Ethics emerge from value conflicts. In research, these conflicts are expressed in many ways: individuals’ rights to privacy versus the undesirability of manipulation, openness and replication versus confidentiality, future welfare versus immediate relief, and others. Each decision made in research involves a potential compromise of one value for another. Researchers must try to minimize risks to participants, colleagues, and society while attempting to maximize the quality of information they produce.
There are a number of key phrases that describe the system of ethical protections that the contemporary social and medical research establishment have created to try to protect better the rights of their research participants.
It is okay to make mistakes but not okay to try to conceal them!
Seven areas of scientific dishonesty
- Fabrication and falsification
- Nonpublication of data
- Faulty data-gathering procedures
- Poor data storage and retention
- Misleading authorship
- Sneaky publication practices
The principle of voluntary participation requires that people not be coerced into participating in research. This is especially relevant where researchers had previously relied on ‘captive audiences’ for their subjects — prisons, universities, and places like that.
Closely related to the notion of voluntary participation is the requirement of informed consent. Essentially, this means that prospective research participants must be fully informed about the procedures and risks involved in research and must give their consent to participate.
Ethical standards also require that researchers not put participants in a situation where they might be at risk of harm as a result of their participation. Harm can be defined as both physical and psychological. There are two standards that are applied in order to help protect the privacy of research participants.
Almost all research guarantees the participants confidentiality — they are assured that identifying information will not be made available to anyone who is not directly involved in the study.
The stricter standard is the principle of anonymity which essentially means that the participant will remain anonymous throughout the study — even to the researchers themselves. Clearly, the anonymity standard is a stronger guarantee of privacy, but it is sometimes difficult to accomplish, especially in situations where participants have to be measured at multiple time points (e.g., a pre-post study).
Increasingly, researchers have had to deal with the ethical issue of a person’s right to service. Good research practice often requires the use of a no-treatment control group — a group of participants who do not get the treatment or program that is being studied. But when that treatment or program may have beneficial effects, persons assigned to the no-treatment control may feel their rights to equal access to services are being curtailed.
Even when clear ethical standards and principles exist, there will be times when the need to do accurate research runs up against the rights of potential participants. No set of standards can possibly anticipate every ethical circumstance. Furthermore, there needs to be a procedure that assures that researchers will consider all relevant ethical issues in formulating research plans.
To address such needs most institutions and organizations have formulated an Institutional Review Board (IRB), a panel of persons who reviews grant proposals with respect to ethical implications and decides whether additional actions need to be taken to assure the safety and rights of participants. By reviewing proposals for research, IRBs also help to protect both the organization and the researcher against potential legal implications of neglecting to address important ethical issues of participants.