A guide to ethical considerations in research

Ethical considerations in research are a set of principles that guide your research designs and practices. Scientists and researchers must always adhere to a certain code of conduct when collecting data from people.

The goals of human research often include understanding real-life phenomena, studying effective treatments, investigating behaviors, and improving lives in other ways. What you decide to research and how you conduct that research involve key ethical considerations.

These considerations work to

  • protect the rights of research participants
  • enhance research validity
  • maintain scientific integrity

This article mainly focuses on research ethics in human research, but ethical considerations are also important in animal research.

Why do research ethics matter?

Research ethics matter for scientific integrity, human rights and dignity, and collaboration between science and society. These principles make sure that participation in studies is voluntary, informed, and safe for research subjects.

You’ll balance pursuing important research aims with using ethical research methods and procedures. It’s always necessary to prevent permanent or excessive harm to participants, whether inadvertent or not.

Defying research ethics will also lower the credibility of your research because it’s hard for others to trust your data if your methods are morally questionable.

Even if a research idea is valuable to society, it doesn’t justify violating the human rights or dignity of your study participants.

Getting ethical approval for your study

Before you start any study involving data collection with people, you’ll submit your research proposal to an institutional review board (IRB).

An IRB is a committee that checks whether your research aims and research design are ethically acceptable and follow your institution’s code of conduct. They check that your research materials and procedures are up to code.

If successful, you’ll receive IRB approval, and you can begin collecting data according to the approved procedures. If you want to make any changes to your procedures or materials, you’ll need to submit a modification application to the IRB for approval.

If unsuccessful, you may be asked to re-submit with modifications or your research proposal may receive a rejection. To get IRB approval, it’s important to explicitly note how you’ll tackle each of the ethical issues that may arise in your study.

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Types of ethical issues

There are several ethical issues you should always pay attention to in your research design, and these issues can overlap with each other.

You’ll usually outline ways you’ll deal with each issue in your research proposal if you plan to collect data from participants.

Ethical issue Definition
Voluntary participation Your participants are free to opt in or out of the study at any point in time.
Informed consent Participants know the purpose, benefits, risks, and funding behind the study before they agree or decline to join.
Anonymity You don’t know the identities of the participants. Personally identifiable data is not collected.
Confidentiality You know who the participants are but you keep that information hidden from everyone else. You anonymize personally identifiable data so that it can’t be linked to other data by anyone else.
Potential for harm Physical, social, psychological and all other types of harm are kept to an absolute minimum.
Results communication You ensure your work is free of plagiarism or research misconduct, and you accurately represent your results.

Voluntary participation

Voluntary participation means that all research subjects are free to choose to participate without any pressure or coercion.

All participants are able to withdraw from, or leave, the study at any point without feeling an obligation to continue. Your participants don’t need to provide a reason for leaving the study.

It’s important to make it clear to participants that there are no negative consequences or repercussions to their refusal to participate. After all, they’re taking the time to help you in the research process, so you should respect their decisions without trying to change their minds.

Example of voluntary participation
When recruiting participants for an experiment, you inform all potential participants that they are free to choose whether they want to participate, and they can withdraw from the study anytime without any negative repercussions.

Voluntary participation is an ethical principle protected by international law and many scientific codes of conduct.

Take special care to ensure there’s no pressure on participants when you’re working with vulnerable groups of people who may find it hard to stop the study even when they want to.

Informed consent refers to a situation in which all potential participants receive and understand all the information they need to decide whether they want to participate. This includes information about the study’s benefits, risks, funding, and institutional approval.

Example of informed consent
You recruit participants outside a train station for a quick survey.

You make sure to provide all potential participants with all the relevant information about

  • what the study is about
  • the risks and benefits of taking part
  • how long the study will take
  • your supervisor’s contact information and the institution’s approval number

You also let them know that their data will be kept confidential, and they are free to stop filling in the survey at any point for any reason. They can also withdraw their information by contacting you or your supervisor.

Usually, you’ll provide participants with a text for them to read and ask them if they have any questions. If they agree to participate, they can sign or initial the consent form. Note that this may not be sufficient for informed consent when you work with particularly vulnerable groups of people.

If you’re collecting data from people with low literacy, make sure to verbally explain the consent form to them before they agree to participate.

For participants with very limited English proficiency, you should always translate the study materials or work with an interpreter so they have all the information in their first language.

