Public good: Reflecting on relative risks and benefits

Research, statistical and analysis projects often require a balance between considering the potential positive impact of projects (i.e., the public good benefit) and any potential risks (direct, or indirect) to groups or individuals that may arise from, or is related to, the work.

A clear consideration of public good is necessary even if you are using secondary data. Potential risks are not solely related to data collection and primary research, the use of secondary data also has the potential to cause harm!

Before you begin to balance potential risks against public benefit, you first need to ensure that your research is proportionate (i.e., your work should not include any collection or use of data that isn’t necessary to meet the research objective). Once you have done this, you can start to consider the relative risks and benefits of your project.

Potential risks in projects may include aspects related to:

  • consent and privacy of individual’s information;
  • bias, fairness and transparency in data collection, analysis and outputs;
  • potential harm or distress related to a project and its outcomes for particular groups in society or for those who have participated in the research.

Remember, harm can also include things like stigmatisation.

It is important to consider both direct risks and indirect risks that could result from a research project.

Just because a project has risks associated with it, does not mean that it should not be done. Instead, a careful consideration should be undertaken regarding how potential risks can be mitigated, and whether any remaining risks can be justified to achieve the intended benefits.

Example: Considering the relative risks and benefits of projects

The below fictional example may be a useful exercise to help you think through some of the main risks and benefits of projects:


You are part of an ethics committee and a group of researchers come to you with a proposal for a research project that aims to produce aggregate statistics regarding support services for drug users.

  • Researchers would like to study engagement with, and impacts of, a government-run support service for recently arrested Class A drug users.  The aim of the study is to produce statistics on the uptake of the service, how useful the service is perceived to be by its users, and how they think it could be improved.
  • Researchers plan to recruit participants using a gatekeeper – a referral worker who is responsible for referring drug users to these services – and participants will be invited to complete a questionnaire approximately six weeks after being released from custody.
  • Participants will be reimbursed £20 for their time. Many of the participants will likely be considered at greater risk of disadvantage, and some may have a history of violence and mental health issues.

It is your job to decide whether the research should be approved or not. Work through the checklist to help identify what you think the main risks and benefits of the project might be.

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