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PCBS | Professional Ethics

Professional Ethics


International Statistical Institute

Adopted: August 1985

 Background note

After due consideration and deliberation the General Assembly adopted the following resolution on 21 August 1985: 'The General Assembly of the International Statistical Institute,

  1. recognising that the aim of the Declaration on Professional Ethics for Statisticians is to document shared professional values and experience as a means of providing guidance rather than regulation,

    adopts the Declaration as an affirmation of the membership's concern with these matters and of its resolve to promote knowledge and interest in professional ethics among statisticians worldwide;

  2. determines to send the Declaration to all members of the ISI and its Sections and to disseminate it, as appropriate, within the statistical profession;

  3. commends the Committee responsible for developing the Declaration for its thorough, efficient and successful work during the last five years.'

In accordance with the spirit and letter of the resolution the International Statistical Institute is privileged to present to the reader the ISI Declaration on Professional Ethics with the hope and in the belief that this document will assist colleagues throughout the world in the pursuit of their professional goals and responsibilities.



Statisticians work within a variety of economic, cultural, legal and political settings, each of which influences the emphasis and focus of statistical inquiry. They also work within one of several different branches of their discipline, each involving its own techniques and procedures and its own ethical approach. Many statisticians work in fields such as economics, psychology, sociology, medicine, whose practitioners have ethical conventions that may influence the conduct of statisticians in their fields. Even within the same setting and branch of statistics, individuals may have different moral precepts which guide their work. Thus, no declaration could successfully impose a rigid set of rules to which statisticians everywhere should be expected to adhere, and this document does not attempt to do so.


The aim of this declaration is to enable the statistician's individual ethical judgements and decisions to be informed by shared values and experience, rather than to be imposed by the profession. The declaration therefore seeks to document widely held principles of statistical inquiry and to identify the factors that obstruct their implementation. It is framed in the recognition that, on occasions, the operation of one principle will impede the operation of another, that statisticians - in common with other occupational groups - have competing obligations not all of which can be fulfilled simultaneously. Thus, implicit or explicit choices between principles will sometimes have to be made. The declaration does not attempt to resolve these choices or to allocate greater priority to one of its principles than to another. Instead it offers a framework within which the conscientious statistician should, for the most part, be able to work comfortably. Where departures from the framework of principles are contemplated, they should be the result of deliberation rather than of ignorance.

The declaration's first intention is thus to be informative and descriptive rather than authoritarian or prescriptive. Second, it is designed to be applicable as far as possible to different areas of statistical methodology and application. For this reason its provisions are fairly broadly drawn. Third, although the principles are framed so as to have wider application to decisions than to the issues it specifically mentions, the declaration is by no means exhaustive. It is designed in the knowledge that it will require periodic updating and amendment. Fourth, neither the principles nor the commentaries are concerned with general written or unwritten rules or norms such as compliance with the law or the need for probity. The declaration restricts itself as far as possible to matter of specific concern to statistical inquiry.


1 Obligations to society


1.1  Considering conflicting interests: 

Statistical inquiry is predicated on the belief that greater access to well-grounded information is beneficial to society. The fact that statistical information can be misconstrued or misused, or that its impact can be different on different groups, is not in itself a convincing argument against its collection and dissemination. Nonetheless, the statistician should consider the likely consequences of collecting and disseminating various types of data and should guard against predictable misinterpretations or misuse.


1.2 Widening the scope of statistics

Statisticians should use the possibilities open to them to extend the scope of statistical inquiry, and to communicate their findings, for the benefit of the widest possible community.


1.3 Pursuing objectivity

While statisticians operate within the value systems of their societies, they should attempt to uphold their professional integrity without fear or favour.  They should also not engage or collude in selecting
methods designed to produce misleading results, or in misrepresenting statistical findings by commission or omission.
Science can never be entirely objective, and statistics is no exception. The selection of topics for attention may reflect a systematic bias in favour of certain cultural or personal values. In addition, the employment base of the statistician, the source of funding and a range of other factors may impose certain priorities, obligations and prohibitions. Even so, the statistician is never free of a responsibility to pursue objectivity and to be open about known barriers to its achievement. In particular, statisticians are bound by a professional obligation to resist approaches to data collection, analysis, interpretation and publication that are likely (explicitly or implicitly) to misinform or to mislead rather than to advance knowledge.


