What are ethical considerations in academic research?

Ethical issues arise in all aspects of conducting research for PhD or Master’s. Such areas include attention to human rights, data collection, data analysis and interpretation, respect for the research sites, writing and disseminating the research. This post will describe some of these central issues that you should anticipate in designing your dissertation study. 

What is considered ethical varies from person to person and from the institution to institution. However, most professional organizations and various disciplines within the social sciences have established their own standards and codes of ethics to guide their research activities.These guidelines according to Rossman and rallies (1998), “as standards for the ethical practice of research and are based on moral principles such as utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number), theories of individual rights (the rights of individual may supersede the interests of the greatest number), and the theories of justice( fairness equity)” (pp 48-49). Following are some examples of professional ethical guidelines and websites where they can be found: 

  • The American Psychological Association's ethical principles Psychological and code of conduct, www.apa.org/ethics/code.html 
  • The American sociological Association codes of ethics, www2.asanet.org/member/ecoderev.html 

The following website offers a full listing of guidelines and codes of ethics for those in social sciences: www.bc.edu/research/meta-elements/htm/social science.htm. 


Institutional Review Boards (IRB)

Colleges, universities, and another research institution have institutional review boards (IRBs) whose members review proposals and approve all research conducted at their institutions. Their main purpose is the protection of those participating in a research study, particularly around ethical issues such as informed consent, protection from harm, and confidentiality. Specially, the IRB committee's role is to protect participants from “stress, discomfort, embarrassment, invasion of privacy or potential threat to reputation” (Madsen,1992, p.80)   

If you decide to use questionnaires or conduct interviews, experiments, or observations, you need to submit a proposal to use human subjects to the IRB before actually conducting your study. Each institution has his own procedures as to when as to when and how proposals should be submitted to the committee. Because your dissertation committee may request changes in your original position it would behove you to wait until after the proposal has been formally approved by your committee to approach IRB, be sure to provide detailed and comprehensive information about your study, the consent process and how confidential information will be protected. 

There are two basic requests made to the IRB committee; expedited review and full review. When there is a minimal risk to the participants, psychologically, physically, or socially, then an expedited review is appropriate. According to Rudestam and Newton (2007), there is no clear standard to judge “minimal risk” They state the following: 

The criterion of minimal risk could pertain to research involving brief questionnaires that do not address questions likely to be disturbing to the participants. Questions regarding favored sports or preferred television programs are probably not disturbing, current mental status, and alcohol or drug abuse. 

Clear ethical standards and principles exist regarding the rights of human subjects, confidentially, coercion, and consent. It is critical that you carefully think through these issues when planning your research procedures in these matters. The ethical involved human subjects in research are described in the section that follows.  




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