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This page is intended for use by students and researchers in the University of Cambridge Schools of Technology and Physical Sciences whose research involves direct contribution to practical concerns outside the university, for example through consultancy. It is part of a larger set of research guidance pages on work with human participants.

Definition and scope

“Action research aims to contribute to both the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation and to the goals of social science by joint collaboration within a mutually accepted ethical framework” (Rappoport, 1970).

This document focuses on action research as it relates to management and business, and in particular research that is aimed at management problem solving and the development of associated frameworks, processes and decision support tools. This kind of research shares some characteristics with consulting practices, where there is a need and desire to support an organisation to address an issue of concern, while also achieving research outcomes. Morton (1999) identifies ethical dilemmas that may arise out of the two objectives inherent in action-based management research, associated with the dual role of researcher and consultant (‘role contamination’). There is an obligation to provide the client with a service that meets acceptable standards, which may conflict with the research objectives.

Research methodologies such as those proposed by Platts (1995) and Maslen & Lewis (1994) are applicable to this kind of action research, providing a framework for the development of management methods and processes. This involves collaborative interactions within organisations, such as workshops, meetings and interviews. Multiple applications focus on phased development and testing of the method/s of interest, monitoring outcomes according to measures such as utility, usability and efficiency, until it can be demonstrated that the approach is stable and applicable within the scope of the application context.

Ethical considerations in consultancy

General professional and ethical standards and practices that apply to consultancy services also apply to action-based management research, and are supportive of the ESRC principles of ethical research. Ethical concerns in consultancy cover areas such as diligence, competence, client interaction, fee arrangements, conflicts of interest, confidentiality and legal responsibilities. However, these considerations are beyond the scope of this document, which focuses on the impact of the research on human participants. For further information on ethical codes of practice for consultancy the reader is referred to the Institute of Management Consultants , Chartered Management Institute, and other similar professional bodies.

Some of the considerations in the IMC USA code of ethics are summarised below (refer to their site for full version):

Commitment to Clients

  • serving with integrity, competence, independence, objectivity, and professionalism.
  • mutually establishing realistic expectations of results
  • only accepting assignments for which you have sufficient experience and competence
  • mutually establishing objectives, scope, work plan and fees before starting
  • treat client information as confidential
  • avoid conflicts of interest and disclose any interests influencing your objectivity.
  • offer to withdraw from assignment if objectivity or integrity may be impaired.
  • refrain from inviting an employee of a client into alternative employment

Fiscal Integrity

  • agree the basis for fees and expenses in advance with client
  • don't accept benefits from a third party without client's consent

Public and the Profession

  • report to appropriate authorities any dangerous or illegal activities.
  • respect the rights of consulting colleagues and firms
  • represent the profession with integrity and professionalism
  • don't advertise services in a deceptive manner or misrepresent the consulting profession.
  • promote adherence to the Code by other member consultants, and report violations

Consultancy in Cambridge: CUTS

Staff of Cambridge University are able to set up consultancy contracts via the University services organisation, Cambridge University Technical Services. In return for a management fee charged as a percentage of revenue, CUTS will assist with contract negotiation and billing. They also provide professional indemnity insurance, which protects the consultant from liability claims arising from the contract (for example, arising from accidental damage to client property, or financial loss arising from considerations that the consultant did not take into account when giving advice).

Cambridge University students are able to contribute as consultants to contracts negotiated via CUTS, but a member of University staff must supervise the work and be named as the primary contractor. In the case of a PhD student carrying out action-based management research, this may be an appropriate arrangement, with the PhD supervisor negotiating the contractual terms.

Ethical considerations in action-based management research

For action-based management research the human participants are generally professional managers and staff in firms and other organisations, with interactions taking place within the context of their business and industry. Thus, the focus for research interaction is the normal working environment and context, conforming to local health and safety regulations. In most cases the level of risk of harm to human participants entailed in the research will be low.

It is important that the collaborating organisation and participants are made aware of the research goals and activities, and how these might impact on the engagement. Proposals and contractual documents should include consideration of both consulting and research aspects of the engagement where relevant. The issue of confidentiality will normally need to be addressed (with a non-disclosure agreement often required), and how this impacts on the research outputs (publications) will need to be considered in the research design, addressing potential conflicts of interest - i.e. the role contamination issue identified by Morton.


Rappoport, R.N. (1970), ‘Three dilemmas in action research’, Human Relations, 23(4), pp. 499-573. Cited in Easterby-Smith, M., Thorpe, R. and Jackson, R.R. (2008), Management Research, 3rd Ed., Sage, London.

Platts, K.W. (1995), ‘A process approach to researching manufacturing strategy’, Int. J. Operations & Production Management, 13(8), pp. 4-17.

Maslen, R. and Lewis, M.A. (1994), ‘Procedural action research’, Proceedings of the British Academy of Management Conference, Lancaster University, September.

Morton, A. (1999), ‘Ethics in action research’, Systematic Practice and Action Research, 12(2), pp. 219-222.



The initial version of this page was drafted by Rob Phaal. 

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