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Your Environment. Your Health.

What is ethics in research & why is it important, by david b. resnik, j.d., ph.d..

December 23, 2020

The ideas and opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the NIH, NIEHS, or US government.

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When most people think of ethics (or morals), they think of rules for distinguishing between right and wrong, such as the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), a code of professional conduct like the Hippocratic Oath ("First of all, do no harm"), a religious creed like the Ten Commandments ("Thou Shalt not kill..."), or a wise aphorisms like the sayings of Confucius. This is the most common way of defining "ethics": norms for conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Most people learn ethical norms at home, at school, in church, or in other social settings. Although most people acquire their sense of right and wrong during childhood, moral development occurs throughout life and human beings pass through different stages of growth as they mature. Ethical norms are so ubiquitous that one might be tempted to regard them as simple commonsense. On the other hand, if morality were nothing more than commonsense, then why are there so many ethical disputes and issues in our society?

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One plausible explanation of these disagreements is that all people recognize some common ethical norms but interpret, apply, and balance them in different ways in light of their own values and life experiences. For example, two people could agree that murder is wrong but disagree about the morality of abortion because they have different understandings of what it means to be a human being.

Most societies also have legal rules that govern behavior, but ethical norms tend to be broader and more informal than laws. Although most societies use laws to enforce widely accepted moral standards and ethical and legal rules use similar concepts, ethics and law are not the same. An action may be legal but unethical or illegal but ethical. We can also use ethical concepts and principles to criticize, evaluate, propose, or interpret laws. Indeed, in the last century, many social reformers have urged citizens to disobey laws they regarded as immoral or unjust laws. Peaceful civil disobedience is an ethical way of protesting laws or expressing political viewpoints.

Another way of defining 'ethics' focuses on the disciplines that study standards of conduct, such as philosophy, theology, law, psychology, or sociology. For example, a "medical ethicist" is someone who studies ethical standards in medicine. One may also define ethics as a method, procedure, or perspective for deciding how to act and for analyzing complex problems and issues. For instance, in considering a complex issue like global warming , one may take an economic, ecological, political, or ethical perspective on the problem. While an economist might examine the cost and benefits of various policies related to global warming, an environmental ethicist could examine the ethical values and principles at stake.

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Many different disciplines, institutions , and professions have standards for behavior that suit their particular aims and goals. These standards also help members of the discipline to coordinate their actions or activities and to establish the public's trust of the discipline. For instance, ethical standards govern conduct in medicine, law, engineering, and business. Ethical norms also serve the aims or goals of research and apply to people who conduct scientific research or other scholarly or creative activities. There is even a specialized discipline, research ethics, which studies these norms. See Glossary of Commonly Used Terms in Research Ethics.

There are several reasons why it is important to adhere to ethical norms in research. First, norms promote the aims of research , such as knowledge, truth, and avoidance of error. For example, prohibitions against fabricating , falsifying, or misrepresenting research data promote the truth and minimize error.

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Second, since research often involves a great deal of cooperation and coordination among many different people in different disciplines and institutions, ethical standards promote the values that are essential to collaborative work , such as trust, accountability, mutual respect, and fairness. For example, many ethical norms in research, such as guidelines for authorship , copyright and patenting policies , data sharing policies, and confidentiality rules in peer review, are designed to protect intellectual property interests while encouraging collaboration. Most researchers want to receive credit for their contributions and do not want to have their ideas stolen or disclosed prematurely.

Third, many of the ethical norms help to ensure that researchers can be held accountable to the public . For instance, federal policies on research misconduct, conflicts of interest, the human subjects protections, and animal care and use are necessary in order to make sure that researchers who are funded by public money can be held accountable to the public.

Fourth, ethical norms in research also help to build public support for research. People are more likely to fund a research project if they can trust the quality and integrity of research.

Finally, many of the norms of research promote a variety of other important moral and social values , such as social responsibility, human rights, animal welfare, compliance with the law, and public health and safety. Ethical lapses in research can significantly harm human and animal subjects, students, and the public. For example, a researcher who fabricates data in a clinical trial may harm or even kill patients, and a researcher who fails to abide by regulations and guidelines relating to radiation or biological safety may jeopardize his health and safety or the health and safety of staff and students.

Codes and Policies for Research Ethics

Given the importance of ethics for the conduct of research, it should come as no surprise that many different professional associations, government agencies, and universities have adopted specific codes, rules, and policies relating to research ethics. Many government agencies have ethics rules for funded researchers.

  • National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • US Department of Agriculture (USDA)
  • Singapore Statement on Research Integrity
  • American Chemical Society, The Chemist Professional’s Code of Conduct
  • Code of Ethics (American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science)
  • American Psychological Association, Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct
  • Statement on Professional Ethics (American Association of University Professors)
  • Nuremberg Code
  • World Medical Association's Declaration of Helsinki

Ethical Principles

The following is a rough and general summary of some ethical principles that various codes address*:

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Strive for honesty in all scientific communications. Honestly report data, results, methods and procedures, and publication status. Do not fabricate, falsify, or misrepresent data. Do not deceive colleagues, research sponsors, or the public.

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Strive to avoid bias in experimental design, data analysis, data interpretation, peer review, personnel decisions, grant writing, expert testimony, and other aspects of research where objectivity is expected or required. Avoid or minimize bias or self-deception. Disclose personal or financial interests that may affect research.

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Keep your promises and agreements; act with sincerity; strive for consistency of thought and action.

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Avoid careless errors and negligence; carefully and critically examine your own work and the work of your peers. Keep good records of research activities, such as data collection, research design, and correspondence with agencies or journals.

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Share data, results, ideas, tools, resources. Be open to criticism and new ideas.

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Disclose methods, materials, assumptions, analyses, and other information needed to evaluate your research.

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Take responsibility for your part in research and be prepared to give an account (i.e. an explanation or justification) of what you did on a research project and why.

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Intellectual Property

Honor patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property. Do not use unpublished data, methods, or results without permission. Give proper acknowledgement or credit for all contributions to research. Never plagiarize.

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Protect confidential communications, such as papers or grants submitted for publication, personnel records, trade or military secrets, and patient records.

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Responsible Publication

Publish in order to advance research and scholarship, not to advance just your own career. Avoid wasteful and duplicative publication.

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Responsible Mentoring

Help to educate, mentor, and advise students. Promote their welfare and allow them to make their own decisions.

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Respect for Colleagues

Respect your colleagues and treat them fairly.

