Secrecy, coercion and deception in research on ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’

Narzanin Massoumi, Tom Mills, David Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article calls for more understanding of the ethical challenges and dilemmas that arise as a result of state involvement in academic research on ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’. It suggests that researchers and research institutions need to be more attentive to the possibilities of co-option, compromise, conflict of interests and other ethical issues. The paper empirically examines the relationship between academic researchers and the security state. It highlights three key ways in which ethical and professional standards in social scientific research can be compromised: (1) Interference with the evidence base (through a lack of transparency on data and conflicts of interest); (2) Collaboration on research supporting deception by the state which undermines the ability of citizens to participate in democratic processes; and (3) Collaboration on research legitimating human rights abuses, and other coercive state practices. These issues are widespread, but neglected, across: literature on ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’; literature on research ethics; and, in practical ethical safeguards and procedures within research institutions. In order to address these issues more effectively, we propose that any assessment of research ethics must consider the broader power relations that shape knowledge production as well as the societal impact of research. In focusing on the centrality of states – the most powerful actors in the field of ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ – our approach moves beyond the rather narrow procedural approaches that currently predominate. We argue more attention to the power of the state in research ethics will not only help to make visible, and combat, ethically problematic issues, but will also help to protect the evidence base from contamination. We conclude by proposing a series of practical measures to address the problems highlighted.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)134-152
JournalContemporary Social Science
Issue number2
Early online date19 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2 Apr 2020

Bibliographical note

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (
licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


  • academic freedom
  • Research ethics
  • secret research
  • studying up
  • terrorism
  • the public university


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