Chapter 3 Research Ethics Introduction Every social scientist needs to consider how to practice their discipline ethically. Whenever we interact with other people as social scientists we must give paramount importance to the rational concerns and emotional needs that will shape their responses to our actions. It is here that ethical research practice begins, with the recognition that our research procedures involve people who deserve as much respect for their well-being as we do for ours. Historical Background Formal procedures for the protection of participants in research grew out of some widely publicized abuses. The Nuremberg War Crime Trials and Hitler?s experiments The Tuskgee syphilis experiments in the 1930?s Out of these and other experiments that violated human rights, the US created a National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Ethics Three basic ethical principles for the protection of human subjects were established: Respect for persons: Treating persons as autonomous agents and protecting those with diminished autonomy. Beneficence: Minimizing possible harms and maximizing benefits. Justice: Distributing benefits and risks of research fairly. Ethics, cont. Federal regulations require that every institution that seeks federal funding for biomedical or behavioral research on human subjects have an institutional review board (IRB) that reviews research proposals. IRBs at universities and other agencies apply ethics standards that are set by federal regulations but can be expanded or specified by the IRB itself (Sieber 1992:5, 10). Ethics, cont. The American Sociological Association (ASA), like other professional social science organizations, has adopted, for practicing sociologists, ethics guidelines that are more specific than the federal regulations. Professional organizations may also review complaints of unethical practices when asked. http://www.asanet.org/page.ww?section=Ethics&name=Ethics The complete text of the Code is also available at this site. Ethical Principles Achieving Valid Results. Commitment to achieving valid results is the necessary starting point for ethical research practice. Honesty and Openness. The scientific concern with validity requires that scientists be open in disclosing their methods and honest in presenting their findings. Ethical Principles, cont. Protecting Research Participants. The Code?s standards concerning the treatment of human subjects include federal regulations and ethics guidelines emphasized by most professional social science organizations: Research should cause no harm to subjects Participation in research should be voluntary, and therefore subjects must give their informed consent to participate in the research. Researchers should fully disclose their identity. Anonymity or confidentiality must be maintained for individual research participants unless it is voluntarily and explicitly waived. Benefits from a research project should outweigh any foreseeable risks. Ethical Principles, cont. Avoid harming research participants. Although this standard may seem straightforward, it can be difficult to interpret in specific cases and harder yet to define in a way agreeable to all social scientists. Does it mean that subjects should not be at all harmed psychologically as well as physically? That they should feel no anxiety or distress whatever during the study or only after their involvement ends? Ethical Principles, cont. Obtain informed consent. To be informed, consent must be given by persons who are competent to consent, have consented voluntarily, are fully informed about the research, and have comprehended what they have been told (Reynolds 1979). Avoid deception in research, except in limited circumstances. Deception occurs when subjects are misled about research procedures to determine how they would react to the treatment if they were not research subjects. Ethical Principles, cont. Maintain privacy and confidentiality. Procedures to protect each subject?s privacy such as locking records and creating special identifying codes must be created to minimize the risk of access by unauthorized persons. The Uses of Research Scientists must also consider the uses to which their research is put. Although many scientists believe that personal values should be left outside the laboratory, some feel that it is proper?even necessary--for scientists to concern themselves with the way their research is used. Conclusions The extent to which ethical issues are a problem for researchers and their subjects varies dramatically with the type of research design. Survey research, in particular, creates few ethical problems. Some experimental studies in the social sciences that have put people in uncomfortable or embarrassing situations have generated vociferous complaints and years of debate about ethics (Reynolds 1979; Sjoberg 1967). Conclusions, cont. Ultimately, these decisions about ethical procedures are not just up to you, as a researcher, to make. Your university?s IRB sets the human subjects protection standards for your institution and may even require that you submit your research proposal to them for review. So you need to review the human subjects guidelines of the ASA or other professional association in your field, consult your university?s procedures for the conduct of research with human subjects and then proceed accordingly.
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