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Ethics of Research

Researchers are expected to adhere to the principles of ethical research. The Belmont Report provides a broad framework for the ethics of research involving human subjects. Three basic ethical principles are identified:

  • Respect for persons—requires that research subjects are not coerced into participating in a study and requires the protection of research subjects who have diminished autonomy.

  • Beneficence—requires that research does not harm research subjects, and that researchers minimize the risks for subjects while maximizing the benefits for them.

  • Justice—requires that all forms of differential treatment among research subjects be justified.

    Applications of these principles lead to considerations of the following:

    • Informed Consent
      Participants should give informed consent before participating in a study. In order for participants to give informed consent.

      • The researcher must inform the participants of the study's purpose, content, duration, and potential risks and benefits.

      • The researcher must inform the participants that they can stop participating in the study at any point.

      • In the event of survey research, the researcher must inform the participants that they do not have to answer all the survey questions.

      • If the participants are children under legal age, the researcher must seek consent from their parents or guardians.

    • Confidentiality
      Unless consent is given otherwise, it is absolutely imperative that researchers keep participants' identities confidential. Confidentiality means that participants cannot be identified in any way. In survey research, this includes but is not limited to making sure that participants' identifiers are not linked to their survey responses. Common identifiers include names, social security numbers, addresses, and telephone numbers. Such Personal Identifying Information or PII must be safeguarded. When analyzing data collected from small groups or samples with small n's and when reporting the findings from these analyses, the researchers must be extra mindful of not revealing participants' identities. Cell sizes with fewer than three cases should not be reported because information about the individuals in this group could be obtained by subtraction.

    • Anonymity Anonymity is an even stronger safeguard of participant privacy. If a researcher assures anonymity, it means that the researcher is unable to link participants' names to the information they provide.

    In addition to the above principles, considerations of specific ethical issues are often required depending on the form and context of research. For example, when using administrative data, the researcher must keep in mind that there are many legal protections set by the federal and state governments that require the privacy of program applicant information. For instance, in 1977, the Privacy Protection Study Commission determined that records or information used for statistical research could not be used in an individually identifiable form and that researchers could not take any action that would affect the individual to whom the information pertains.

    A main ethical issue confronting researchers engaged in participant observation research is deciding when and how to inform those being observed that they are part of a research study. In theory, a researcher should identify himself or herself as a researcher at the onset of participant observation. However, in reality this may not be feasible without inherently changing the interactions at the outset. If the researcher decides to do so, a general but forthright description of the aims of the research should be sufficient. As relationships with members deepen, any controversial aspects of the study should be revealed. A researcher must obtain informed consent from any member who agrees to a formal, in-depth interview.

    Institutional Review Board (IRB) Review

    In order to assure that research subject and participant rights and welfare are protected, all researchers should have their project reviewed by an IRB or comparable bodies. The National Institutes of Health supplies strict guidelines for project approval. Many of these guidelines are based on the Belmont Report.


    See the following for additional information about research ethics and protecting the rights of study participants and their data:

    The content on this page was prepared by Jerry West. It was last modified March 2019.

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