Doing Ethical Research

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Ethics in research is often associated with forms, procedures, and box-ticking—but it is much more than that. A truly ethical approach to research recognizes the potential for harm as well as for good in our desire to add to the sum of human knowledge. It places participants’ safety and well-being at the heart of the research, while also ensuring that the researcher and their university are protected from harm. This Skill will give you the knowledge, insight, and practical tools to design and carry out a truly ethical inquiry into knowledge.

First, Do No Harm

In 1920, two researchers at a prestigious American university conducted an experiment on a nine-month-old baby known as “Little Albert.” They wanted to investigate whether they could condition him to feel fear at the sight of objects that children would not normally find scary. As a result of frightening him with loud noises many times during the experiment, “Little Albert” came to fear the sight of white rats, furry objects, and other items he had previously enjoyed playing with (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Santa Claus Became Scary

For Little Albert, objects that had once offered pleasure or joy—even Santa Claus—had become sources of terror.

A picture shows the hands of a Santa Claus.

Source: Photo by Jesson Mata on Unsplash.

Sadly, the history of research is rife with incidents as disturbing as this. In fact, the psychological damage these researchers caused to one child shrinks next to the horrific experimentation carried out on vulnerable, marginalized, and racially discriminated groups of people, including children with intellectual disabilities; people of color; unhoused people, and the experiments and torture inflicted by Nazi researchers in World War II death camps.

Common to all these instances of unethical research is the act of “un-personing” those on whom the research was carried out. They were not seen as people, with rights of dignity and choice, but as conveniently available research material: as unimportant objects on which the researchers could experiment without compunction.

Detecting our own biases against other people, especially groups of people, is not a simple matter. As researchers, our first and most important commitment must be to recognize and respect the personhood and agency of other people, and indeed the well-being of all sentient beings: even at the expense of our desire to contribute to knowledge.

Pause for Thought

It may seem extraordinary to have to state, as the Nuremberg Code does, that “No experiment should be conducted, where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur ....”

Yet, under the banner of science and discovery, hundreds of thousands of people have suffered as a result of experiments that we now consider inhumane and unjustifiable—but which were overlooked, tolerated, or even approved at the time.

Research Ethics and You

The Nuremberg Code, which was developed in 1947 in response to the uncovering of Nazi experimentation during World War II, developed into the codes of ethics that researchers follow today. They are designed to protect participants in research studies in several ways—from physical and psychological harm, infringement of their rights and dignity, coercion, and reputational damage. Codes of ethics are also designed to protect the researcher’s institution, and indeed researchers themselves, from the litigation or reputational damage that badly designed and harmful research could bring about.

Research ethics will be most visible in the planning and design phase of your work, but it runs through every well-designed research project, from conceiving the focus of your study, through developing your theoretical framework and choosing your methods, right the way through to writing up and submitting your findings.

Ultimately, ethical research is not a matter of filling in a form, ticking a box, or being vaguely aware of a code of practice. It is about having the humility and compassion to recognize the personhood of other people, including those who we think of as not “like us.” In truth, there is no such thing as a research population: there are simply individual people who may happen to share a characteristic or experience, and who in their generosity are prepared to make known part of their unique selves and lives in the service of your research.

Content of This Skill
Section 1. Aspects of Ethical Research

Research creates significant benefit for people and society—but it also has the potential to cause real and long-lasting harm.

The first section of this Skill will help you to think through your attitude to research and how this will translate into your approach, the types of questions you ask, and the design of your study. You will discover:

  • why research isn’t about “proving” anything;
  • how to treat your literature and sources ethically;
  • how to frame ethical research questions or hypotheses;
  • how to design a study that safeguards participants, the research field, and you as a researcher.
Section 2. You and Your Participants

The safety and well-being of the people who contribute to your research is of the first importance in conducting ethical research. This section covers key principles including:

  • voluntary and informed consent;
  • the right to withdraw from the research;
  • maintaining confidentiality and avoiding identification;
  • identifying and managing any risks to participants that your study design might involve.

It will also ask you to consider how you position yourself in relation to your participants, how to bring closure to your interactions with them, and how to leave the research field.

Section 3. Managing Your Data

Data are the life-blood of research, and they deserve to be treated with care! This section explores all the different types of data and metadata you may need to manage during your research. It explains the importance of keeping your data safe and secure, especially personal and sensitive data.

In addition, you will discover:

  • how to manage each step of the “data journey” from collecting to deleting;
  • what to do if your research produces inconclusive or negative results;
  • a guide to identifying the types of data you will need to store and manage;
  • a template for creating a data management plan.
Section 4. The Ethics Application

This final section brings together all the aspects of ethical research that you’ve covered in the previous Skills. It will assist you to put your knowledge to solid practical use as you write your application for ethical clearance and submit it to your university’s Research Ethics Board.

You will learn:

  • how to plan and write a clear and comprehensive description of your research study and its impact;
  • how to manage the application process and leave yourself sufficient time for the research project itself;
  • what to do if you are asked to resubmit your application.

This section also includes example wording, action checklists, and templates for the documentation you may need to include with your application.

Did You Know?

There’s a glossary of terms and concepts available for this entire Module in the Beginning Your Research Skill.

Suggested Readings
Homan, R. (1991). The ethics of social research. Longman.
Brown, B., Dube, K., &Taylor, J. (2017, May 25). Revisiting what to call people who participate in clinical research. Ampersand: The PRIM&R blog. (accessed 29 July, 2021)
UK Research and Innovation. (2021). Human participants in research. (accessed 29 July 2021)
Information Commissioner’s Office [UK]. (2021).What is personal data? (accessed 29 July, 2021)
British Psychological Society. (2021). Ethics guidelines for internet-mediated research. (accessed 29 July, 2021)