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Social Responsibility

Strive to promote social good and prevent or mitigate social harms through research, public education, and advocacy.

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Avoid discrimination against colleagues or students on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, or other factors not related to scientific competence and integrity.

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Maintain and improve your own professional competence and expertise through lifelong education and learning; take steps to promote competence in science as a whole.

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Know and obey relevant laws and institutional and governmental policies.

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Animal Care

Show proper respect and care for animals when using them in research. Do not conduct unnecessary or poorly designed animal experiments.

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Human Subjects protection

When conducting research on human subjects, minimize harms and risks and maximize benefits; respect human dignity, privacy, and autonomy; take special precautions with vulnerable populations; and strive to distribute the benefits and burdens of research fairly.

* Adapted from Shamoo A and Resnik D. 2015. Responsible Conduct of Research, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press).

Ethical Decision Making in Research

Although codes, policies, and principles are very important and useful, like any set of rules, they do not cover every situation, they often conflict, and they require considerable interpretation. It is therefore important for researchers to learn how to interpret, assess, and apply various research rules and how to make decisions and to act ethically in various situations. The vast majority of decisions involve the straightforward application of ethical rules. For example, consider the following case,

The research protocol for a study of a drug on hypertension requires the administration of the drug at different doses to 50 laboratory mice, with chemical and behavioral tests to determine toxic effects. Tom has almost finished the experiment for Dr. Q. He has only 5 mice left to test. However, he really wants to finish his work in time to go to Florida on spring break with his friends, who are leaving tonight. He has injected the drug in all 50 mice but has not completed all of the tests. He therefore decides to extrapolate from the 45 completed results to produce the 5 additional results.

Many different research ethics policies would hold that Tom has acted unethically by fabricating data. If this study were sponsored by a federal agency, such as the NIH, his actions would constitute a form of research misconduct , which the government defines as "fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism" (or FFP). Actions that nearly all researchers classify as unethical are viewed as misconduct. It is important to remember, however, that misconduct occurs only when researchers intend to deceive : honest errors related to sloppiness, poor record keeping, miscalculations, bias, self-deception, and even negligence do not constitute misconduct. Also, reasonable disagreements about research methods, procedures, and interpretations do not constitute research misconduct. Consider the following case:

Dr. T has just discovered a mathematical error in his paper that has been accepted for publication in a journal. The error does not affect the overall results of his research, but it is potentially misleading. The journal has just gone to press, so it is too late to catch the error before it appears in print. In order to avoid embarrassment, Dr. T decides to ignore the error.

Dr. T's error is not misconduct nor is his decision to take no action to correct the error. Most researchers, as well as many different policies and codes would say that Dr. T should tell the journal (and any coauthors) about the error and consider publishing a correction or errata. Failing to publish a correction would be unethical because it would violate norms relating to honesty and objectivity in research.

There are many other activities that the government does not define as "misconduct" but which are still regarded by most researchers as unethical. These are sometimes referred to as " other deviations " from acceptable research practices and include:

  • Publishing the same paper in two different journals without telling the editors
  • Submitting the same paper to different journals without telling the editors
  • Not informing a collaborator of your intent to file a patent in order to make sure that you are the sole inventor
  • Including a colleague as an author on a paper in return for a favor even though the colleague did not make a serious contribution to the paper
  • Discussing with your colleagues confidential data from a paper that you are reviewing for a journal
  • Using data, ideas, or methods you learn about while reviewing a grant or a papers without permission
  • Trimming outliers from a data set without discussing your reasons in paper
  • Using an inappropriate statistical technique in order to enhance the significance of your research
  • Bypassing the peer review process and announcing your results through a press conference without giving peers adequate information to review your work
  • Conducting a review of the literature that fails to acknowledge the contributions of other people in the field or relevant prior work
  • Stretching the truth on a grant application in order to convince reviewers that your project will make a significant contribution to the field
  • Stretching the truth on a job application or curriculum vita
  • Giving the same research project to two graduate students in order to see who can do it the fastest
  • Overworking, neglecting, or exploiting graduate or post-doctoral students
  • Failing to keep good research records
  • Failing to maintain research data for a reasonable period of time
  • Making derogatory comments and personal attacks in your review of author's submission
  • Promising a student a better grade for sexual favors
  • Using a racist epithet in the laboratory
  • Making significant deviations from the research protocol approved by your institution's Animal Care and Use Committee or Institutional Review Board for Human Subjects Research without telling the committee or the board
  • Not reporting an adverse event in a human research experiment
  • Wasting animals in research
  • Exposing students and staff to biological risks in violation of your institution's biosafety rules
  • Sabotaging someone's work
  • Stealing supplies, books, or data
  • Rigging an experiment so you know how it will turn out
  • Making unauthorized copies of data, papers, or computer programs
  • Owning over $10,000 in stock in a company that sponsors your research and not disclosing this financial interest
  • Deliberately overestimating the clinical significance of a new drug in order to obtain economic benefits

These actions would be regarded as unethical by most scientists and some might even be illegal in some cases. Most of these would also violate different professional ethics codes or institutional policies. However, they do not fall into the narrow category of actions that the government classifies as research misconduct. Indeed, there has been considerable debate about the definition of "research misconduct" and many researchers and policy makers are not satisfied with the government's narrow definition that focuses on FFP. However, given the huge list of potential offenses that might fall into the category "other serious deviations," and the practical problems with defining and policing these other deviations, it is understandable why government officials have chosen to limit their focus.

Finally, situations frequently arise in research in which different people disagree about the proper course of action and there is no broad consensus about what should be done. In these situations, there may be good arguments on both sides of the issue and different ethical principles may conflict. These situations create difficult decisions for research known as ethical or moral dilemmas . Consider the following case:

Dr. Wexford is the principal investigator of a large, epidemiological study on the health of 10,000 agricultural workers. She has an impressive dataset that includes information on demographics, environmental exposures, diet, genetics, and various disease outcomes such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease (PD), and ALS. She has just published a paper on the relationship between pesticide exposure and PD in a prestigious journal. She is planning to publish many other papers from her dataset. She receives a request from another research team that wants access to her complete dataset. They are interested in examining the relationship between pesticide exposures and skin cancer. Dr. Wexford was planning to conduct a study on this topic.

