Responsible Research Practices

A Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct for AAR Members

Approved by the AAR Board of Directors February 2016

The two-fold purpose of this statement is to generate conversation about the challenges of research on religion and to foreground norms and values of professional conduct for AAR members.[i]

Since those norms and values are always open to debate, addressing the ethical challenges of studying religion will require ongoing discussion, continuing elaboration, and, we hope, regular revision of this statement.[ii]

General Reflections

Members of the American Academy of Religion conduct research about religion—including research that critically analyzes the origin and uses of the category itself—in diverse institutional settings, engaging varied audiences and employing different methods. This methodologically diverse research flourishes, our Mission Statement affirms, “within a context of free inquiry and critical examination.” As a learned society, the AAR has an ongoing responsibility to identify and safeguard the conditions that make such inquiry possible for faculty, independent scholars, and students. This involves setting clear guidelines about researchers’ responsibilities. Just as the AAR has issued statements about the standards of professional conduct in other areas of academic life, so we issue this statement on Responsible Research Practices.[iii]

Our understanding of researchers’ responsibilities has been informed by the guiding principles affirmed by the review boards of our educational institutions and articulated in statements issued by other members of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).[iv] These common principles include a shared commitment to honesty, equity, and accountability. As an organization dedicated to the academic study of religion, we also are aware of our distinctive duty to support, as our Mission Statement declares, “disciplined reflection on religion—both from within and outside of communities of belief and practice” and to foster scholars’ efforts to improve religion’s “broad public understanding.”

Disciplined reflection demands honesty in all our communications, just treatment of the subjects of our research, and accountability to the wider community of scholars. This scholarly community, which includes members of the AAR and colleagues in our educational institutions, holds us responsible for enacting shared standards. In the practice of peer review, by assessing and responding to each other’s publications and presentations, by collaborating with colleagues and students on joint projects, AAR members hold one another accountable to the relevant evidence or sources. Responsible scholarship clearly indicates to readers the guiding questions, research methods, and sources consulted, just as it generously acknowledges assistance from colleagues and students and transparently notes financial support at each stage of the research process, from funding to publication. We also recognize that religion, our chosen focus, stirs passions, shapes cultures, and influences politics. Scholars of religion, therefore, also should proceed with the awareness that they study beliefs, institutions, and practices that inform collective identities and to which followers attribute special authority.

The guidelines listed below are intended as a resource for AAR members as they engage in diverse research practices, including but not limited to the following: interpreting and translating texts; excavating archaeological sites; exploring archival sources; constructing historical narratives; generating theoretical frameworks; producing philosophical, theological, and ethical reflections; gathering statistical data; utilizing new media; doing participant observation; and conducting in-depth interviews.

Guidelines for Responsible Research Practices:

Values and Norms for Professional Conduct

As researchers engage in these diverse modes of inquiry, the AAR suggests that they follow these guidelines:

