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Issue 27 Winter 1999

Social Research Update is published quarterly by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, England. Subscriptions for the hardcopy version are free to researchers with addresses in the UK. Apply by email to

Anticipating the problems of contract social research

Anne Grinyer

Anne Grinyer is a lecturer in the School of Independent Studies at Lancaster University. She is a sociologist whose main areas of academic interest are health, illness and risk management; the sociology of scientific knowledge and social research methods. She also teaches several modules of the Health Research MA for the Institute for Health Research at Lancaster University.

Recent initiatives are encouraging academic researchers to apply for funding to respond to the needs of business. This funding covers, in addition to other activities, contract and collaborative research. While many collaborative ventures are successful and productive, some run into trouble through lack of anticipating areas of conflicting interest. This article examines some of the potentially problematic issues and asks the following questions:

Commissioned research for external organisations has always been a part of academic life. However, the current Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE)1 initiative, Higher Education Reach-Out to Business and the Community, encourages academics ‘to increase their capability to respond to the needs of business, including companies of all sizes in the community’ (HEFCE 1999:1). The initiative is likely to result in even greater numbers of collaborative ventures between academia and commerce. While this is to be welcomed, there are issues arising from such collaborations, particularly those with social scientists, that need to be addressed if the outcomes are to be productive for both partners.

Ayre (1999) claims that many academics are concerned that increasing reliance on commercial funds is damaging academic freedom. Examples of such problems are reported by Kobben and Tromp (1999) who expose dozens of cases of researchers having altered or withheld findings that failed to deliver the desired outcome. Kobben and Tromp argue that financial pressure is sometimes exerted to ensure that research findings fit the client’s requirements and that accuracy and honesty are compromised because researchers fear financial penalties from organisations who will take their business elsewhere (Ayre 1999).

As Becker (1967) points out, as sociologists we provoke the charge of bias by refusing to defer to superordinates. The reason that responsible officials make accusations against our findings is precisely because they are responsible. By virtue of their position in the commissioning institutions, they are the ones held to account when things are other than they ought to be. As Becker (1967:128) claims:

Because they are responsible in this way, officials usually have to lie. That is a gross way of putting it, but not inaccurate. Officials must lie because things are seldom as they ought to be. For a great variety of reasons, well-known to sociologists, institutions are refractory. They do not perform as society would like them to...officials develop ways both of denying the failure of the institution to perform as it should and explaining those failures which cannot be hidden. An account of an institution’s operation from the point of view of subordinates therefore casts doubt on the official line and may possibly expose it as a lie.

However, it may be difficult to predict in which institutions problems are most likely to arise. Punch (1986:79) points to the irony of his research experience. His study of the Amsterdam Police (ostensibly a reactionary arm of the repressive state apparatus) during which he had great freedom, is contrasted with his study of Dartington2 , which is generally associated with the liberal, free thinking sector of society but with which he experienced many more constraints.

When the client challenges the findings

Organisations which commission research are unlikely to be open to findings they perceive as critical of themselves or their policies. For example, an institution which manages health risks (Grinyer 1995) or which is having problems with sickness absence (Grinyer.and Singleton 2000) may ask academic researchers to investigate the issue with an expectation that the findings will endorse their strategy or vindicate their position. However, the researcher may find that the difference between policy and practice or the different perceptions of management and the work-force are what lie at the root of the problem. I have witnessed rigorous research dismissed as ‘anecdotal’, ‘unrepresentative’, or ‘fabricated’; and instances when the client has claimed that the researcher has talked to ‘the wrong people’. In such cases it appears that the client had expected the equivalent of a commercial consultant. As Scott, Skea, Robinson and Shove (1999:12) say, ‘Consultants are generally hired where the commissioning organisation knows the answer it wants’. Scott et al emphasise that the contributions of academics are distinct from those of consultants and it is therefore crucial that the difference between academic research and consultancy are established at an early stage.

