Covert Research & Consent: RM Winning Paper

“Reconsidering the Value of Covert Research: The Role of Ambiguous Consent in Participant Observation”  (Roulet, Gill, Stenger, & Gill, 2017) will be awarded best paper for 2017 by the Academy of Management Research Methods division. The study was published in the SAGE journal, Organizational Research Methods, and is open access through this link.

This thought-provoking paper raises a number of questions not only about the nature of informed consent in organizational research, but also about constraints presented by the codes of ethics and guidelines researchers are compelled to follow. To learn more, I posed a few questions to lead author Thomas Roulet.

JS: You mentioned the Academy of Management Code of Ethics, which specifically states that informed consent should be obtained for all research. Do you recommend that this language be amended? If so, what would you suggest to change the wording, while respecting the principle of “Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity” spelled out in the AOM Code?

TR: Yes, our point is that obtaining full “informed consent” from all participants is more of an unreachable myth than anything else in ethnographic research – because consent is by nature ambiguous. Participants might consent at a point in time then change their mind, they might not comprehend the role of the researcher or the purpose of the enquiry in the same way the researcher does, etc.

Consent does matter in most cases, but the limitations of this mechanism need to be acknowledged in the AOM codes of ethics. The nature of the consent should definitely be documented in research papers, but a requirement to obtain informed consent is probably too strong.

JS: You discuss the perspective that “if something can be unanimously accepted as positive, it is the right course of action” (p. 502). In practical research terms, how could this perspective be used? Who would need to be consulted to verify that the agreement is unanimous? For example, if the managers or gatekeepers are unanimous about a covert study of employees, but no employees are consulted, would researchers proceed or insist that some employees be included in a discussion of the merits of the study?

TR: There we talk about the consequentialist perspective as one way to justify covert research – The consequentialist argument is the most commonly used in support of deception in research design as it stresses the necessity to be under cover in some cases to research important topics and produce work that can have positive social impact. As we point out, this approach is important but can be a bit simplistic – how do we compare the cost and benefits of a course of action? (the Rawlsian critique). That’s why we advance a situated ethics perspective where researchers are asked to revise their evaluation of the ethicality of their research on a regular basis.

Ethics committees in universities could examine whether the benefits of a research for society would justify deviance from the norm of informed consent.

Managers and gatekeepers can be unanimous about a covert study (that’s what can be understood in the case of Bernstein’s study of a Chinese factory) but involving employees into assessing risks and benefits of the study would be indeed more respectful and avoid the study being seen as managerial tool rather than objective and useful research.

JS: I spent a lot of my career as a research supervisor for doctoral students. The situated ethics approach you recommend seems to suggest that researchers reflect deeply and “morally question” potential actions and choices (p. 503). Do you see a role for research supervisors in facilitating such reflection? Do you think situated ethics should be taught in research methods courses? For that matter, should students be taught skills associated with researcher identity?

TR: The “situated ethics” perspective is sort of a “Bayesian” approach to ethical questioning in research – the researcher needs to question and challenge her or his moral situation at each stage of the data collection.

Supervisors can definitely play a role by questioning the ethical aspects of their students’ work and research design. Situated ethics do require confrontation of points of view and external assessment – although not necessarily possible during field work- can be of great use.

JS: The use of covert observation or covert participant observation in online studies has been widely discussed. Did you examine any online studies, or did you purposely decide to focus on studies conducted in on-site organizations?

TR: We did mostly focus on physical presence but you raise an important question and I’m not familiar with the work you mention. Consent in netnography is indeed quite often neglected – online data can be collected without the knowledge or consent of participants.

Covert research is in some way easier online as people can more easily create fake persona for themselves (I’m thinking about this paper:  Brotsky, S. R., & Giles, D. (2007). Inside the “pro-ana” community: A covert online participant observation. Eating disorders15(2), 93-109.)

JS: Briefly describe how and why you and your co-authors decided to write this article. Given the ethical dilemmas and gray areas you discussed in the article, were all of you in agreement? What was most challenging about the process?

TR: My co author Seb Stenger and I published a paper based on covert participant observation (published in the journal of the British Sociological Association – Work employment and society). We had a lot of discussion – also with Michael and David Gill who shaped the paper with us. Michael brought a lot of methodological expertise, and I brought my understanding of various ethical perspectives.

Stenger, S., & Roulet, T. J. (2018). Pride against prejudice? The stakes of concealment and disclosure of a stigmatized identity for gay and lesbian auditorsWork, Employment and Society32(2), 257-273.

JS: Did you receive any push-back from the journal about the content of the article? Did reviewers raise questions? Did you have to make substantive revisions?

TR: Overall the reviewers and the editor were very supportive – they asked us to beef up the aspects of the manuscript about the ethics of research and offer a wide range of perspective. We were also pushed to compare different fields, which I think was very useful to develop the manuscript. We had three rounds of fairly intense revision but it was a very developmental and enjoyable process (and we know how revision can be very painful!).

JS: What suggestions do you have for researchers who want to rock the proverbial boat and publish articles that question established traditions?

TR: I think it can be very hard to publish more controversial papers (counterintuitive results, or methods). You have to provide stronger evidence, stronger and more developed arguments. But once published the impact on the field is greater and hopefully it can open up new debates!


Roulet, T. J., Gill, M. J., Stenger, S., & Gill, D. J. (2017). Reconsidering the value of covert research: The role of ambiguous consent in participant observation. Organizational Research Methods, 20(3), 487-517. doi:10.1177/1094428117698745

Learn more about research ethics from resources collected in these SAGE Research Methods Reading Lists!


Note: This post previously appeared on SAGE Publications MethodSpace.

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