Dr. Wexford faces a difficult choice. On the one hand, the ethical norm of openness obliges her to share data with the other research team. Her funding agency may also have rules that obligate her to share data. On the other hand, if she shares data with the other team, they may publish results that she was planning to publish, thus depriving her (and her team) of recognition and priority. It seems that there are good arguments on both sides of this issue and Dr. Wexford needs to take some time to think about what she should do. One possible option is to share data, provided that the investigators sign a data use agreement. The agreement could define allowable uses of the data, publication plans, authorship, etc. Another option would be to offer to collaborate with the researchers.

The following are some step that researchers, such as Dr. Wexford, can take to deal with ethical dilemmas in research:

What is the problem or issue?

It is always important to get a clear statement of the problem. In this case, the issue is whether to share information with the other research team.

What is the relevant information?

Many bad decisions are made as a result of poor information. To know what to do, Dr. Wexford needs to have more information concerning such matters as university or funding agency or journal policies that may apply to this situation, the team's intellectual property interests, the possibility of negotiating some kind of agreement with the other team, whether the other team also has some information it is willing to share, the impact of the potential publications, etc.

What are the different options?

People may fail to see different options due to a limited imagination, bias, ignorance, or fear. In this case, there may be other choices besides 'share' or 'don't share,' such as 'negotiate an agreement' or 'offer to collaborate with the researchers.'

How do ethical codes or policies as well as legal rules apply to these different options?

The university or funding agency may have policies on data management that apply to this case. Broader ethical rules, such as openness and respect for credit and intellectual property, may also apply to this case. Laws relating to intellectual property may be relevant.

Are there any people who can offer ethical advice?

It may be useful to seek advice from a colleague, a senior researcher, your department chair, an ethics or compliance officer, or anyone else you can trust. In the case, Dr. Wexford might want to talk to her supervisor and research team before making a decision.

After considering these questions, a person facing an ethical dilemma may decide to ask more questions, gather more information, explore different options, or consider other ethical rules. However, at some point he or she will have to make a decision and then take action. Ideally, a person who makes a decision in an ethical dilemma should be able to justify his or her decision to himself or herself, as well as colleagues, administrators, and other people who might be affected by the decision. He or she should be able to articulate reasons for his or her conduct and should consider the following questions in order to explain how he or she arrived at his or her decision: .

  • Which choice will probably have the best overall consequences for science and society?
  • Which choice could stand up to further publicity and scrutiny?
  • Which choice could you not live with?
  • Think of the wisest person you know. What would he or she do in this situation?
  • Which choice would be the most just, fair, or responsible?

After considering all of these questions, one still might find it difficult to decide what to do. If this is the case, then it may be appropriate to consider others ways of making the decision, such as going with a gut feeling or intuition, seeking guidance through prayer or meditation, or even flipping a coin. Endorsing these methods in this context need not imply that ethical decisions are irrational, however. The main point is that human reasoning plays a pivotal role in ethical decision-making but there are limits to its ability to solve all ethical dilemmas in a finite amount of time.

Promoting Ethical Conduct in Science

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Most academic institutions in the US require undergraduate, graduate, or postgraduate students to have some education in the responsible conduct of research (RCR) . The NIH and NSF have both mandated training in research ethics for students and trainees. Many academic institutions outside of the US have also developed educational curricula in research ethics

Those of you who are taking or have taken courses in research ethics may be wondering why you are required to have education in research ethics. You may believe that you are highly ethical and know the difference between right and wrong. You would never fabricate or falsify data or plagiarize. Indeed, you also may believe that most of your colleagues are highly ethical and that there is no ethics problem in research..

If you feel this way, relax. No one is accusing you of acting unethically. Indeed, the evidence produced so far shows that misconduct is a very rare occurrence in research, although there is considerable variation among various estimates. The rate of misconduct has been estimated to be as low as 0.01% of researchers per year (based on confirmed cases of misconduct in federally funded research) to as high as 1% of researchers per year (based on self-reports of misconduct on anonymous surveys). See Shamoo and Resnik (2015), cited above.

Clearly, it would be useful to have more data on this topic, but so far there is no evidence that science has become ethically corrupt, despite some highly publicized scandals. Even if misconduct is only a rare occurrence, it can still have a tremendous impact on science and society because it can compromise the integrity of research, erode the public’s trust in science, and waste time and resources. Will education in research ethics help reduce the rate of misconduct in science? It is too early to tell. The answer to this question depends, in part, on how one understands the causes of misconduct. There are two main theories about why researchers commit misconduct. According to the "bad apple" theory, most scientists are highly ethical. Only researchers who are morally corrupt, economically desperate, or psychologically disturbed commit misconduct. Moreover, only a fool would commit misconduct because science's peer review system and self-correcting mechanisms will eventually catch those who try to cheat the system. In any case, a course in research ethics will have little impact on "bad apples," one might argue.

According to the "stressful" or "imperfect" environment theory, misconduct occurs because various institutional pressures, incentives, and constraints encourage people to commit misconduct, such as pressures to publish or obtain grants or contracts, career ambitions, the pursuit of profit or fame, poor supervision of students and trainees, and poor oversight of researchers (see Shamoo and Resnik 2015). Moreover, defenders of the stressful environment theory point out that science's peer review system is far from perfect and that it is relatively easy to cheat the system. Erroneous or fraudulent research often enters the public record without being detected for years. Misconduct probably results from environmental and individual causes, i.e. when people who are morally weak, ignorant, or insensitive are placed in stressful or imperfect environments. In any case, a course in research ethics can be useful in helping to prevent deviations from norms even if it does not prevent misconduct. Education in research ethics is can help people get a better understanding of ethical standards, policies, and issues and improve ethical judgment and decision making. Many of the deviations that occur in research may occur because researchers simply do not know or have never thought seriously about some of the ethical norms of research. For example, some unethical authorship practices probably reflect traditions and practices that have not been questioned seriously until recently. If the director of a lab is named as an author on every paper that comes from his lab, even if he does not make a significant contribution, what could be wrong with that? That's just the way it's done, one might argue. Another example where there may be some ignorance or mistaken traditions is conflicts of interest in research. A researcher may think that a "normal" or "traditional" financial relationship, such as accepting stock or a consulting fee from a drug company that sponsors her research, raises no serious ethical issues. Or perhaps a university administrator sees no ethical problem in taking a large gift with strings attached from a pharmaceutical company. Maybe a physician thinks that it is perfectly appropriate to receive a $300 finder’s fee for referring patients into a clinical trial.

