The new ICC/ESOMAR Code - an insight

By Reg Baker

As our profession evolves into new practices, then so must our ICC/ESOMAR International Code on Market and Social Research. As the ICC/ESOMAR Code is of vital importance to our profession, all ESOMAR members can vote on it in a Referendum, which will be open until 31 October 2016. In this article, Reg Baker, who was part of the project team revising the ICC/ESOMAR Code, addresses one of concerns that came to light in the revision process.

Thus far, the newly revised version of the ICC/ESOMAR Code has been mostly well received by ESOMAR members with one notable exception: use of the word data subject in place of respondent. As one member queried, “What’s that all about?”

There are two answers to that question. The simplest (and perhaps least satisfying) explanation is that data privacy legislation worldwide is migrating toward the use of the term. Given current and widespread concerns about privacy and the increasing use and misuse of personal data linking the Code and the guidelines that support it to the relevant legal concepts and terminology makes good sense.

But, there also is another much more relevant explanation that grew out of the ongoing evolution and diversification of research methods and practices. When the vast majority of research was done with surveys and focus groups—that is, asking questions and recording answers—the term respondent was an accurate description of how individuals participated in research. In some of our recent guidelines we refer to this as active research, defined as “the collection of data through direct interaction with an individual.”

More recently we have seen an increase in the use of passive methods, meaning “the collection of personal data by observing, measuring or recording an individual’s actions or behaviour.” In this context, the term respondent no longer seems appropriate. There still may be an interaction with the individual, for example to gain consent, but there no longer are questions and answers. In this context the term respondent seems odd, and so we moved to research participant, to cover people who take part in both active and passive methods.

Enter big data, or as we describe it in the revised Code, secondary data, defined as “data collected for another purpose and subsequently used in research.” With secondary data researchers generally do not interact with those individuals whose personal data we might acquire and analyse as part of our research, so defining them either as respondents or even research participants makes no sense. Hence the term, data subject, defined simply as “any individual whose personal data is used in research.”

Of course, we could continue to use three different terms, each in their specific context and sometimes in combination. To those of us who work on the teams that develop guidelines, this seems to add complexity without adding value. And so, over the coming months as we go back to update our guidelines to reflect the enhancements in the new Code we plan to use the single term data subject to signal anyone whose personal data is used in research, regardless of how it was obtained.

Reg Baker, Consultant to the ESOMAR Professional Standards Committee and Executive Director of MRII


The updated ICC/ESOMAR Code helps ensure that researchers globally continue to conduct research ethically, professionally and with respect individuals’ personal data, whilst using the latest methodologies. ESOMAR Members can find the text of the revised Code and a document highlighting the key changes on MyESOMAR. These documents are also available on the Referendum website, which will be open until 31 October 2016.

All members will have received an email from our election partner, Electoral Reform Services (ERS). In this email you will find the link and login codes necessary to register your vote in both the Referendum and the Council Elections.