In research with children, you’ll often need informed permission for their participation from their parents or guardians. Although children cannot give informed consent, it’s best to also ask for their assent (agreement) to participate, depending on their age and maturity level.

Anonymity

Anonymity means that you don’t know who the participants are and you can’t link any individual participant to their data.

You can only guarantee anonymity by not collecting any personally identifying information—for example, names, phone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses, physical characteristics, photos, and videos.

In many cases, it may be impossible to truly anonymize data collection. For example, data collected in person or by phone cannot be considered fully anonymous because some personal identifiers (demographic information or phone numbers) are impossible to hide.

You’ll also need to collect some identifying information if you give your participants the option to withdraw their data at a later stage.

Data pseudonymization is an alternative method where you replace identifying information about participants with pseudonymous, or fake, identifiers. The data can still be linked to participants but it’s harder to do so because you separate personal information from the study data.

Example of data pseudonymization
You’re conducting a survey with college students. You ask participants to enter demographic information including their age, gender, nationality, and ethnicity. With all this information, it may be possible for other people to identify individual participants, so you pseudonymize the data.

Each participant is given a random three-digit number. You separate their personally identifying information from their survey data and include the participant numbers in both files. The survey data can only be linked to personally identifying data via the participant numbers.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality means that you know who the participants are, but you remove all identifying information from your report.

All participants have a right to privacy, so you should protect their personal data for as long as you store or use it. Even when you can’t collect data anonymously, you should secure confidentiality whenever you can.

Example of confidentiality
To keep your data confidential, you take steps to safeguard it and prevent any threats to data privacy. You store all signed consent forms in a locked file drawer, and you password-protect all files with survey data.

Only other researchers approved by the IRB are allowed to access the study data, and you make sure that everyone knows and follows your institution’s data privacy protocols.

Some research designs aren’t conducive to confidentiality, but it’s important to make all attempts and inform participants of the risks involved.

Example of focus group confidentiality
In a focus group study, you invite five people to give their opinions on a new student service in a group setting.

Before beginning the study, you ask everyone to agree to keep what’s discussed confidential and to respect each other’s privacy. You also note that you cannot completely guarantee confidentiality or anonymity so that participants are aware of the risks involved.

Potential for harm

As a researcher, you have to consider all possible sources of harm to participants. Harm can come in many different forms.

  • Psychological harm: Sensitive questions or tasks may trigger negative emotions such as shame or anxiety.
  • Social harm: Participation can involve social risks, public embarrassment, or stigma.
  • Physical harm: Pain or injury can result from the study procedures.
  • Legal harm: Reporting sensitive data could lead to legal risks or a breach of privacy.

It’s best to consider every possible source of harm in your study as well as concrete ways to mitigate them. Involve your supervisor to discuss steps for harm reduction.

Make sure to disclose all possible risks of harm to participants before the study to get informed consent. If there is a risk of harm, prepare to provide participants with resources or counseling or medical services if needed.

Example of potential for harm
In a study on stress, you survey college students on their alcohol consumption habits.

Some of these questions may bring up negative emotions, so you inform participants about the sensitive nature of the survey and assure them that their responses will be confidential.

You also provide participants with information about student counseling services and information about managing alcohol use after the survey is complete.

Results communication

The way you communicate your research results can sometimes involve ethical issues. Good science communication is honest, reliable, and credible. It’s best to make your results as transparent as possible.

Take steps to actively avoid plagiarism and research misconduct wherever possible.

Plagiarism

Plagiarism means submitting others’ works as your own. Although it can be unintentional, copying someone else’s work without proper credit amounts to stealing. It’s an ethical problem in research communication because you may benefit by harming other researchers.

Self-plagiarism is when you republish or re-submit parts of your own papers or reports without properly citing your original work.

This is problematic because you may benefit from presenting your ideas as new and original even though they’ve already been published elsewhere in the past. You may also be infringing on your previous publisher’s copyright, violating an ethical code, or wasting time and resources by doing so.

In extreme cases of self-plagiarism, entire datasets or papers are sometimes duplicated. These are major ethical violations because they can skew research findings if taken as original data.

Example of duplication
You’re conducting a meta-analysis on whether working from home is related to better stress management. You gather all studies on this topic that meet your search criteria.

You notice that two published studies have similar characteristics even though they are from different years. Their sample sizes, locations, treatments, and results are highly similar, and the studies share one author in common.