When overt research becomes covert

Almost by definition commissioned research is overt, at least to the client who has engaged the researcher, even if it remains covert to those being researched. That the superordinates have commissioned the research circumvents many problems relating to access. As Fielding (1995) says, as overt researchers we are able to move about the research setting freely. It is this very freedom which also allows us to observe not only those we have been engaged to research, usually the subordinates, but also those who have engaged us--the superordinates--a body usually very difficult to access and who could be identified as a ‘closed access’ group (Hornsby-Smith 1995). The position of an academic researcher engaged by an institution is summed up by Robson as follows:

When you have been asked to do the study by persons from the institution or organisation concerned, then at first sight this seems to solve the problems of access. However, the investigator might, legitimately or not, be seen as a ‘tool of management’ supporting the squeezing of more blood out of the workers; or conversely, as a dangerous agitator upsetting labour relations (Robson 1993:296)3

Once the researcher is within the organisation, the responses from the subordinates may indicate that the management or policy making strategies of the superordinates are of central significance to understanding the research issue. In addition, the researcher may be invited to meetings where such observations may be made first hand. What happens when later in the research process these data are seen to be evidence of mismanagement, mis-perceptions or indicators that management has exacerbated the problem under investigation?

In effect the overt researcher has become covert, a position which Bulmer (1982:109) considers a violation of the principle of informed consent, and which may also be a invasion of personal privacy (Homan and Bulmer 1982:121). However, it will be covert observation of those who have engaged the researcher and who are thus likely to be a relatively powerful or elite group. According to Homan (1991:111), covert methods primarily discriminate against the powerless, whereas the relatively powerful have their interests protected by law or recourse to litigation. The issue is addressed in part by the British Sociological Association (BSA) Statement of Ethical Practice:

There may be less compelling grounds for extending guarantees of privacy or confidentiality to public organisations, collectivities, governments, officials or agencies than to individuals or small groups. (1992: 706)

Nevertheless, the Statement continues by saying that where guarantees of privacy or confidentiality have been given they should be honoured. It is however, unlikely that any such guarantee will have been offered to or requested by the client (given that they are not expecting to be the focus of research attention), thus leaving the researcher in possession of data of ambiguous status.

Publishing the results

The implications of the issues discussed above are far reaching in the context of academic publication. What happens when research findings are rejected by the client? Punch (1986:74) argues strongly that the academic researcher should never sign away the right to publish, ‘however benign the sponsor might appear’. The freedom to publish is, according to him, one of the most fundamental rights of our profession. On the other hand, he recognises that sponsors may feel that they have the right to control the dissemination of findings:p>

Having paid the piper, they may want copyright on the tune. Conflict on this may not crystallize until a very late stage in the research, when sponsors begin to see themselves as the academic perceives them. (1986:75).

Resistance on the part of the client to allowing publication may also be exacerbated if they become aware that it is they who have become the focus of the research rather than the subordinates.

The researcher may decide to publish without asking the clients’ permission and hope the publication will not reach their attention. Given the limited readership of academic journals, this may be a reasonable expectation, but can expose the author to the risk of litigation and is ethically problematic.

If the client has not drawn up a contract, limiting the researchers’ ability to do as they wish with the findings, the usual position is that the researcher’s employer retains the Intellectual Property Rights. In principle the copyright of all material produced by employees legally belongs to the employer (AUT 1999). In this situation the researcher may decide to publish. One difficulty is that the client is less likely to co-operate with any subsequent requests for research access.

Punch (1986) suggests that in order to avoid conflict, the researcher should keep the client constantly informed of plans for publication. However, if the relationship between the client and the researcher breaks down, permission may be refused. If this happens, the researcher would be ill-advised to ‘publish and be damned’ as they alone would be responsible for any legal action. A particular difficulty is that permission is required to reproduce copyright material from other sources, such as that obtained from the client.


