Ethical conflicts in interdisciplinary research: Breaking down the barriers for a more unified, ethical approach


interviewProblem statement

There is little consensus within the conservation community on what is ethically appropriate when conducting conservation research. There are a multitude of institutions involved in conservation research, each with different priorities and reasons for existence, which affect their stance on what is ethically acceptable.

With the push for interdisciplinary work in conservation, conservation biologists are starting to use social science methods to research often illegal and/or sensitive topics, and turn to published papers to learn about methods. However, a review of conservation papers on hunting (currently underway) has shown a significant shortfall in the numbers of papers that mention ethics at all, and a lack of standardization in reporting and standards of those who do.

Aside from potential harm to participants if ethics are not considered during fieldwork, failure to report ethical considerations means that conservation researchers new to social sciences will not easily find the ethical guidance required for this type of work within the peer reviewed literature (Solomon et al. 2016).

The need for a stronger focus on ethics in conservation is gaining traction, with papers on the need to better maintain participant anonymity (Nuno & St John 2014; St John et al 2016) and ensure that ethical boards have the expertise to adequately review social research protocols (St John et al. 2014) published within the last 5 years. A recent paper by Conservation Biology’s editorial board sought to provide valuable guidance on the use of social science for papers submitted to the journal (Teel et al. 2017) and a session on ethics in conservation at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Symposium in 2017 aimed to gather resources to guide conservation researchers using social science methods. However, ethical considerations in conservation research lags far behind other fields. There is huge scope for improvement.


ICN 2018

villageAt the ICN 2018 workshop, we would like to build on the recent paper on ethics in hunting studies (submitted June 2018) and the workshop hosted in Oxford in September 2017 as part of a Symposium on International Wildlife Trade, to invite people from different disciplines (law enforcement, anthropology, criminology, biology, human geography) to discuss different experiences and identify the different values to ethics within conservation. We want to understand the approaches and priorities to research among different institutions, and how these may affect ethics in research. We want to discuss the key motivations and barriers to developing ethical research protocols, and explore whether a unifying consensus on the minimum requirements for ethics in conservation research can be produced, and where ethics in conservation research can learn from other fields.



The output of the ICN workshop will be a collaboratively written scientific paper that summarizes our discussion on the different values and approaches to research between research committees, institutions and across fields. We also want to produce a policy note on best practice, aimed at reaching the conservation NGO community.


Who should apply

We would like to select a small group (4-6 people) to take part in this workshop. The group should be comprised of early to mid-career researchers, from diverse disciplines, within academic institutions and NGOs, who have practical experience conducting social research.



Nuno, A., & St John, F. A. V. (2014). How to ask sensitive questions in conservation: A review of specialized questioning techniques. Biological Conservation, 189, 5–15.

St. John, F.A.V., Brockington, D., Bunnefeld, N., Duffy, R., Homewood, K., Jones, J.P.G., Keane, A.M., Milner-Gulland, E.J., Nuno, A., Razafimanahaka, J.H. (2016). Research ethics: Assuring anonymity at the individual level may not be sufficient to protect research participants from harm. Biological Conservation, 196, 208-209.

St. John, F. A. V, Keane, A. M., Jones, J. P. G., & Milner-Gulland, E. J. (2014). Robust study design is as important on the social as it is on the ecological side of applied ecological research. Journal of Applied Ecology, 51(6), 1479–1485.

Solomon, J.N., Gavin, M.C., Conteh, A. (2016). Codes of ethics are critical for research on non-compliance with conservation rules and regulations. Biological Conservation, 196, 210.

Teel et al. (2017). Publishing social science research in Conservation Biology to move beyond biology. Conservation Biology, 2:1,6–8. 10.1111/cobi.13059