June 13 2024

Responsible Research Practices: A Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct for AAR Members


7 July 2015

The two-fold purpose of this statement is to generate conversation about the challenges of research about religion and to provide guidelines that establish standards of professional conduct and identify researchers’ responsibilities.

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.1

Our understanding of researchers’ particular responsibilities has been informed by the guiding principles articulated in statements issued by other members of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) as well as those principles affirmed by the review boards of our educational institutions.2 These common principles include a shared commitment to honesty, respect, equity, and accountability. As an organization dedicated to the academic study of religion, we also are aware of our distinctive duty to support, 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, respect for 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 through sustained conversation. 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. Responsible scholarship clearly indicates to readers the guiding questions, research methods, and sources consulted, just as it generously acknowledges scholarly assistance and 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 should also proceed with the awareness that they study beliefs, institutions, and practices that inform collective identities and to which followers attribute special authority.

We hope this statement generates ongoing conversation about the ethical challenges of research on this complex and contested subject. However, the guidelines listed below also are intended as a resource for AAR members as they engage in diverse research practices, including but not limited to: 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.

Specific Guidelines

As researchers engage in these diverse modes of inquiry, we suggest 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, as the AAR statement on that topic suggests.3
  • Scholars of religion should seek to avoid harm arising from exploitation, dishonesty, or discrimination, and should seek to promote good by checking self-interest, telling the truth, and treating others fairly.
  • When scholarship involves human subjects, the norms embedded in procedures for institutional review and other standard guidelines apply. 
  • 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 a fair interpretation, one that considers varied possible readings and multiple points of view.
  • When scholarship has an impact on the status or self-understanding of contemporary religious groups, the responsible researcher strives to consider both the irrevocable commitment to free inquiry and the role-specific duty to assess the effects of one’s research on those groups.
  • 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 may 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 the research questions, methodological procedures, and key findings that is appropriate to specialized communities of research and, in some cases, also to a broader public.
  • Wherever possible, scholars are encouraged to enhance a broad public understanding of religion by presenting their work in language that is accessible to both the specialist and the non-specialist.
  • Scholars are encouraged to 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.4
  • 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.
  • When working with student research assistants, professors should strive to act with collegiality, providing clear expectations and following institutional guidelines regarding pay equity, workplace safety, and harassment.
  • It is incumbent upon all members to ensure that their research adheres to the highest standards. 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 Association of University Professors (AAUP) and other scholarly organizations.5


1 For example, see the following statements on the AAR web page (https://www.aarweb.org): “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).

2 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 the guiding principles.

3 “The AAR Statement on Academic Freedom and the Teaching of Religion” (2006). Available at https://www.aarweb.org/about/academic-freedom. The AAR Board has convened a subcommittee to consider possible revisions of this statement.

4 On digital scholarship, see the American Historical Association’s “Draft Guidelines on the Evaluation of Digital Scholarship,” available at http://blog.historians.org/2015/04/draft-guidelines-evaluation-digital-scholarship/, accessed 10 June 2015.

5 The AAUP’s “Legal Program” is described on their web page. Available at http://www.aaup.org/our-work/legal-program, accessed 10 June 2015.

Comments on this statement are now closed.

Thanks to AAR members who commented on the Draft Responsible Research Practices Statement, via email, online comments, and other social media sites. We have gathered all of the comments that we know about and will pass them along to the Responsible Practices Seminar. If you are interested in this topic, please plan to attend the following session at the 2015 Annual Meeting in Atlanta: A22-200 Plenary Panel, “The Moral Challenges of Research: A Panel on the AAR’s Draft Statement on Responsible Research Practices,” Sunday, November 22, 2015, 1:00 pm–2:30 pm, Hyatt Regency, Dunwoody Room (Atlanta Conference Level).


Thank you for articulating this for us.  No changes recommended.

For the section on student research assistants, I would recommend adding something beyond "collegiality" to address standards of giving proper credit for assistance.

In some cases, research assistants deserve more than just an acknowledgement -- even if it is a "generous acknowledgement" as described earlier in this document. Some assistants in specific cases could be considered a second author on papers to which their research, ideas, and wording have significantly contributed. Other disciplines, primarily in the sciences, do this regularly, but it seems quite rare in the humanities. Since one purpose of this document is to generate conversation, I would love to see more conversation on the boundaries between research assistance and co-authorship in our discipline.

This will eventually be a 12 part series (with this index page updated as each post is made public) in reply to this draft document, posting each M W and F; the last will appear on Aug 7.



Thank you for putting together this important document. The summer of 2015 is a poignant and perhaps also particularly apropos moment for a U.S.-based academic society to be developing guidelines for ethical research, given recent revelations about the collusion of American Psychological Association leaders with the CIA's practices of torture in the years following the September 11 attacks, including altering that organization's ethical principles to allow psychologists to take part in torture. I would suggest that this is an opportune moment to put in place a statement that would make clear that the AAR and its members are as opposed to such collaboration as most APA members are horrified by the fact that it took place in their organization. Since such a statement should be broad in order to address a range of possible forms of unethical conduct rather than narrow in an attempt simply to prevent what happened in the APA from happening in the AAR, perhaps one way to do this would be to recommend that all research comply with UN declarations such as that on human rights and that on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Linked to this concern is a second. I wholeheartedly support and appreciate the recommendation that scholars "assess the effects" of our research on religious groups. In addition, though, the risk of harm coming to the populations we research because of our own misconduct or the use/misuse of our research extends beyond harm to religious groups. Many of us, in the course of researching religion, also study groups that are socially vulnerable in other ways. And as scholars of religion we are just as prone as those in fields like psychology and sociology to find our work used as a tool or a weapon in political and legal battles and even in warfare. While it is difficult to control misuse of one's work after publication, one can still respond publicly to that misuse. Furthermore, I believe it is ethically incumbent upon scholars of religion to "assess the effects" of our research not just on religious groups but on other social groups, particularly those vulnerable to discrimination and persecution.