What is ethics in research and why is it important?

Cartoon by Paul Mason. According to the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (henceforth referred to simply as the "Australian National Statement"), human research is any investigation that is conducted with people, about people, on tissue from people, or using data concerning people.
Cartoon by Paul Mason. According to the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (henceforth referred to simply as the “Australian National Statement”), human research is any investigation that is conducted with people, about people, on tissue from people, or using data concerning people.

In 1946 the atrocities committed by Nazi scientists in the name of research were investigated in War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg. 16 doctors and administrators were found guilty of “willing participation in the systematic torture, mutilation, and killing of prisoners in experiments”. This led to development of the Nuremberg Code in 1947, the first international code of research ethics.

Hence, to address the question “what is ethics in research and why it is important” one should first consider the next question: “is the only aim to do the best work?” If so, ethical issues may be underestimated. It was actually the defense of Nazi scientists. Far from this horrifying precedents, still in today’s social research we need to handle many ethical issues. Dealing with such topics as illness, politic, religion or sexuality, among others; participant’s interest must be safeguarded. Above all, acting ethically in research means protecting participants’ interests and rights. Five more important issue must be highlighted:

1. Exploitation of participants. Until the 1970’s highly unethical social and medical studies were common. A good example was the experiment among a group of 399 African American men afflicted with syphilis unknowingly from 1930s to 1970. Although there is no evidence that in today’s social research these kind of cases still exist there may be situation when researcher’s interest are over the participant´s interests.

2. Deception. When a field interviewer misrepresents the true purpose of research it is considered deception. The participant lies to participants to obtain information he/she could not otherwise obtain. It may happen when, for example, the interviewer pretends he/she is a student in a certain subject in order to obtain critical information about a competitor.

3. Overlook informed consent. Researcher should obtain an informed consent of participants. “Informed consent” means that an individual or community understands what is going to happen if they agree to take part of a social experiment or be interviewed for a study or survey. Researchers have to entirely inform subjects about what they will be taking, the risks of participation and non-participation, and how the data generated from the study will be used (ie, the findings might be published in an academic journal and promoted in a newspaper). The trick to informed consent is that it has to be meaningful (Seay, 2014). It’s not enough to just tell subjects about the study; they need to understand what that means, and to be capable of saying or signing a document saying, “Yes, I understand, and I’m still willing to participate.” This leads us to a second major concern for ethical research: the treatment of vulnerable populations. There are some groups of people who by definition are unable to give meaningful informed consent. These include children, institutionalized persons (prisoners and those confined to mental health institutions), and anyone else who might not be capable of understanding the full implications of their decision to participate in a study.
Furthermore, the publication of information from personal interviews or focus group must either obtain the explicit consent of the people involved or omit personal details to protect identities. In case the participant recognizes himself or herself in the publication and feels unpleasant, researcher may be in trouble.
4. Harm people in collecting data. The interviewer’s questions may confront people with sensitive issues, like the severity of illness or the lack of prospect in their future life. In some cases, it may produce an internal crisis for these people. It is an ethical responsibility reflects about taking such risks for the sake of the research.

5. Personal data protection. The danger of misuse personal data has led government to increase legislation on this issue. A good example is the implementation of the European Union Directive 95/46/EC. This provides protection for individuals in relation to the processing, storing and movement of data. As a researcher, one may face this kind of situations, especially as to personal data of potential participants in focus group. Market research companies usually own their own dataset with potential participants. To communicate with then, details as address or phone number must be stored. For this reason, it is recommendable to compliance the current legislation. As long as personal information is processed and stored in the research’s computer, a number of legal rules must be compliance.Finally, research ethics has a lot to do with reflection and sensitiveness. Apart from the formal rules and norms, safeguard participants’ interest requires a constant exercise of reflection and sensitiveness from the researcher. A good way to do so is try to take participants’ role and think from their perspective. How would one feel?


Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited

Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.

NIH, Protecting Human Research Participants, p.11-13; http://phrp.nihtraining.com/users/pdf.php

Seay, Laura. “Ebola, research ethics, and the ZMapp serumThe Washington Post 6 August 2014:

Silverman, D. (2011). Interpreting qualitative data. Sage Publications Limited.

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