Moral perspectives on covert research

Anton Albert van Niekerk


The term ‘covert research’ refers to research on human subjects for which informed consent is not, and allegedly cannot, be solicited – not because of wilful negligence or the deliberate transgression of research ethics guidelines on the part of the researcher(s), but because the revelation of the nature of the research to the involved research participants would necessarily invalidate the research results. While covert research is deemed necessary in a number of sciences, such as ethnography, such research nevertheless elicits major ethical concern due to the fact that it seemingly violates the values of respect for autonomy and the protection of research subjects – values that have, since the first formulations of the Nuremberg Code, the Belmont Declaration and the series of Helsinki accords, become almost axiomatic in our understanding of the basic tenets of responsible and ethical research on human subjects. In this article, I contend that while subject autonomy is a pivotal value in morally legitimate research generally, there is more to morally legitimate research than informed consent. I conclude by formulating a few guidelines for the identification of circumstances under which covert research might and might not be morally in order.

Author's affiliations

Anton Albert van Niekerk, Centre for Applied Ethics, Department of Philosophy, Stellenbosch University, Western Cape, South Africa

Full Text



Covert Research; Informed Consent; Deception; Milgram Experimnents

Cite this article

South African Journal of Bioethics and Law 2014;7(2):55-58. DOI:10.7196/SAJBL.320

Article History

Date submitted: 2014-03-31
Date published: 2014-11-04

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