Section 1.4: Research Ethics

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Ethics describes rules of conduct laid down and largely agreed upon by a professional group.  It is very similar to morals, except that morals are more personal in nature and vary from person to person.  There may be individuals in particular professional communities that disagree with the some of the ethical principles of their discipline, but they are required to know these ethical principles and abide by them.  

The ethics of research can vary from discipline to discipline because different disciplines have different ways of looking at the ethical world, and because different professions encounter different ethical problems in their research.  For example, biologists can do terrible things to bugs, but social researchers must treat their subjects—people—with dignity and respect. Major principles of social research ethics are considered below.

Voluntary Participation

Let’s think about voluntary participation in terms of an everyday situation: deciding to join a community class or workshop. If you heard about an interesting workshop in town, you might choose to attend because you’re curious or passionate about the topic. Now, compare that feeling to being told you must attend a workshop, regardless of your interest. The difference is clear. “Voluntary participation” in research functions the same way. It’s the idea that individuals should willingly choose to be a part of any study or experiment, free from any pressure or obligation. By ensuring that participants willingly engage, researchers not only uphold ethical standards but also ensure that participants provide genuine and authentic responses. It’s about ensuring the research process respects each individual’s autonomy and freedom of choice.

Informed Consent

Imagine you’re considering joining a new fitness class at a local gym. Before you start, the instructor explains the exercises, the potential benefits, and even mentions if some movements might be tough or risky for certain people. This is like the idea of informed consent in research. Just as the fitness instructor gives you all the necessary information to make an educated decision about the class, researchers must do the same for participants in a study. They need to be upfront about what the study involves, its purpose, and any possible risks. By doing so, participants can truly understand what they’re signing up for and decide if they want to participate. It’s a way of ensuring honesty and transparency in the research process.

Risk of Harm

It’s vital for researchers to ensure that people participating in studies remain safe. When we talk about safety, we’re looking at two main areas: harm to the body, which we call physical harm, and harm to one’s emotions or thoughts, known as psychological harm. Researchers have a duty to be open with participants. This means they should let them know if there’s anything in the study that could hurt or upset them. If the study has risks that are more than what people might face in their regular lives, then participants should be told about this.

There are some groups of people who need extra protection and care in research. For instance, individuals who might struggle with reading, those under some kind of supervision like jail or court, young individuals such as children, or those who might be in a weaker position in society all need additional safeguards. It’s also crucial to be very cautious when working with those who might not fully understand the research or feel they have less power than the person conducting the research. Everyone’s safety and well-being should always be a top priority.


Researchers often handle personal details that participants wouldn’t want others to know. This is where confidentiality comes in. It’s like a promise from the researcher that they will keep these private details a secret and only let those directly involved in the research see them. Many organizations and even laws back up this promise, making sure people’s private information stays safe. In fact, keeping this promise is so important that most rules for professionals say participants have a right to keep their personal details confidential. They only give up this right if they clearly say they’re okay with not having it.


Anonymity is like the gold standard when we want to protect someone’s privacy in research. When data is collected anonymously, it means that no one, not even the researchers, can figure out who provided the information. However, sometimes, total anonymity isn’t possible, especially when a study checks on participants more than once. In these cases, records need to be made but kept secret.

It’s up to researchers to plan for and avoid anything that might break that secrecy. To do this, they can do things like not writing down names or specific numbers that identify someone. They can also mix up the order of data or use math techniques to make sure privacy is kept. It’s important to store any records safely, look after them properly, and eventually get rid of them in a secure way.

Everyone involved in the research, not just the main researchers, needs to know how to protect participants’ privacy. This includes people who might do interviews, handle paperwork, or any other task. They should all be taught the right ways to ensure everyone’s privacy.

Right to Service

In the realm of criminal justice research, many studies dive deep into pressing social challenges. These challenges often highlight the profound pain, distress, and adversity faced by individuals. When researchers are working on these studies, there’s a common practice of having what’s known as a “no-treatment control group.” This group consists of participants who aren’t given any special interventions or support. From a strictly scientific point of view, having such a group is valuable because it makes it easier to see the effects of what’s being tested by comparing it against this group.

However, there’s a crucial ethical dilemma here. It’s morally questionable to deny someone access to a service or treatment that could potentially help them, especially when the research revolves around such serious issues. Simply conducting a study to get clear-cut results shouldn’t come at the expense of someone’s well-being. At its heart, the principle is straightforward: when there’s an opportunity to benefit someone, especially in the context of distressing social problems, that person should be offered assistance. Everyone deserves the chance to receive beneficial support when faced with challenges. This ethical stance ensures that research not only advances our understanding but also upholds the dignity and rights of its participants.

Institutional Review Boards

Even the most well-intentioned researchers might overlook potential risks to their study participants. That’s why many organizations, including universities, have put safety nets in place. One of these safety measures is the requirement for research to get a green light from an Institutional Review Board (IRB) before it begins.

What’s an Institutional Review Board? It’s a group of experts who know a lot about research. Their job is to take a close look at the planned research to see if there might be any risks or harms to the people taking part. They’re kind of like a safety check for research projects.

IRBs play two crucial roles. First, they help protect people who participate in research studies, ensuring they aren’t exposed to unnecessary risks. Second, they shield organizations, like universities, from potential legal problems that could arise if a study were to cause harm. It’s a golden rule in the research world: before starting any research project, always get approval from the IRB of the place where you’re doing the research. This ensures that the research is not only valuable but also safe for everyone involved.

Acknowledging the Limitations of Findings

Researchers play a pivotal role in the advancement of our collective understanding, and with this comes a profound ethical responsibility. Central to this responsibility is their duty to the broader social science community to be transparent about any weaknesses or potential limitations in their studies.

Why is this so vital? Research, in essence, is a pursuit of truth. It’s a systematic exploration aimed at uncovering new knowledge or confirming what we believe we know. However, no study is perfect. Every research project, no matter how meticulously executed, can have certain limitations or constraints, be it in methodology, scope, sample size, or other factors.

By openly discussing these limitations, researchers provide a more complete and nuanced understanding of their findings. This openness not only strengthens the integrity of the research but also builds trust within the academic community and the public at large. It allows peers to interpret the findings with a well-rounded perspective, acknowledging where there might be room for doubt or where further investigations could be fruitful.

Moreover, this commitment to full disclosure ensures that the progression of science is built on a foundation of transparency and honesty. When researchers are candid about a study’s flaws and shortcomings, it fosters a culture of continuous learning and refinement within the scientific community. In this way, the pursuit of knowledge remains genuine, collaborative, and ever-evolving.

For a more advanced view of Research Ethics, See the following Section of this text:

Appendix A: Advanced Concepts in Research Ethics

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File Created:  07/24/2018

Last Modified:  02/12/2024

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