2. Obligations to funders and employers


2.1 Clarifying obligations and roles

Statisticians should clarify in advance the respective obligations of employer or funder and statistician; they should, for example, refer the employer or funder to the relevant parts of a professional code to which they adhere. Reports of the findings should (where appropriate) specify their role.


2.2 Assessing alternatives impartially

Statisticians should consider the available methods and procedures for addressing a proposed inquiry and should provide the funder or employer with an impartial assessment of the respective merits and demerits of alternatives.


2.3 Not pre-empting outcomes

Statisticians should not accept contractual conditions that are contingent upon a particular outcome from a proposed statistical inquiry.


2.4 Guarding privileged information

Statisticians are frequently furnished with information by the funder or employer who may legitimately require it to be kept confidential. Statistical methods and procedures that have been utilised to produce published data should not, however, be kept confidential.


3. Obligations to colleagues:


3.1 Maintaining confidence in statistics

Statisticians depend upon the confidence of the public. They should in their work attempt to promote and preserve such confidence without exaggerating the accuracy or explanatory power of their data.


3.2 Exposing and reviewing methods and findings

Within the limits of confidentiality requirements, statisticians should provide adequate information to colleagues to permit their methods, procedures, techniques and findings to be assessed. Such assessments should be directed at the methods themselves rather than at the individuals who selected or used them.


3.3 Communicating ethical principles

To conduct certain inquiries statisticians need to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines, as well as with interviewers, clerical staff, students, etc. In these cases statisticians should make their own ethical principles clear and take account of the ethical principles of their collaborators.


4. Obligations to subjects:


4.1 Avoiding undue intrusion

Statisticians should be aware of the intrusive potential of some of their work. They have no special entitlement to study all phenomena. The advancement of knowledge and the pursuit of information are not themselves sufficient justifications for overriding other social and cultural values.


4.2 Obtaining informed consent

Statistical inquiries involving the active participation of human subjects should be based as far as practicable on their freely given informed consent. Even if participation is required by law, it should still be as informed as possible. In voluntary inquiries, subjects should not be under the impression that they are required to participate; they should be aware of their entitlement to refuse at any stage for whatever reason and to withdraw data just supplied. Information that would be likely to affect a subject's willingness to participate should not be deliberately withheld.


4.3 Modifications to informed consent

On occasions, technical or practical considerations inhibit the achievement of prior informed consent. In these cases, the subjects' interests should be safeguarded in other ways. For example:

(a) Respecting rights in observation studies. In observation studies, where behaviour patterns are recorded without the subject's knowledge, statisticians should take care not to infringe what may be referred to as the 'private space' of an individual or group. This will vary from culture to culture.

(b) Dealing with proxies. In cases where a 'proxy' is utilised to answer questions on behalf of a subject, say because access to the subject is uneconomic or because the subject is too ill or too young to participate directly, care should be taken not to infringe the 'private space' of the subject or to disturb the relationship between the subject and the proxy. Where indications exist or emerge that the subject would object to certain information being disclosed, such information should not be sought by proxy.

(c) Secondary use of records. In cases where a statistician has been granted access to, say, administrative or medical records or other research material for a new or supplementary inquiry, the custodian's permission to use the records should not relieve the statistician from having to consider the likely reactions, sensitivities and interests of the subjects concerned, including their entitlement to anonymity.

(d) Misleading potential subjects. In studies where the measurement objectives preclude the prior disclosure of material information to subjects, statisticians should weigh the likely consequences of any proposed deception. To withhold material information from, or to misinform, subjects involves a deceit, whether by omission or commission, temporarily or permanently, which will face legitimate censure unless it can be justified.


4.4 Protecting the interests of subjects

Neither consent from subjects nor the legal requirement to participate absolves the statistician from an obligation to protect the subject as far as possible against potentially harmful effects of participating. The statistician should try to minimise disturbance both to subjects themselves and to the subjects' relationships with their environment.


4.5 Maintaining confidentiality of records

Statistical data are unconcerned with individual identities. They are collected to answer questions such as 'how many?' or 'what proportion?', not 'who?'. The identities and records of co-operating (or non- cooperating) subjects should therefore be kept confidential, whether or not confidentiality has been explicitly pledged.


4.6 Inhibiting disclosure of identities

Statisticians should take appropriate measures to prevent their data from being published or otherwise released in a form that would allow any subject's identity to be disclosed or inferred.