The emergence of ‘interactive research’ in the environmental sphere may provide a model from which to draw (Scott et al 1999). Interactive research refers to a continuous interaction throughout the research process between researchers, funding bodies and ‘user groups’. This interaction includes collaborating in defining the research agenda, the selection and execution of the project and the application of the research insights. Scott et al emphasise that interactive research is an activity in its own right and should not be confused with contract research commissioned by non-academic bodies. However, there are still elements of the model which could be borrowed to good effect. For example, the interactive approach depends upon the research agenda being set jointly by all the parties involved, not just the body paying for the research. In addition, Scott et al argue that the evaluation criteria used by the funding bodies needs to change and that commissioning needs to be more flexible to allow for experimentation. It is also suggested that there is a role for mediators whose focus is on interaction rather than research and management (1999:3).

The importance of a contract drawn up in collaboration with all parties at the outset is clearly crucial in the avoidance of the problems discussed here. A contract should address such issues as:

It is often helpful to establish a steering group, including external mediators, that meets regularly to address issues arising from the research. Such a document, drawn up in collaboration with all parties, coupled with an interactive approach to the research process, should help to minimise the occurrence of the problems discussed here.


Despite the fact that this article has focused on the problems associated with client based research, it must be acknowledged that many client relationships are satisfactory and productive for both parties. Nevertheless, with this type of research increasing, there is a need to recognise the potential pitfalls. The possibility of problems arising needs to be anticipated at an early stage, and addressed by a contract agreeable to all parties. If more time was spent at the outset of a research project considering the issues discussed here, agendas--both institutional and academic--might become apparent, clients might be more aware that researchers cannot simply provide academic rubber stamps on problematic practice, and institutions could benefit from applicable research findings and academics from the resulting publications.


Association of University Teachers (AUT), (1999) Your Guide to Intellectual Property Rights. London.

Ayre, M. (1999) ‘Seamy’ results exposed, The Times Higher, 18.6.99. p. 6

Becker, H. (1967) Whose Side Are We On? Social Problems, 14, (Winter), pp. 239-247.

British Sociological Association Statement of Ethical Practice, (1992) Sociology, Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 703-707.

Bulmer, M. (1982) The merits and demerits of covert participant observation, in Bulmer, M. (ed) Social Research Ethics, Macmillan, London, pp. 217-51.

Fielding, N. (1995) Ethnography, in Researching Social Life, Gilbert, N. (ed), Sage, London, pp. 154-171.

Grinyer, A. (1995) Risk, the real world and naive sociology: Perceptions of risk from occupational injury in the health service, Medicine, Health and Risk, Gabe, J. (ed) Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 31-51.

Grinyer.A. and Singleton, V. (2000) Sickness Absence as Risk taking Behaviour: A study of organisational and cultural factors in the public sector, Health, Risk and Society, Volume 2, Issue 1, forthcoming.

Higher Education Funding Council, (1999) Higher Education Reach-out to Business and the Community Fund,

Homan, R. (1991) The Ethics of Social Research, Longman, London.

Homan, R. and Bulmer, M. (1982) On the merits of covert methods: A dialogue, in Bulmer, M. (ed) Social Research Ethics, Macmillan, London, pp. 105-124.

Hornsby-Smith, M. (1995) Gaining Access, Researching Social Life, Gilbert, N. (ed), Sage, London, pp. 52-67.

Punch, M. (1986) The Politics and Ethics of Fieldwork, Sage, Newbury Park, Ca.

Robson, C. (1993) Real World Research, Blackwell, Oxford.

Scott, A., Skea, J., Robinson, J. and Shove, E. (1999) Designing ‘interactive’ environmental research for wider social relevance, Special Briefing No. 4, ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme.


With my thanks to John Wakeford for his helpful comments.


The HEFCE distributes public money for teaching and research to universities and colleges.

Dartington Hall is a progressive, private school in Devon, UK. It was founded in the 1920s by upper class intellectuals with a dislike of the traditional ‘public’ school system (Punch 1986).

While the focus of this article is to consider the relationship between the researcher and the superordinates, it should be acknowledged that the very fact of having been engaged by their superiors may also affect the relationship between the researcher and the subordinates.

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Edited by Nigel Gilbert.

Winter 1999 © University of Surrey

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