Impact evaluations often involve the direct manipulation of people's personal or economic situations, collection of personal and/or sensitive data about people, and publication of results that have direct implications for political or economic governance. Ensuring that these tasks are undertaken in a way that is both protective of the individuals who are part of the study population as well as broadly ethical for the research question and context is a critical responsibility of research designers and a requirement for institutional, IRB, and government approval and support of any study, and should be set out in the pre-analysis plan.
Research with Human Subjects
Any research that involves economic intervention or data collection on specific individuals is almost certainly subject to human subjects ethics rules. This means that pre-approval by an institutional review board, as well as a human subjects education certificate from the NIH or other body for each researcher or assistant handling implementation or data.
In practice, this may or may not require informed consent from individual research participants, depending on the design and purpose of the study. For example, an IRB may grant approval to collect administrative data or health care provider data for public health reasons, given written consent from the appropriate government ministry or office. Similarly, when the information to be collected is not especially sensitive and affirmative consent might endanger the feasibility of the study, individualized consent may be possible to waive.
Handling Personally-Identifying Information (PII)
Whether or not individualized informed consent is required, research that involves the collection of sensitive information – including but not limited to names, addresses, mobile phone numbers, bank or credit accounts, or location information – should be handled from collection to publication in a way that ensures the privacy of research participants. This means using appropriately secure electronic methods to collect and store data, appropriate data encryption on devices like laptops or hard drives, and anonymization of data before any public release.
Once common concern in research is the possibility of manipulating results. Political factors, publication bias and other circumstances may pressure researchers to target findings, for example through P-hacking and selective reporting. To avoid this concern, researchers often choose to develop pre-analysis plans and pre-register studies. Sharing data and codes improves research reproducility.