If you enter both data sets in your analyses, you get a different conclusion compared to when you only use one data set. Including both data sets would distort your overall findings.

Research misconduct

Research misconduct means making up or falsifying data, manipulating data analyses, or misrepresenting results in research reports. It’s a form of academic fraud.

These actions are committed intentionally and can have serious consequences; research misconduct is not a simple mistake or a point of disagreement about data analyses.

Research misconduct is a serious ethical issue because it can undermine scientific integrity and institutional credibility. It leads to a waste of funding and resources that could have been used for alternative research.

Example of misconduct (MMR vaccine misinformation)
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield and others published a now-debunked paper claiming that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism in children.

Later investigations revealed that they fabricated and manipulated their data to show a nonexistent link between vaccines and autism. Wakefield also neglected to disclose important conflicts of interest, and his medical license was taken away.

This fraudulent work sparked vaccine hesitancy among parents and caregivers. The rate of MMR vaccinations in children fell sharply, and measles outbreaks became more common due to a lack of herd immunity.

In reality, there is no risk of children developing autism from the MMR or other vaccines, as shown by many large studies. Although the paper was retracted, it has actually received thousands of citations.

Examples of ethical failures

Content warning
This section contains discussion of violence, racism, and ableism.

Research scandals with ethical failures are littered throughout history, but some took place not that long ago.

Some scientists in positions of power have historically mistreated or even abused research participants to investigate research problems at any cost. These participants were prisoners, under their care, or otherwise trusted them to treat them with dignity.

To demonstrate the importance of research ethics, we’ll briefly review two research studies that violated human rights in modern history.

Nazi experiments
Nazi doctors and researchers performed painful and horrific experiments on thousands of imprisoned people in concentration camps from 1942 to 1945.

These experiments were inhumane and resulted in trauma, permanent disabilities, or death in many cases.

The participation of prisoners was always forced, as consent was never sought. Participants often belonged to marginalized communities, including Jewish people, disabled people, and Roma people.

After some Nazi doctors were put on trial for their crimes, the Nuremberg Code of research ethics for human experimentation was developed in 1947 to establish a new standard for human experimentation in medical research.

Tuskegee syphilis study
The Tuskegee syphilis study was an American public health study that violated research ethics throughout its 40-year run from 1932 to 1972. In this study, 600 young black men were deceived into participating with a promise of free healthcare that was never fulfilled.

In reality, the actual goal was to study the effects of the disease when left untreated, and the researchers never informed participants about their diagnoses or the research aims.

Although participants experienced severe health problems, including blindness and other complications, the researchers only pretended to provide medical care.

When treatment became possible in 1943, 11 years after the study began, none of the participants were offered it, despite their health conditions and high risk of death.

By the end of the study, 128 participants had died of syphilis or related complications. The study ended only once its existence was made public and it was judged to be “medically unjustified.”

Ethical failures like these resulted in severe harm to participants, wasted resources, and lower trust in science and scientists. This is why all research institutions have strict ethical guidelines for performing research.

Frequently asked questions about research ethics

What are ethical considerations in research?

Ethical considerations in research are a set of principles that guide your research designs and practices. These principles include voluntary participation, informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality, potential for harm, and results communication.

Scientists and researchers must always adhere to a certain code of conduct when collecting data from others.

These considerations protect the rights of research participants, enhance research validity, and maintain scientific integrity.

Why do research ethics matter?

Research ethics matter for scientific integrity, human rights and dignity, and collaboration between science and society. These principles make sure that participation in studies is voluntary, informed, and safe.

What’s the difference between anonymity and confidentiality?

Anonymity means you don’t know who the participants are, while confidentiality means you know who they are but remove identifying information from your research report. Both are important ethical considerations.

You can only guarantee anonymity by not collecting any personally identifying information—for example, names, phone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses, physical characteristics, photos, or videos.

You can keep data confidential by using aggregate information in your research report, so that you only refer to groups of participants rather than individuals.

What is research misconduct?

Research misconduct means making up or falsifying data, manipulating data analyses, or misrepresenting results in research reports. It’s a form of academic fraud.

These actions are committed intentionally and can have serious consequences; research misconduct is not a simple mistake or a point of disagreement but a serious ethical failure.

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Pritha Bhandari

Pritha has an academic background in English, psychology and cognitive neuroscience. As an interdisciplinary researcher, she enjoys writing articles explaining tricky research concepts for students and academics.