If "deviations" from ethical conduct occur in research as a result of ignorance or a failure to reflect critically on problematic traditions, then a course in research ethics may help reduce the rate of serious deviations by improving the researcher's understanding of ethics and by sensitizing him or her to the issues.

Finally, education in research ethics should be able to help researchers grapple with the ethical dilemmas they are likely to encounter by introducing them to important concepts, tools, principles, and methods that can be useful in resolving these dilemmas. Scientists must deal with a number of different controversial topics, such as human embryonic stem cell research, cloning, genetic engineering, and research involving animal or human subjects, which require ethical reflection and deliberation.

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  • Ethical Considerations in Research | Types & Examples

Ethical Considerations in Research | Types & Examples

Published on October 18, 2021 by Pritha Bhandari . Revised on June 22, 2023.

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 or academic integrity

Table of contents

Why do research ethics matter, getting ethical approval for your study, types of ethical issues, voluntary participation, informed consent, confidentiality, potential for harm, results communication, examples of ethical failures, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about research ethics.

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 objectives 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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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

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 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 academic integrity and institutional credibility. It leads to a waste of funding and resources that could have been used for alternative research.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Measures of central tendency
  • Chi square tests
  • Confidence interval
  • Quartiles & Quantiles
  • Cluster sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Thematic analysis
  • Cohort study
  • Peer review
  • Ethnography

Research bias

  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Conformity bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Availability heuristic
  • Attrition bias
  • Social desirability bias

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.

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.

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.

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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Research Methods

  • Introduction
  • Key Resources
  • Books, Articles & Videos

What is Research Ethics?

Research misconducts, responsible conduct of research, youtube video.

  • Methods by Subject

Research ethics provides guidelines for the responsible conduct of research. In addition, it educates and monitors scientists conducting research to ensure a high ethical standard. The following is a general summary of some ethical principles:

Honestly report data, results, methods and procedures, and publication status. Do not fabricate, falsify, or misrepresent data.


Strive to avoid bias in experimental design, data analysis, data interpretation, peer review, personnel decisions, grant writing, expert testimony, and other aspects of research.

Keep your promises and agreements; act with sincerity; strive for consistency of thought and action.


Avoid careless errors and negligence; carefully and critically examine your own work and the work of your peers. Keep good records of research activities.

Share data, results, ideas, tools, resources. Be open to criticism and new ideas.

Respect for Intellectual Property:

Honor patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property. Do not use unpublished data, methods, or results without permission. Give credit where credit is due. Never plagiarize.


Protect confidential communications, such as papers or grants submitted for publication, personnel records, trade or military secrets, and patient records.

Responsible Publication:

Publish in order to advance research and scholarship, not to advance just your own career. Avoid wasteful and duplicative publication.

Responsible Mentoring:

Help to educate, mentor, and advise students. Promote their welfare and allow them to make their own decisions.

Respect for Colleagues:

Respect your colleagues and treat them fairly.

Social Responsibility:

Strive to promote social good and prevent or mitigate social harms through research, public education, and advocacy.


Avoid discrimination against colleagues or students on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, or other factors that are not related to their scientific competence and integrity.


Maintain and improve your own professional competence and expertise through lifelong education and learning; take steps to promote competence in science as a whole.

Know and obey relevant laws and institutional and governmental policies.

Animal Care:

Show proper respect and care for animals when using them in research. Do not conduct unnecessary or poorly designed animal experiments.

Human Subjects Protection:

When conducting research on human subjects, minimize harms and risks and maximize benefits; respect human dignity, privacy, and autonomy.

Source: What is Ethics in Research & Why is it Important?  U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

  • Five Principles for Research Ethics (American Psychological Association)
  • Ethical Guidelines for Good Research Practice  (Association of Social Anthropologists, UK)
  • Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, 2018 (Australian Government)
  • ESRC Framework for Research Ethics 2015  (The Economic and Social Research Council, UK)

How different aspects of your research relate to the six ethics principles set out in the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics? Click the image below to find out.


What are research misconducts?

(a) Fabrication - making up data or results and recording or reporting them.

(b) Falsification - manipulating research materials, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.

(c) Plagiarism - the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.

(d) Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion.

Source: Definition of Research Misconduct The Office of Research Integrity, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research

Yale School of Medicine Professor Robert Levine spoke on guidelines for human subjects protection.

Video from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jD-YCDE_5yw

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Ethics in Research: Understanding its Importance + Best Practices

When it comes to research, ethics is a crucial component that guides how we conduct our studies. Learn everything about it.

Academic research and writing play a crucial role in the advancement of knowledge and the progress of society. The pursuit of new ideas, discoveries, and solutions to complex problems is the cornerstone of academia, but it must be done ethically.

Ethics in academic research and writing refer to the moral principles and values guiding scholars’ work. These principles and values help ensure that research is conducted responsibly, with integrity, and without harm to the subjects or the wider community. However, ethical lapses can occur in academia, leading to serious consequences such as damage to reputation , loss of funding, and even legal action. 

Understanding Ethics in Research and Insights Gathering

When people think of ethics, the normal is to think about the difference between good and bad. The Golden Rule, the Hippocratic Oath, and the Ten Commandments… there are many moral and ethical norms of conduct. But what happens in the academic world? What rules should be followed and why?

When it comes to research , ethics is a crucial component that guides how we conduct our studies. It’s important for scientists and researchers to follow a set of rules when collecting data from people.

Academic research aims to understand real-life situations, find effective treatments, and improve people’s lives. But to do that, we need to be ethical in how we go about it.

Being ethical in research means protecting the rights of those who participate, ensuring the research is accurate, and being honest. By doing so, we can be confident that the research is fair and respectful of everyone involved.

Additionally, researchers need to be mindful of the potential for harm that could come from their studies. This means being upfront with participants about the research, getting informed consent, and protecting their privacy.

It’s also important for researchers to consider their work’s social and cultural implications, particularly for marginalized or vulnerable groups. This means finding ways to be inclusive and respectful of different perspectives and experiences.

The Importance of Accuracy in Research and Insights Gathering

Research and insights gathering accuracy is a fundamental aspect that cannot be ignored. Accuracy in research refers to the degree to which the information gathered is reliable, valid, and free from bias or error. This is why accuracy is such a critical component, as it ensures the credibility and usefulness of research findings.

Accuracy is essential in research and insights gathering for several reasons. Having accuracy in research ensures that the results of it are trustworthy and can be used to make informed decisions. Accurate information helps individuals, organizations, educational institutions, and policymakers make better decisions that are based on facts, not assumptions or guesswork.

