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Things to Consider about Ethics in Academic Research

Things to Consider about Ethics in Academic Research

Things to Consider about Ethics in Research

Many values inherent in research are congruent with general moral and social values. They include things like human and animal rights, health and safety, honesty, respect and responsibility — to name just a few. If a researcher breaches their institution’s established code of ethics, the consequences are often not only personal, they can be dire as well. For example, if one fabricates research findings, this act can jeopardize lives.

Things are not always black and white with research ethics, if a few cases there are grey areas. Ethical dilemmas are therefore a part of research and need to be openly discussed and properly addressed. Make sure you protect you and your participants by following the code of conduct of your profession and/or your academic institution. Your research should be important to you (and your colleagues or research group), however, it shouldn’t be prioritized over the well-being of others and/or the environment. As a researcher you should do your best to remain compassionate, professional, and also, to follow standards.

Ethical Principles Addressed in Many Codes of Ethics

There are specific codes, policies and rules that apply to research ethics and that are covered by different legal documents and codes of conduct.

In Responsible Conduct of Research, the authors Adil E. Shamoo and David B. Resnik write about some of the main ethical principles we should all follow when engaging in research work. These include:

  • Honesty (for instance, in reporting and communicating your findings)
  • Objectivity (this minimizes bias)
  • Carefulness (for instance, preventing negligence)
  • Openness (when sharing data and discussing ideas)
  • Respect for intellectual property (acknowledging other people’s work and giving everybody who participated credit),
  • Confidentiality (in connection with your participants and data)
  • Non-discrimination (against colleagues and students)
  • Competence (maintaining your continuous professional development standards)
  • Animal protection (unnecessary research or poorly designed research should not be performed on animals)
  • Legality (being familiar with institutional and federal guidelines and laws)

The research process becomes more complicated, and potentially contentious, when you involve animal or human subjects. Here is a brief overview of some of the important ethical considerations when working with human subjects:

Obtaining Informed Consent

Whenever your research includes active human participants, they need to be sufficiently informed before they agree to participate. “Informed consent” means that you thoroughly describe your research to your participants: you explain the research and the expected research duration; what is expected of participants; and any risks the study could involve. Also, you need to be available to answer any questions the participants might have. Participation in research should always be voluntary, so people need to know about everything that could contribute to their willingness to engage in your study. They also should know about the possible benefits and advantages, however, they shouldn’t feel coerced to get involved. It is not uncommon to offer potential participants some sort of compensation if they agree to be a part of your study. The American Psychological Association (APA) offers some guidance regarding the use of incentives and advises against excessive and inappropriate financial rewards or other incentives.

Respecting Confidentiality and Privacy

The aspects of confidentiality and privacy should be addressed during the consent process. Participants need to be aware how their information will be stored and shared. If you are conducting interviews and/or observations, you might be entering a very private sphere of an individual’s life, so he or she needs to be okay with that. The identity of participants should always be protected and pseudonyms are generally used when reporting findings to protect anonymity. If your participants do not feel comfortable and safe about their privacy, they might not be willing to share as much as you need them to successfully complete your research.

Also, your research must follow any federal and state laws that apply. For instance, in some circumstances certain topics might be off limits with certain groups of people. For example, in almost any case you legally will need to obtain parental permission if working with children and minors.