research ethics review in social care research and the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Social Care and Neurodisability 1, 2, 22-32.

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