Furthermore, accuracy helps to prevent the propagation of misinformation, which can have significant negative consequences. Inaccurate research findings can lead to wrong decisions, wasted resources, and even harm to individuals or communities.

The consequences of inaccurate research and insights can be severe in the short and long term. Inaccurate research can lead to false conclusions, which can lead to misguided decisions, wasted resources, and lost opportunities. It can also damage the credibility of the researchers and their work, which can have significant consequences for their careers.

Best Practices for Maintaining Ethics and Accuracy in Research and Insights Gathering

Maintaining ethical considerations and accuracy is of utmost importance when conducting academic research. Ethical considerations help ensure that research is conducted to respect human rights, while accuracy ensures that research findings are credible and trustworthy.

To ensure ethical considerations are met, researchers must follow a set of guidelines that outline how research should be conducted. These guidelines may vary depending on the field of study and the type of research being conducted. Still, they generally involve obtaining informed consent from research participants, protecting their privacy, and avoiding any harm or exploitation.

Researchers must take several steps to ensure accuracy in research and insights gathering. One key strategy is to carefully design the research study to ensure that it measures what it claims to measure. Researchers must also use reliable and valid measures and avoid biases or errors in data collection and analysis.

Getting approval for your study by an IRB and steps

When conducting academic research, whatever the field of study, it is essential to obtain approval from an Institutional Review Board (IRB) before beginning the investigation. An IRB is a committee that is responsible for reviewing research proposals to ensure that they meet ethical and regulatory standards and protect the rights and welfare of human participants.

The process of submitting a research proposal to an IRB typically involves several steps. First, the researcher must complete an application that includes detailed information about the study, such as the research question, methodology, and data collection procedures. The application must also include information on how the researcher plans to obtain informed consent from participants, protect their privacy and confidentiality, and ensure that the study does not cause any harm or distress.

Once the application is complete, it is submitted to the IRB for review. The IRB will then evaluate the proposal to determine whether it meets ethical and regulatory standards. This evaluation may involve a review of the research protocol, the informed consent process, and any potential risks or benefits to participants.

If the IRB approves the proposal, the researcher may then begin the investigation. However, the IRB may also require revisions to the research protocol or additional information before granting approval. In some cases, the IRB may determine that the research poses a significant risk to participants and may require the researcher to modify or even terminate the study.

Conducting academic research and gathering insights are crucial for advancing knowledge in various fields. However, it is equally important to conduct research in a way that is ethical and accurate. Maintaining ethical standards helps ensure that research is conducted in a way that respects human rights and protects research participants. Accuracy in research and insights gathering helps to ensure that research findings are credible and trustworthy.

To maintain ethical and accurate research practices, researchers must follow best practices, such as carefully designing the study, using reliable and valid measures, and avoiding biases or errors in data collection and analysis. Additionally, obtaining approval from an Institutional Review Board (IRB) before beginning the investigation is critical to ensure that research meets ethical and regulatory standards and protects the rights and welfare of human participants.


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Introduction: What is Research Ethics?

Research Ethics is defined here to be the ethics of the planning, conduct, and reporting of research. This introduction covers what research ethics is, its ethical distinctions, approaches to teaching research ethics, and other resources on this topic.

What is Research Ethics

Why Teach Research Ethics

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Conflicts of Interest

Data Management

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Peer Review


Research Misconduct

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Stem Cell Research


Descriptions of educational settings , including in the classroom, and in research contexts.

Case Studies

Other Discussion Tools

Information about the history and authors of the Resources for Research Ethics Collection

What is Research Ethics?

Research Ethics is defined here to be the ethics of the planning, conduct, and reporting of research. It is clear that research ethics should include:

  • Protections of human and animal subjects

However, not all researchers use human or animal subjects, nor are the ethical dimensions of research confined solely to protections for research subjects. Other ethical challenges are rooted in many dimensions of research, including the:

  • Collection, use, and interpretation of research data
  • Methods for reporting and reviewing research plans or findings
  • Relationships among researchers with one another
  • Relationships between researchers and those that will be affected by their research
  • Means for responding to misunderstandings, disputes, or misconduct
  • Options for promoting ethical conduct in research

The domain of research ethics is intended to include nothing less than the fostering of research that protects the interests of the public, the subjects of research, and the researchers themselves.

Ethical Distinctions

In discussing or teaching research ethics, it is important to keep some basic distinctions in mind.

  • It is important not to confuse moral claims about how people ought to behave with descriptive claims about how they in fact do behave. From the fact that gift authorship or signing off on un-reviewed data may be "common practice" in some contexts, it doesn't follow that they are morally or professionally justified. Nor is morality to be confused with the moral beliefs or ethical codes that a given group or society holds (how some group thinks people should live). A belief in segregation is not morally justified simply because it is widely held by a group of people or given society. Philosophers term this distinction between prescriptive and descriptive claims the 'is-ought distinction.'  
  • A second important distinction is that between morality and the law. The law may or may not conform to the demands of ethics (Kagan, 1998). To take a contemporary example: many believe that the law prohibiting federally funded stem cell research is objectionable on moral (as well as scientific) grounds, i.e., that such research can save lives and prevent much human misery. History is full of examples of bad laws, that is laws now regarded as morally unjustifiable, e.g., the laws of apartheid, laws prohibiting women from voting or inter-racial couples from marrying.  
  • It is also helpful to distinguish between two different levels of discussion (or two different kinds of ethical questions): first-order or "ground-level" questions and second-order questions.  
  • First-order moral questions concern what we should do. Such questions may be very general or quite specific. One might ask whether the tradition of 'senior' authorship should be defended and preserved or, more generally, what are the principles that should go into deciding the issue of 'senior' authorship. Such questions and the substantive proposals regarding how to answer them belong to the domain of what moral philosophers call 'normative ethics.'  
  • Second-order moral questions concern the nature and purpose of morality itself. When someone claims that falsifying data is wrong, what exactly is the standing of this claim? What exactly does the word 'wrong' mean in the conduct of scientific research? And what are we doing when we make claims about right and wrong, scientific integrity and research misconduct? These second-order questions are quite different from the ground-level questions about how to conduct one's private or professional life raised above. They concern the nature of morality rather than its content, i.e., what acts are required, permitted or prohibited. This is the domain of what moral philosophers call 'metaethics' (Kagan, 1998).

