Research at the D-Lab abides by the requirements of the International Sociological Association Code of Ethics and the European Sociological Association Statement of Ethical Practice, as well as the ethical standards and guidelines of the European Research Council, Horizon 2020 program. This includes ensuring confidentiality and no harm for all human participants. In addition, all our research complies with the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity and we follow the best practice guidelines of the University of Oxford Research Ethics Committee (CUREC) as well as the recommendations and legal guidelines for field experimental research made by Riach and Rich (2002).
Research for the GEMM project has obtained the approval of: the Ethics Committee of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Utrecht University; the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committee for the Social and Human Sciences; the Ethics Panel of Nuffield College, University of Oxford; the WZB Research Ethics Committee; and the Committee of Ethics in Research of the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.
Lack of informed consent, confidentiality, anonymity and minimisation of harm
Field-experimental research on discrimination requires that subjects (human resource managers/employers/selection committees/etc.) remain unaware of their participation in the experiment and hence the condition of informed consent cannot be met. Ethics boards typically rule that the societal gains of this research (e.g. in terms of improving equal opportunities and labour-market effectiveness) outweigh the costs of uninformed consent. Additionally, we note that by declaring discrimination in employment unlawful, national governments and international bodies alike have accepted the obligation of ensuring equality of opportunity for all citizens. This implies there is no expectation of privacy in the act of hiring labour (Riach and Rich, 2002). In fact, as stressed by McClendon (2012), privacy is not a legitimate expectation when public and commercial acts are involved.
At the D-Lab we follow the best practice guidelines for deception in field experimental research of the University of Oxford Research Ethics Committee (CUREC), which can be downloaded here.
Anonimity is ensured by design as the nature of our field-experiments precludes the identification of the individual discriminating agent. We further guarantee confidentiality of the findings by saving the IDs of all companies separately in secure locations on protected servers. GEMM data is only shared between project members over secure connections and stored in secure locations on university servers. At the end of the GEMM project, a fully and carefully anonymised dataset will be deposited at the DANS data-archive. Any identifying characteristics of individual employers (in the countries where individual identification is possible) and firms will be deleted.
Our research design also minimises the time spent by participants reviewing applications as well as the potential disturbance to the real application process. Because individuals cannot be identified in the deposited anonymised dataset (and hence in our publications), harm is minimised. Also because we apply an unpaired correspondence design, in which only one application is sent to each job vacancy, it is impossible to make references about discriminatory behaviour of individual employers/firms. This means, the risk of legal liability for participants is null by design in our experiments,. Any inconvenience to employers and real applicants is further minimised by restricting our study to the first phase of the selection process as well as by promptly declining interview invitations or employment offers. The burden on our anonymous participants is thus minimal.
To further minimise harm to human resource managers and employers as well as to reduce the risk of future detections, field experimental studies on discrimination often refrain from debriefing subjects after the study is completed (see e.g. McClendon 2012; Pager 2007). In accordance with this research practice, the GEMM project will not debrief individual participants. Instead, we will inform the general public and employers’ organizations both at the national and the European level about the main findings of this pioneer study.
McClendon, G.H. (2012). Ethics of Using Public Officials as Field Experiment Subjects. Newsletter of the APSA Experimental Section, 3(1):13-20.
Pager, D., (2007). Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Riach, P. A. and Rich, J. (2002). Deceptive Field Experiments of Discrimination. Are They Ethical? Kyklos 57 (3), 457-470.