Ethical Considerations Education Dissertation

Ethical Considerations

The purpose of this module is introduce and dicuss ethical issues that should be considered when designing and conducting a research project.

Learning Objectives:

  • Identify ethical considerations.
  • Describe the purpose of the the Institutional Review Board.
  • List and explain the ethical issues that must be considered when using human subjects.

Ethical considerations in research are critical.  Ethics are the norms or standards for conduct  that distinguish between right and wrong.  They help to determine the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.  Why are ethical considerations so important in research?  First, ethical standards prevent against the fabrication or falsifying of data and therefore, promote the pursuit of knowledge and truth which is the primary goal of research.  Ethical behavior is also critical for collaborative work because it encourages an environment of trust, accountability, and mutual respect among researchers.  This is especially important when considering issues related to data sharing, co-authorship, copyright guidelines, confidentiality, and many other issues.  Researchers must also adhere to ethical standards in order for the public to support and believe in the research.  The public wants to be assured that researchers followed the appropriate guidelines for issues such as human rights, animal welfare, compliance with the law, conflicts of interest, safety, health standards and so on.  The handling of these ethical issues greatly impact the integrity of the research project and can affect whether or not the project receives funding. 

Because ethical considerations are so important in research, many professional associations and agencies have adopted codes and policies that outline ethical behavior and guide researchers.  These codes address issues such as honesty, objectivity, respect for intellectual property, social responsibility, confidentiality, non-discrimination and many others.  These codes and policies provide basic guidelines, but researchers will still be faced with additional issues that are not specifically addressed and this will require decision-making on the part of the researcher in order to avoid misconduct.  The resources on this page address many of those issues and the case studies used in these resources provide excellent examples of these types of issues. 

One of the most important ethical considerations in research is the use of human subjects.  To address these considerations, most institutions and organizations have developed an Institutional Review Board (IRB).  An IRB is a panel of people who help to ensure the safety of human subjects in research and who assist in making sure that human rights are not violated.  They review the research methodology in grant proposals to assure that ethical practices are being utilized.  The use of an IRB also helps to protect the institution and the researchers against potential legal implications from any behavior that may be deemed unethical. 

Examples of some of these issues include voluntary participation and informed consent.  These principles are followed to guarantee that all human subjects are choosing to participate of their own free will and that they have been fully informed regarding the procedures of the research project and any potential risks.  Ethical standards also protect the confidentiality and anonymity of the subjects. 

Review the following slideshow to begin understanding the key ethical considerations for researchers and the history of ethical issues in research.  This slideshow is a comprehensive discussion of ethical issues that researchers may face and provides definitions of key terminology for new researchers.  This slideshow includes the use of case studies to illustrate many of these considerations.

Research ethics from Kaimrc_Rss_Jd

What needs to go in the ethics statement?

Whoever your funder will be, it’s a good idea for your ethics statement to address the six key principles set out in the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics. So you need to be able to explain how:

  • you are ensuring quality and integrity of your research;
  • you will seek informed consent;
  • you will respect the confidentiality and anonymity of your research respondents;
  • you will ensure that your participants will participate in your study voluntarily;
  • you will avoid harm to your participants; and
  • you can show that your research is independent and impartial.

When developing this website, the guidebook team interviewed representatives of several major funding bodies (see our acknowledgements section).  They all emphasised the need to make sure that you demonstrate that you have given proper, careful consideration to ethics questions.  They noted that peer reviewers will always be asked to comment on the ethics of the proposed research, and highlighted the following:

One funder commented that ‘there are ethical considerations for all proposals’ – regardless of methodology – and went on to say that it shows a lack of understanding to consider design in isolation without accounting for ethics.  So, you can strengthen your proposal by addressing ethics carefully and in a way that reflects in detail on the ethical implications of the study design.

Another funder commented that applications may be less likely to be funded if they say ‘no ethical considerations apply’ or if the ethics statement is clearly a ‘cut and paste job’ and does not show a nuanced reflection on the particular questions raised by the proposed research.

Funders also emphasised that ethics questions apply throughout the lifecourseof a project.  So, you need to consider the possible questions at each stage of your planned work and address each of those in the ethics section of the proposal.  You can use the ‘ethics principles’ section of the website – which is based on the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics – to help you do this.

What if? What can be anticipated?

The funders that we interviewed highlighted the importance of thinking ‘what if’ – of taking time to try and anticipate the unintended consequences of your research.  Of course, this depends very much on the topic you are researching, but you need to think about what to do if you do accidentally cause distress to your research respondents through your questions.  Even if you think it’s unlikely, it can be difficult to predict what causes people to become upset. Is it ever ok for people to cry? If they do, do you know how you will respond? What if they get angry with you?

Especially when researching sensitive subjects, research can sometimes be upsetting for researchers.  Is that possible in your study?  What plans can you put in place to deal with that?

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