  • To honor the highest ideals of intellectual inquiry and the institutional contexts that support them, researchers should defend academic freedom. This statement on responsible research practices should be read alongside the AAR Statement on Academic Freedom (2016), which outlines researchers’ rights and responsibilities and identifies administrators’ and governing boards’ obligations to safeguard the conditions for free inquiry.[v]
  • The academic study of religion is distinguished by theoretical and methodological pluralism, and researchers should respect this diversity of approaches and engage in critical and constructive debate when differences arise.
  • Respecting diverse approaches also means scholars should acknowledge that responsible scholarship might be conducted “both from within and outside communities of belief and practice,” as long as the scholar’s work enacts the guiding principles of professional conduct we articulate in this document.
  • The scholar of religion should stand ready to provide a clear account of methodological procedures, research questions, and key findings that is appropriate to specialized research communities and, in some cases, also accessible to a broader public.
  • When scholarship has an impact on the status or self-understanding of contemporary religious groups, the responsible researcher strives to judiciously balance the commitment to free and rigorous inquiry that is essential to the discipline with the responsibility to treat those s/he studies honestly and fairly.
  • When scholarship involves human subjects, researchers are responsible for following the norms established by the institutional review boards of their schools.[vi] Those conducting that research with human subjects have guiding principles to consider, debate, and apply. For example, the 1979 Belmont Report on Biomedical and Behavioral Research articulates three ethical principles: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.[vii] These principles—and what counts as “respect,” “beneficence,” and “justice”—are frequently contested, but that does not exempt investigators from careful, ongoing ethical reflection about the impact of their research practices. At minimum, scholars of religion should seek to avoid harm arising from exploitation, dishonesty, or discrimination, and seek to promote ethical scholarship by revealing their methods and treating subjects fairly.
  • When scholarship involves representing textual sources, material culture, and new media, researchers also have responsibilities. These include both the duty to preserve evidence, as far as possible, so that it can be made available to other researchers, as well as the obligation to provide interpretations and explanations that consider multiple points of view.[viii]
  • When employing student research assistants, professors should acknowledge their contributions, support their emerging research interests, and, where appropriate, consider possibilities for co-authorship. Professors also should provide clear expectations for their research assistants and follow institutional guidelines regarding pay equity, workplace safety, and sexual harassment.
  • In manuscripts or other materials submitted for review, presentation, or publication, authors should acknowledge and disclose the sources of support for their work.  Support includes sponsored research and educational grants from outside sources as well as contracts, gifts and other direct support from their institutions.
  • When scholars evaluate research, including in the peer review of publications and the assessment of tenure and promotion cases, they should observe an appropriate respect for confidentiality.  Further, double-blind reviewing practices should be standard procedure for peer-reviewed research.
  • Scholars may share the results of their research in multiple media, including peer-reviewed digital scholarship. Educational institutions will have varied policies about the relevance of that scholarship for appointment, tenure, and promotion. Yet authors, reviewers, editors, and readers should be guided by the same principles of professional conduct they would employ with any other mode of scholarly communication.[ix]
  • It is incumbent upon all members to ensure that their research adheres to the highest standards of academic rigor and professional integrity. The AAR does not adjudicate claims of misconduct. However, the AAR can identify scholars with relevant expertise who might be able to consult with members and appropriate institutions about responsible research practices. Members are encouraged to utilize the various existing processes to support ethical research and to discuss alleged breaches. Those processes include informal consultations with colleagues and exchanges with institutional review boards as well as taking advantage of the attorney referral service and other legal guidance offered by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and other scholarly organizations.[x]

[i] Following our own guidelines about acknowledging sources of support, we thank the American Academy of Religion and the University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters for generously supporting our regular conference calls, three face-to-face gatherings, and two annual meeting open forums. The ten members of the AAR Seminar on Responsible Research Practices are especially grateful to Notre Dame for funding travel and lodging and providing a seminar room in Chicago, where we gathered for a two-day meeting in May 2015.

[ii]  Since the social conditions, technological tools, and institutional settings for research change, we recommend that this statement be reviewed and revised every two years.

[iii]  For example, see the following statements on the AAR website: “Sexual Harassment Policy” (1998); “Task Force on the Status of LGBTIQ Persons in the Profession” (2008); “Best Practices for Academic Job Offers” (2008); “Best Practices for Posting of Graduation and Placement Records” (2009); “Nondiscrimination” (By-laws, article III, section 6, 2010); Status of Women in the Profession’s “Work/Life Balance Project: Background” (2010); “Strategic Plan: Status of People with Disabilities in the Profession” (2013). Some other official AAR statements also bear directly on research practices, including “Plagiarism, Pirating, and Other Improper Uses of Scholarly Materials” (1994).

[iv]  We consulted documents from other ACLS organizations, as well as some from international learned societies. Among the ACLS statements we found most helpful were the following: The American Sociological Association Code of Ethics (PDF); The American Anthropological Association Code of Ethics (PDF); The American Historical Association Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct (Updated 2019).

[v] “The AAR Statement on Academic Freedom” (2016).

[vi] These bodies that oversee research are called Research Ethics Boards (REB) in Canada and Institutional Review Boards (IRB) in the United States. The United Kingdom has a system that includes the Central Office for Research Ethics Committees (COREC). The labels and procedures vary across national borders and among educational institutions, but there is much agreement about best practices and guiding principles. Researchers at institutions without such procedures or without institutional affiliation may contact the AAR for further information.

[vii] The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, “The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research,” 18 April 1979. 

[viii] When confronted with an interpretation, scholars sometimes employ language that implies there is an “ethics of reading” as they assert that a criticism is “uncharitable” or “unfair.” However, here we do not insist that the responsible researcher must offer a “fair” or “charitable” reading of sources, though we recognize that some AAR members would identify that as a role-specific duty. On the ethics of reading, see Charles Larmore, “The Ethics of Reading,” in Peter Brooks and Hilary Jewett, eds., The Humanities in Public Life (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).

[ix]  On digital scholarship, see the American Historical Association’s "Guidelines on the Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History."

[x] The AAUP’s “Legal Program” is described on their web page.

(Board statement, February 2016)