Ethical Approaches

Each of these approaches provides moral principles and ways of thinking about the responsibilities, duties and obligations of moral life. Individually and jointly, they can provide practical guidance in ethical decision-making.

  • One of the most influential and familiar approaches to ethics is deontological ethics, associated with Immanuel Kant (1742-1804). Deontological ethics hold certain acts as right or wrong in themselves, e.g., promise breaking or lying. So, for example, in the context of research, fraud, plagiarism and misrepresentation are regarded as morally wrong in themselves, not simply because they (tend to) have bad consequences. The deontological approach is generally grounded in a single fundamental principle: Act as you would wish others to act towards you OR always treat persons as an end, never as a means to an end.  
  • From such central principles are derived rules or guidelines for what is permitted, required and prohibited. Objections to principle-based or deontological ethics include the difficulty of applying highly general principles to specific cases, e.g.: Does treating persons as ends rule out physician-assisted suicide, or require it? Deontological ethics is generally contrasted to consequentialist ethics (Honderich, 1995).  
  • According to consequentialist approaches, the rightness or wrongness of an action depends solely on its consequences. One should act in such a way as to bring about the best state of affairs, where the best state of affairs may be understood in various ways, e.g., as the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain or maximizing the satisfaction of preferences. A theory such as Utilitarianism (with its roots in the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill) is generally taken as the paradigm example of consequentialism. Objections to consequentialist ethics tend to focus on its willingness to regard individual rights and values as "negotiable." So, for example, most people would regard murder as wrong independently of the fact that killing one person might allow several others to be saved (the infamous sacrifice of an ailing patient to provide organs for several other needy patients). Similarly, widespread moral opinion holds certain values important (integrity, justice) not only because they generally lead to good outcomes, but in and of themselves.
  • Virtue ethics focuses on moral character rather than action and behavior considered in isolation. Central to this approach is the question what ought we (as individuals, as scientists, as physicians) to be rather than simply what we ought to do. The emphasis here is on inner states, that is, moral dispositions and habits such as courage or a developed sense of personal integrity. Virtue ethics can be a useful approach in the context of RCR and professional ethics, emphasizing the importance of moral virtues such as compassion, honesty, and respect. This approach has also a great deal to offer in discussions of bioethical issues where a traditional emphasis on rights and abstract principles frequently results in polarized, stalled discussions (e.g., abortion debates contrasting the rights of the mother against the rights of the fetus).  
  • The term 'an ethics of care' grows out of the work of Carol Gilligan, whose empirical work in moral psychology claimed to discover a "different voice," a mode of moral thinking distinct from principle-based moral thinking (e.g., the theories of Kant and Mill). An ethics of care stresses compassion and empathetic understanding, virtues Gilligan associated with traditional care-giving roles, especially those of women.  
  • This approach differs from traditional moral theories in two important ways. First, it assumes that it is the connections between persons, e.g., lab teams, colleagues, parents and children, student and mentor, not merely the rights and obligations of discrete individuals that matter. The moral world, on this view, is best seen not as the interaction of discrete individuals, each with his or her own interests and rights, but as an interrelated web of obligations and commitment. We interact, much of the time, not as private individuals, but as members of families, couples, institutions, research groups, a given profession and so on. Second, these human relationships, including relationships of dependency, play a crucial role on this account in determining what our moral obligations and responsibilities are. So, for example, individuals have special responsibilities to care for their children, students, patients, and research subjects.  
  • An ethics of care is thus particularly useful in discussing human and animal subjects research, issues of informed consent, and the treatment of vulnerable populations such as children, the infirm or the ill.  
  • The case study approach begins from real or hypothetical cases. Its objective is to identify the intuitively plausible principles that should be taken into account in resolving the issues at hand. The case study approach then proceeds to critically evaluate those principles. In discussing whistle-blowing, for example, a good starting point is with recent cases of research misconduct, seeking to identify and evaluate principles such as a commitment to the integrity of science, protecting privacy, or avoiding false or unsubstantiated charges. In the context of RCR instruction, case studies provide one of the most interesting and effective approaches to developing sensitivity to ethical issues and to honing ethical decision-making skills.  
  • Strictly speaking, casuistry is more properly understood as a method for doing ethics rather than as itself an ethical theory. However, casuistry is not wholly unconnected to ethical theory. The need for a basis upon which to evaluate competing principles, e.g., the importance of the well-being of an individual patient vs. a concern for just allocation of scarce medical resources, makes ethical theory relevant even with case study approaches.  
  • Applied ethics is a branch of normative ethics. It deals with practical questions particularly in relation to the professions. Perhaps the best known area of applied ethics is bioethics, which deals with ethical questions arising in medicine and the biological sciences, e.g., questions concerning the application of new areas of technology (stem cells, cloning, genetic screening, nanotechnology, etc.), end of life issues, organ transplants, and just distribution of healthcare. Training in responsible conduct of research or "research ethics" is merely one among various forms of professional ethics that have come to prominence since the 1960s. Worth noting, however, is that concern with professional ethics is not new, as ancient codes such as the Hippocratic Oath and guild standards attest (Singer, 1986).
  • Adams D, Pimple KD (2005): Research Misconduct and Crime: Lessons from Criminal Science on Preventing Misconduct and Promoting Integrity. Accountability in Research 12(3):225-240.
  • Anderson MS, Horn AS, Risbey KR, Ronning EA, De Vries R, Martinson BC (2007): What Do Mentoring and Training in the Responsible Conduct of Research Have To Do with Scientists' Misbehavior? Findings from a National Survey of NIH-Funded Scientists . Academic Medicine 82(9):853-860.
  • Bulger RE, Heitman E (2007): Expanding Responsible Conduct of Research Instruction across the University. Academic Medicine. 82(9):876-878.
  • Kalichman MW (2006): Ethics and Science: A 0.1% solution. Issues in Science and Technology 23:34-36.
  • Kalichman MW (2007): Responding to Challenges in Educating for the Responsible Conduct of Research, Academic Medicine. 82(9):870-875.
  • Kalichman MW, Plemmons DK (2007): Reported Goals for Responsible Conduct of Research Courses. Academic Medicine. 82(9):846-852.
  • Kalichman MW (2009): Evidence-based research ethics. The American Journal of Bioethics 9(6&7): 85-87.
  • Pimple KD (2002): Six Domains of Research Ethics: A Heuristic Framework for the Responsible Conduct of Research. Science and Engineering Ethics 8(2):191-205.
  • Steneck NH (2006): Fostering Integrity in Research: Definitions, Current Knowledge, and Future Directions. Science and Engineering Ethics 12:53-74.
  • Steneck NH, Bulger RE (2007): The History, Purpose, and Future of Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Research. Academic Medicine. 82(9):829-834.
  • Vasgird DR (2007): Prevention over Cure: The Administrative Rationale for Education in the Responsible Conduct of Research. Academic Medicine. 82(9):835-837.
  • Aristotle. The Nichomachean Ethics.
  • Beauchamp RL, Childress JF (2001): Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 5th edition, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Bentham, J (1781): An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
  • Gilligan C (1993): In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Glover, Jonathan (1977): Penguin Books.
  • Honderich T, ed. (1995): The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kagan S (1998): Normative Ethics. Westview Press.
  • Kant I (1785): Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.
  • Kant I (1788): Critique of Practical Reason.
  • Kant I (1797): The Metaphysics of Morals.
  • Kant I (1797): On a Supposed right to Lie from Benevolent Motives.
  • Kuhse H, Singer P (1999): Bioethics: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishers.
  • Mill JS (1861): Utilitarianism.
  • Rachels J (1999): The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 3rd edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  • Regan T (1993): Matters of Life and Death: New Introductory Essays in Moral Philosophy, 3rd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. The history of ethics.
  • Singer P (1993): Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.

