Principles of research ethics

There are a number of ethical principles that should be taken into account when performing undergraduate and master's level dissertation research. At the core, these ethical principles stress the need to (a) do good (known as beneficence) and (b) do no harm (known as non-malfeasance). In practice, these ethical principles mean that as a researcher, you need to: (a) obtain informed consent from potential research participants; (b) minimise the risk of harm to participants; (c) protect their anonymity and confidentiality; (d) avoid using deceptive practices; and (e) give participants the right to withdraw from your research. This article discusses these five ethical principles and their practical implications when carrying out dissertation research.

When you look at these five basic ethical principles, it may appear obvious that your dissertation should include these. However, there are many instances where it is not possible or desirable to obtain informed consent from research participants. Similarly, there may be instances where you seek permission from participants not to protect their anonymity. More often than not, such choices should reflect the research strategy that you adopt to guide your dissertation.

Broadly speaking, your dissertation research should not only aim to do good (i.e., beneficence), but also avoid doing any harm (i.e., non-malfeasance). Whilst ethical requirements in research can vary across countries, these are the basic principles of research ethics. This is important not only for ethical reasons, but also practical ones, since a failure to meet such basic principles may lead to your research being (a) criticised, potentially leading to a lower mark, and/or (b) rejected by your supervisor or Ethics Committee, costing you valuable time. In the sections that follow, we discuss the five of the main practical ethical principles that stem from these basic principles. Each of these basic principles of research ethics is discussed in turn:

Minimising the risk of harm

Dissertation research should not harm participants. Where there is the possibility that participants could be harmed or put in a position of discomfort, there must be strong justifications for this. Such scenarios will also require (a) additional planning to illustrate how participant harm (or discomfort) will be reduced, (b) informed consent, and (c) detailed debriefing.

There are a number of types of harm that participants can be subjected to. These include:

Typically, it is not harm that we need to think about since a researcher does not intentionally go out to cause harm. Rather, it is the risk of harm that you should try to minimise. In order to minimising the risk of harm you should think about:

We discuss each of these ethical principles in the sections that follow, explaining (a) what they mean and (b) instances where they should (and should not) be followed.

Obtaining informed consent

One of the foundations of research ethics is the idea of informed consent. Simply put, informed consent means that participants should understand that (a) they are taking part in research and (b) what the research requires of them. Such information may include the purpose of the research, the methods being used, the possible outcomes of the research, as well as associated demands, discomforts, inconveniences and risks that the participants may face. Whilst is it not possible to know exactly what information a potential participant would (or would not) want to know, you should aim not to leave out any material information; that is, information that you feel would influence whether consent would (or would not) be granted.

Another component of informed consent is the principle that participants should be volunteers, taking part without having been coerced and deceived. Where informed consent cannot be obtained from participants, you must explain why this is the case. You should also be aware that there are instances informed consent is not necessarily needed or needs to be relaxed. These include certain educational, organisational and naturalistic research settings. We discuss these in more detail under the section: Avoiding deceptive practices.

Protecting anonymity and confidentiality

Protecting the anonymity and confidentiality of research participants is another practical component of research ethics. After all, participants will typically only be willing to volunteer information, especially information of a private or sensitive nature, if the researcher agrees to hold such information in confidence. Whilst it is possible that research participants may be hurt in some way if the data collection methods used are somehow insensitive, there is perhaps a greater danger that harm can be caused once data has been collected. This occurs when data is not treated confidentially, whether in terms of the storage of data, its analysis, or during the publication process (i.e., when submitting your dissertation to be marked). However, this does not mean that all data collected from research participants needs to be kept confidential or anonymous. It may be possible to disclose the identity and views of individuals at various stages of the research process (from data collection through to publication of your dissertation). Nonetheless, permissions should be sought before such confidential information is disclosed.

An alternative is to remove identifiers (e.g., vernacular terms, names, geographical cues, etc.) or provide proxies when writing up. However, such a stripping of identifiable information may not always be possible to anticipate at the outset of your dissertation when thinking about issues of research ethics. This is not only a consideration for dissertations following a qualitative research design, but also a quantitative research design [for more information, see the article: Research strategy and research ethics].

