An important aspect of research is the respect and consideration we show to the people who participate in the study with us. These people are our colleagues and our subjects. Research ethics, now often called the responsible conduct of research, is a large area, and this discussion will only touch on a few of the major issues. There are many resources that discuss both the ethics of working with colleagues and the ethics of using human subjects in research. A good web site to explore both of these aspects is the Sigma Xi - New Ethical Challenges in Science and Technology.
Research on humans to a large extent depends on volunteer subjects. Often the products of research results in benefits to society. These benefits come in the form of new methods of learning, treatments for disease, and ways of conducting our affairs. We do not want to advance society over the bones of our subjects. This is where the largest area of ethical concern lies in research: What are the rights of the subject, and when is the manipulation of the subject unethical?
There are four areas of concern where the rights and dignity of the subject must be preserved. These areas are: consent, harm, privacy, and deception. We will also explain a methodology that you can use to guide your ethical decision making process. Further information on ethics in research can be found in Wulff (1979), and Sigma Xi (1986).Four Ethical Issues
Consent - This is the procedure by which research subjects choose whether or not they wish to participate in a research study. Consent involves three elements: capacity, information, and voluntariness. All three elements must be satisfied for consent to be given.
Information consists of insuring the subjects are told, and they understand, the purpose of the study and their roles as subjects.
Voluntariness means that the subject chooses to be in the study of his/her own free will and is free to withdraw from the study at any time. There must be no element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, ulterior form of constraint or coercion to get a subject to participate. Paying subjects is usually OK, but offering prisoners a parole to participate in a study is not.
Special attention must be paid to obtaining the consent of children, psychiatric patients, and mentally retarded persons. These groups, usually require that a parent or guardian give consent. The subject needs to be informed about the study and participate in the decision to be a subject as much as possible.
Harm - One of the most important issues in all of research ethics is that subjects not be harmed by your study. To avoid physical harm is obvious, but other areas need to be avoided also. These areas are: psychological stress, personal embarrassment, and humiliation. The dignity of the subject (be it human or animal) needs to always be a concern of the researcher.
While we are aware that medical research often runs the risk of harm to the individual through the use of a new drug or surgical procedure, other areas of research can also cause harm if not carefully planned and supervised. Educational research runs risks of psychological and social harm due to the effects of a classroom intervention in the learning or socialization processes. All research has the potential for harm.
The goal of course is to reduce the risk of harm as much as possible, but since some risk may always be present. How much is too much? This cannot be answered by a rule, but is always a judgment call by the researcher. One guideline to follow is: does the risk or harm to the subject outweigh the potential good to society of the study? If it does, don't do the study! You cannot offset the risk of harm by getting the subject's consent. If a consenting adult subject is hurt you can still be at fault in both the legal and moral aspects.
Privacy - Every subject has the right to keep private the fact that he/she participated in your study, and the right that information given to you not be linked to them. Research often is based on information obtained from the subjects. The information will be used in the study, and perhaps published, but it must be done in a way that insures the individual's anonymity.
Violation of the promise of privacy can result in harm to the subject.
There is a trade off in science's need to know and the individual's right not to tell. Again there is no rule about what is too private to ask about. Obviously questions about sexual preferences, criminal behavior, and other sensitive areas can be asked in certain circumstances, but the dignity of the individual must be respected in all cases.
Deception - Deception in research involves the misrepresentation of facts related to the purpose, nature, or consequences of a research study. The omission of facts is the same as misrepresentation. Subjects need to be fully informed in order to give consent. If any part of the study is misrepresented then the subjects have not fully consented to the study and the researcher is morally in the wrong. He can be successfully sued if harm comes to the subjects or if their privacy is violated.
Some studies require that subjects in the experimental groups not know what treatments they are getting because the knowledge might alter their response. How can this type of study be done without deception? Sometimes the knowledge that one is a participant in a study will alter performance (this is called the Hawthorn effect). How could this effect be countered without deception? You can use a placebo control group.
Placebo controls are not deceptive if subjects are told they may be assigned to a group that does not get the experimental treatment.
Suppose you want to engage in some activity, but there appears to be an ethical or moral issue that could interfere with your plans. If so, then you need to analyze that issue in order to decide if you can engage in that activity.
If you can find a solution to each ethical issue, then there will no longer be any ethical objections to your carrying out the activity. You must be careful that your solutions are true solutions and not just rationalizations.
Ethical decision making is a four step process: