Philip Zimbardo's study into the psychological effects of becoming either a prisoner or a prison guard became infamous because of the questions it raised about research ethics.
The controversial study, run in the basement of Stanford University in 1971, saw participants passively accept psychological abuse and follow orders to harass other prisoners.
While most social scientists are unlikely to gain that level of notoriety, they do need to consider how to carry out their research ethically.
The practice of research ethics commands much more attention than in the past. This is not to say that researchers used to be unethical, but that there has been a move towards measuring ethics more formally.
Grant applications have sections to be completed on research ethics, PhD students are asked to submit their ethics approval certificates, and publications want you to certify that you have met ethical principles.
This may leave postgraduates, early career researchers and even those further down the academic career line wondering: what does all this form-filling have to do with doing ethical research? And how do principles such as confidentiality, anonymity or "do no harm" apply to me?
What not to do
When I run training on research ethics in the social sciences, we consider what not to do. We look at examples such as the Zimbardo experiment or the controversy surrounding the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who was accused of harming the Yanomami people he observed and wrote about.
Yet examples such as these are not always helpful. Who imagines they are going to cause serious harm by conducting a series of interviews or collecting survey data? Over the years, however, I have seen numerous small ethical breaches. For example:
• When a PhD student running behind on his transcription asked a fellow PhD student to help out, and the latter recognised the voice of one of the participants who was disclosing highly personal and confidential information.
• When names relating to data on a sensitive topic were left out on a desk.
• When participants in a study were contacted by two sets of researchers independently, leading them to believe we were passing on their details without consent.
• When historic criminal activity was disclosed and there was no protocol for dealing with it.
None of these are likely to make the history books of research ethics failures, but all could have been avoided with just a little forethought.
How should we think about research ethics?
The move towards systematised procedures doesn't have to be viewed as sinister - though there are undoubtedly implications for academic freedom in having all research pre-screened by institutions or funding bodies.
Increasingly, the implicit ways researchers used to pass on their ethical thinking and practices from supervisor to student are gone.
Students and researchers need and want research ethics training, but more than that, they want the space for ethical reflection. Initiatives such as the concordat to support research integrity, which aim to agree principles across the sector, may help institutions devise protocols. But principles are hard to interpret and may even conflict with one another.
People want time to discuss and reflect on the detail of their specific projects and the ethical dilemmas within them.
The internationalisation of the research world also means that flexibility is required. In some cultures, if you ask people to sign your form, they might think you don't trust them. Why is a handshake not enough? Should our need to have a signature in a box, verifying we asked for their consent, override these considerations and would it be ethical to insist on it?
What you should do to improve your own ethics in research
Those encountering the world of research ethics committees and form-filling should seek advice. The ethics committee secretary always knows more about procedure than the members, so make contact with him or her.
Disciplinary ethics codes and guidelines are now available online from organisations such as the British Psychological Society and the Association of Internet Researchers.
It is highly unlikely you are the first person to do research with a vulnerable group, such as people with dementia or learning disabilities, or to be using social media.
Make sure you find and learn from the body of literature appropriate to your topic. Adapt existing consent forms and consider participatory approaches. Spend time on less clear-cut ethical dilemmas that are bound to arise as you go about your research.
Research ethics is just one part of the whole research enterprise. We must not succumb either institutionally or individually to ethical hypersensitivity, but remain alert to ethical issues as they arise throughout the research process.
Dr Hannah Farrimond is a lecturer in medical sociology at the University of Exeter and author of Doing Ethical Research.