For example:
Imagine that your dissertation used a quantitative research design and a survey as your main research method. In the process of analysing your data, it is possible that when examining relationships between variables (i.e., questions in your survey), a person's identity and responses could be inferred. For instance, imagine that you were comparing responses amongst employees within an organisation based on specific age groups. There may only be a small group (or just one employee) within a particular age group (e.g., over 70 years old), which could enable others to identify the responses of this individual (or small group of employees).

Therefore, you need to consider ways of overcoming such problems, such as: (a) aggregating data in tables and (b) setting rules that ensure a minimum number of units are present before data/information can be presented.

A further alternative is to seek permission for access to data and analysis to be restricted to the published material, perhaps only allowing it to be viewed by those individuals marking your work. If the work is later published, adjustments would then need to be made to protect the confidentiality of participants.

There are also a wide range of potential legal protections that may affect what research you can and cannot perform, how you must treated the data of research participants, and so forth. In other words, you don?t simply have a duty to protect the data you collect from participants; you may also have (in some cases) a legal responsibility to do so. Since this varies from country-to-country, you should ask your dissertation supervisor or Ethics Committee for advice (or a legal professional).

Avoiding deceptive practices

At first sight, deceptive practices fly in the face of informed consent. After all, how can participants know (a) that they are taking part in research and (b) what the research requires of them if they are being deceived? This is part of what makes the use of deceptive practices controversial. For this reason, in most circumstances, dissertation research should avoid any kinds of deceptive practices. However, this is not always the case.

Deception is sometimes a necessary component of covert research, which can be justified in some cases. Covert research reflects research where (a) the identity of the observer and/or (b) the purpose of the research is not known to participants. Cases where you may choose to engage in covert research may include instances where:

Let's take each of these in turn:

It is not feasible to let everyone in a particular research setting know what you are doing

By feasibility, we are not talking about the cost of doing research. Instead, we mean that it is not practically possible to let everyone in a particular research setting know what you are doing. This is most likely to be the case where research involves observation, rather than direct contact with participants, especially in a public or online setting. There are a number of obvious instances where this may be the case:

Clearly, in these cases, where individuals are coming and going, it may simply be impossible to let everyone known what you are doing. You may not be intentionally trying to engage in deceptive practices, but clearly participants are not giving you their informed consent.

Overt observation or knowledge of the purpose of the research may alter the particular phenomenon that is being studied

Where observations or a participants? knowledge of the true purpose of the research have the potential to alter the particular phenomenon that you are interested in, this is a major concern in terms of the quality of your findings.

Therefore, when you think about whether to engage in covert research and possibly deceptive practices, you should think about the extent to which this could be beneficial in your dissertation, not research in general; that is, everything from the research paradigm that guides your dissertation through to the data analysis techniques you choose affect issues of research ethics in your dissertation [see the article: Research strategy and research ethics].

Imagine some of the following scenarios where covert research may be considered justifiable:

Whilst such covert research and deceptive practices, especially where used intentionally, can be viewed as controversial, it can be argued that they have a place in research.

Providing the right to withdraw

With the exception of those instances of covert observation where is not feasible to let everyone that is being observed know what you are doing, research participants should always have the right to withdraw from the research process. Furthermore, participants should have the right to withdraw at any stage in the research process. When a participant chooses to withdraw from the research process, they should not be pressured or coerced in any way to try and stop them from withdrawing.

If your supervisor and/or Ethics Committee expect you to complete an Ethics Consent Form, it is likely that you will have to let participants know that they have the right to withdraw at any time [see the article: Ethics consent form].

Next Steps

Now that you have read these basic principles of research ethics, you may want to understand how the research strategy you have chosen affects your approach to research ethics [see the article: Research strategy and research ethics]. You will need to understand the impact of your research strategy on your approach to research ethics when writing up the Research Ethics section of your Research Strategy chapter (usually Chapter Three: Research Strategy).