The Resources for Research Ethics Education site was originally developed and maintained by Dr. Michael Kalichman, Director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California San Diego. The site was transferred to the Online Ethics Center in 2021 with the permission of the author.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award No. 2055332. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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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:

  • PRINCIPLE ONE: Minimising the risk of harm
  • PRINCIPLE TWO: Obtaining informed consent
  • PRINCIPLE THREE: Protecting anonymity and confidentiality
  • PRINCIPLE FOUR: Avoiding deceptive practices
  • PRINCIPLE FIVE: Providing the right to withdraw

PRINCIPLE ONE 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:

Physical harm to participants.

Psychological distress and discomfort.

Social disadvantage.

Harm to participants? financial status.

An invasion of participants? privacy and anonymity.

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:

Obtaining informed consent from participants.

Protecting the anonymity and confidentiality of participants.

Avoiding deceptive practices when designing your research.

Providing participants with the right to withdraw from your research at any time.

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.

PRINCIPLE TWO 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 .

PRINCIPLE THREE 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).

PRINCIPLE FOUR 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:

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

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

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:

Observing what users are doing in an Internet chat room.

Observing individuals going about their business (e.g., shopping, going to work, etc.).

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:

You are conducting a piece of research looking at prejudice . Whilst participants are given a questionnaire to complete that measures their prejudice, it is not obvious from the questions that this is the case. Furthermore, participants are not told that the research is about prejudice because it is felt that this could alter their responses. After all, few people would be happy if other people thought they were prejudice. As a result, if participants knew that this is the purpose of the study, they may well provide responses that they think will make them appear less prejudice.

You are interested in understanding the organisational culture in a single firm. You feel that observation would be an appropriate research method in such a naturalistic setting . However, you feel that if employees knew that you were monitoring them, they may behave in a different way. Therefore, you may have received permission to go undercover or provide a story to explain why you are there, which is not the truth.

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.

PRINCIPLE FIVE 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 ].

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 ethic s [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 ).

Understanding ethics

Definitions of research and ethics, key ethical considerations, health and safety.

We apply the following definitions of research and ethics:

Definition of research

The University of Stirling applies the Frascati definition of research .

"Research and experimental development comprise creative and systematic work undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge - including the knowledge of humankind, culture and society - and to devise new applications of available knowledge."

Definition of ethics

Ethics are a personal code of conduct based on respect for one's self, others and surroundings and is governed by the principles or assumptions underpinning the way individuals or organisations ought to conduct themselves. Research ethics involves the application of fundamental ethical principles to research activities which include the design and implementation of research, respect towards society and others, the use of resources and research outputs, scientific misconduct and the regulation of research.

For more in-depth information, please refer to the  Research Ethics: Definitions, Principles and Responsibilities .

There are many ethical considerations when undertaking research. Key amongst these are the protection of human participants, welfare of animal subjects, handling of personal data and respect for intellectual property. Various codes of conduct and policies exist to guide ethical behaviour and researchers should refer to those most appropriate to their discipline or area of study – see useful links. Reference should also be made to the University’s Research Ethics Policy and guidance documents detailing  Research Ethics: Definitions, Principles and Responsibilities and  Definition of key terms .


The University is committed to promoting safe environments free from abuse, harassment, bulling and physical violence for all individuals conducting or participating in our research and innovation activities. Our Code of Practice clarifies the responsibilities of the University and its researchers towards those that participate in our research and innovation activities.

Read our Safeguarding Code of Practice

Research involving human participants

With regard to research involving human participants, the University adheres to the six key principles outlined in the  ESRC Framework for Research Ethics :

  • Research should aim to maximise benefit for individuals and society and minimise risk and harm
  • The rights and dignity of individuals and groups should be respected
  • Wherever possible, participation should be voluntary and appropriately informed
  • Research should be conducted with integrity and transparency
  • Lines of responsibility and accountability should be clearly defined
  • Independence of research should be maintained and where conflicts of interest cannot be avoided they should be made explicit.

Research involving animals

For research involving animals, the University adheres to the  Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA)  and the principles of  replacement, reduction and refinement :

  • The principle of replacement is the principle that, wherever possible, a scientifically satisfactory method or testing strategy not entailing the use of protected animals must be used instead of a regulated procedure.
  • The principle of reduction is the principle that whenever a programme of work involving the use of protected animals is carried out the number of protected animals used must be reduced to a minimum without compromising the objectives of the programme.
  • The principle of refinement is the principle that the breeding, accommodation and care of protected animals and the methods used in regulated procedures applied to such animals must be refined so as to eliminate or reduce to the minimum any possible pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm to those animals.

Data Protection

Please refer to the  Data Protection pages  for our policies and guidance, including information on GDPR and Research.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property is the output of intellectual endeavour in literary, artistic, dramatic, industrial, scientific and engineering fields, which is generally capable of being identified and protected. The protection of IP is provided through certain legal rights many of which are established under legislation, common law and international treaties. For detailed guidance see the University’s  Intellectual Property Policy .

The University is committed to providing a safe and healthy place of work where staff and students are confident that their health, safety and welfare are considered to be of the utmost importance at all times. For detailed guidance see the University's  Health and Safety Policies . If your research activities involve carrying out fieldwork defined in the  USHA and UCEA Guidance on Health and Safety in Fieldwork as:

Any work carried out by staff or students for the purposes of teaching, research or other activities while representing the institution off-site. This definition will therefore include activities as diverse as attendance at conference and recruitment fairs, or undertaking social science interviews, as well as activities more traditionally associated with the term fieldwork such as survey/collection work carried out by geologists or biologists.

Please complete the Health and Safety processes established within your Faculty before commencing your fieldwork. For research involving fieldwork a  Fieldwork Risk Assessment Form  must be completed.

Research Integrity Training Resources

To further the University’s culture of research integrity, training materials have been made available via Canvas.  Within the materials there are six videos each accompanied by a booklet that provides the video transcript, extra  resources and example case studies; each video is also accompanied by a quiz to reinforce understanding.

Topics  include:

  • Introduction to Research Integrity and the responsible and ethical conduct of research
  • Ethical approval and practice
  • Plagiarism and recycling of text and research outputs
  • Collaborative research and data management and integrity
  • Peer review and publication ethics

The training has been developed and made available across the sector, by the University of Dundee. Training materials  are available to everyone from final year undergraduate dissertation students through to experienced research staff.  The structure of the training is designed to allow you to dip in and out of the topics that are relevant to you and your  current level of experience, rather than to be digested as a whole.

See training materials in Canvas

Enago Academy

Research Ethics & Misconduct: What Researchers Need to Know

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Ethics are the moral principles that a person must follow, irrespective of the place or time. Behaving ethically involves doing the right thing at the right time. Research ethics focus on the moral principles that researchers must follow in their respective fields of research.

Why Do Ethics Matter?

Ethical decision making in academic research focuses on providing maximum benefits to the participants. Following ethical principles in research is indeed crucial for maintaining the integrity of the study.

  • Honesty:  Ensure honesty in all forms of scientific communication with colleagues, sponsors or the general public
  • Objectivity:  Avoid bias in all aspects of research
  • Integrity:  Maintain consistency of thought and action
  • Carefulness:  Avoid errors or negligence at all times
  • Openness:  Share information about your research and be open to criticism and new ideas
  • Transparency:  Disclose all the necessary information needed to evaluate your research
  • Accountability:  Be responsible for all concerns related to your research
  • Intellectual Property:  Avoid plagiarism, give proper credit to all contribution in your research and honor all forms of intellectual property
  • Confidentiality:  Protect and safeguard all confidential information recorded in your research
  • Responsible Publication:  Publish for the sole reason to advance the knowledge in your field
  • Responsible Mentoring:  Help and mentor other researchers and promote their welfare
  • Respect for Colleagues:  Respect and treat all your colleagues fairly
  • Social Responsibility:  Aim to promote social good through your research
  • Non-Discrimination:  Avoid discrimination in all forms against colleagues
  • Competence:  Improve your own personal competence and also promote the competence of science as a whole
  • Legality:  Obey all relevant laws and policies
  • Animal Care:  Respect and care for all animal species
  • Human Subjects Protection:  Respect human dignity and take special precautions wherever needed.

Ethical Violations in Research

Research misconduct can have dire consequences . For instance, surgeon Paolo Macchiarini conducted experiments on patients without sound preclinical data. He worked on artificial transplantation of trachea within several patients, which turned out to be pathbreaking in medical history. However, it was all based on lies and fabricated data. Most of the patients who took part in his trial (seven of nine) died. He altered his published results to make it look as if his trachea transplant work was more successful than it really was. This was a severe consequence of the breach of research ethics.

What is the Nuremberg Code?

One of the more famous ethical guidelines followed in medical research is the Nuremberg Code. Using the Nuremberg Code shows a commitment to respect research participants. The terrible experiments conducted by the Nazis during the Second World War inspired the formulation of the Nuremberg Code. These experiments often resulted in severe injury or death. In addition, none of the participants were allowed to decide upon whether or not they would like to participate. Many experiments were not done with any therapeutic aim in mind. The Nuremberg Code addresses all of these things.

Making Ethical Decisions

There are some core principles that guide ethical decision making. Firstly, you must be committed to ethical principles . This means choosing an ethical behavior even if it delays your work or means not getting published quickly in a prestigious journal.

Next, you must determine the authenticity of the facts . It is important to evaluate the credibility of the information before taking any decisions regarding the research. Create a list of actions you could take and evaluate the consequences of each one. Make a final choice that seeks to minimize harm and build trust. Ethical decision making also affects how you report research data and who can be considered an author.

Ethics governs not just the treatment provided to the research participants but also to the researchers. Any researcher who contributes substantially to a research project or paper needs to get credit. This holds true even if the researcher is a student. This is usually done by naming him/her as an author on the final paper. It is best to have this discussion before writing the research paper . That way, everyone involved can have their say. A person should not be included as an author because of his/her position in the institute. For example, the head of a department should only be included as one of the authors of the paper, if he/she did substantial work for the paper.

Researchers need to ensure that they do not wield undue influence over others. A professor may want to recruit his or her students for a study. In this case, he or she must make it clear that participation is voluntary, not compulsory. Moreover, no student must feel pressured to participate.

research ethics in study

Research Participants Must Be Aware

Informed consent is a key principle of research ethics. It is important that the person who is invited to be part of the research understands both the benefits and the risks involved. They must have all the information that could affect their decision to participate. Each potential research participant should know:

  • Why the study is being done, how long it will last, and what methods will be used
  • Whether they have the right to not participate or to leave the study at any time
  • What are the possible risks or benefits involved, if any
  • What are the limits of confidentiality (circumstances under which their identity might be revealed)
  • Whom they can contact for their queries.

Different Research Ethics for Different Disciplines

There are general codes of ethics for different disciplines. You can use the Declaration of Helsinki for biomedical research. There are even ethics research guidelines for internet researchers and psychologists .

Regardless of the discipline, all ethical research guidelines seek to maximize good and minimize ill effects. Research ethics, therefore, require that all participants provide voluntary informed consent. All research must seek to answer questions that will benefit humanity. The risks must be minimized as far as humanly possible.

Is there anything in this checklist that could help you refine your use of ethics? Can you suggest some more rules for research ethics that need to be followed? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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