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Guidance notes

Research and data briefing, ethics in primary research (focus groups, interviews and surveys).

This third short guide from ECU’s research team, part of our research and data briefing series, focuses on research ethics.

The publication aims to assist equality and diversity practitioners in conducting focus groups, interviews and surveys that are underpinned by ethical principles and considerations.

With practical examples of ethical approaches to all stages of the research process, from research design to data analysis and reporting, our new short guide covers:

Research and data briefing 3: Ethics in primary research (focus groups, interviews and surveys) PDF

The materials published on this page were originally created by the Equality Challenge Unit.

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StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-.

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StatPearls [Internet].

Research ethics.

Jennifer M. Barrow ; Grace D. Brannan ; Paras B. Khandhar .


Last Update: September 18, 2022 .

Multiple examples of past unethical research studies conducted in the past throughout the world have cast a significant historical shadow on research involving human subjects. Examples include the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972, Nazi medical experimentation in the 1930s and 1940s, and research conducted at the Willowbrook State School in the 1950s and 1960s. [1]  As the aftermath of these practices, wherein uninformed and unaware patients were exposed to disease or subject to other unproven treatments, became known, the need for rules governing the design and implementation of human-subject research protocols became very evident.

The first such ethical code for research was the Nuremberg Code, arising in the aftermath of Nazi research atrocities brought to light in the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. [1]  This set of international research standards sought to prevent gross research misconduct and abuse of vulnerable and unwitting research subjects by establishing specific human subject protective factors. A direct descendant of this code was drafted in 1978 in the United States, known as the Belmont Report, and this legislation forms the backbone of regulation of clinical research in the USA since its adoption. [2]  The Belmont Report contains three basic ethical principles: (1) respect for persons, (2) beneficence, and (3) justice. Additionally, the Belmont Report details research-based protective applications for informed consent, risk/benefit assessment, and participant selection. [3]

The first protective principle stemming from the 1978 Belmont Report is the principle of Respect for Persons, also known as human dignity. [2]  This dictates researchers must work to protect research participants’ autonomy while also ensuring full disclosure of factors surrounding the study, including potential harms and benefits. According to the Belmont Report, “an autonomous person is an individual capable of deliberation about personal goals and of acting under the direction of such deliberation." [1]

To ensure participants have the autonomous right to self-determination, researchers must ensure that potential participants understand that they have the right to decide whether or not to participate in research studies voluntarily and that declining to participate in any research will not affect in any way their access to current or subsequent care. Also, self-determined participants must have the ability to ask the researcher questions and the ability to comprehend questions asked by the researcher. Researchers must also inform participants that they may stop participating in the study at any time without fear of penalty. [4]  As noted in the Belmont Report definition above, not all individuals have the capacity to be autonomous concerning research participation. Whether because of the individual’s developmental level or because of various illnesses or disabilities, some individuals require special research protections that may involve exclusion from research activities that can cause potential harm, or appointing a third-party guardian to oversee the participation of such vulnerable persons. [5]

Researchers must also ensure that they do not coerce potential participants into agreeing to participate in studies. Coercion refers to threats of penalty, whether implied or explicit, if participants decline to participate or otherwise opt-out of a study. Additionally, giving potential participants extreme rewards for agreeing to participate can also be a form of coercion, because the rewards may provide an enticing-enough incentive that the participant feels they need participate, while if such a reward were not offered they would otherwise have declined. While researchers often use various rewards and incentives in studies, they must review carefully this possibility of coercion. Some incentives may pressure potential participants into joining a study, thereby stripping participants of complete self-determination. [3]

An additional aspect of respecting potential participants’ self-determination is to ensure that researchers have fully disclosed information about the study and explained the voluntary nature of participation (including the right to refuse without repercussion) and possible benefits and risks related to study participation. Without complete information, a potential participant cannot make a truly informed decision. This aspect of the Belmont Report can be troublesome for some researchers based on their study designs and research questions. Noted biases related to reactivity may occur when study participants know the exact guiding research questions and purposes. Some researchers may try to avoid reactivity biases by using covert data collection methods or masking of key study information. Masking frequently occurs in pharmaceutical trials with placebos because knowledge of placebo receipt can affect study outcomes. However, masking and concealed data collection methods may not fully respect participants’ rights to autonomy and the associated informed consent process. Any researcher considering concealed data collection or masking of some research information from participants must present their plans to an Institutional Review Board (IRB) for oversight, as well as explain the potential masking to prospective patients in the consent process (i.e. - explaining to potential participants in a medication trial that they will be randomly assigned either the medication or a placebo). The IRB will make a final determination if studies warrant concealed data collection or masking methods in light of the research design and methods and study-specific protections. [6]

The second Belmont Report principle is the principle of beneficence. Beneficence refers to acting in such a way to benefit others while promoting their welfare and safety. [7]  Although not specifically mentioned by name, the biomedical ethical principle of nonmaleficence (do no harm) also appears within the Belmont Report’s section on beneficence. The beneficence principle includes two specific research aspects: (1) participants’ right to freedom from harm and discomfort and (2) participants’ rights to protection from exploitation. [8]

Before seeking IRB approval and conducting a study, researchers must analyze potential risks and benefits to research participants. Examples of possible participant risks include physical harm, loss of privacy, unforeseen side effects, emotional distress or embarrassment, monetary costs, physical discomfort, and loss of time. Possible benefits include access to a potentially valuable intervention, increased understanding of a medical condition, and satisfaction of helping others with similar issues. [8]  These potential risks and benefits should explicitly appear in the written informed consent document used in the study. Researchers must implement specific protections to minimize all forms of discomfort and harm to align with the principle of beneficence. Under the principle of beneficence, researchers must also protect participants from exploitation. Any information provided by participants through their study involvement must be protected.

The final principle contained in the Belmont Report is the principle of justice, which pertains to participants’ right to fair treatment and right to privacy. The selection of the types of participants desired for a research study should be guided by research questions and requirements so as not to exclude any group, and to be as representative of the overall target population as possible. Researchers and IRBs must scrutinize the selection of research participants to determine whether researchers are systematically selecting some groups (e.g., participants receiving public financial assistance, specific ethnic and racial minorities, or those who are institutionalized) because of their vulnerability or ease of access. The right to fair treatment also relates to researchers treating those who decline to participate in a study fairly without any prejudice. [3]

The right to privacy also falls under the Belmont Report’s principle of justice. Researchers must keep any shared information in their strictest confidence. Upholding the right to privacy often involves procedures for anonymity or confidentiality. For participants’ data to be completely anonymous, the researcher cannot have the ability to connect the participant to their data. If researchers can make participant-data connections, even if they use codes or pseudonyms in place of personal identifiers, the study is no longer anonymous. Instead, researchers are providing participant confidentiality. Various methods can help researchers assure confidentiality, including locking any participant identifying data and substituting code numbers instead of names, with a correlation key available only to a safety or oversight functionary in case of emergency, but not readily available to researchers themselves. [3]

One of the most common safeguards for the ethical conduct of research involves the use of external reviewers known as an Institutional Review Board (IRB). Researchers seeking to begin a study must submit a full research proposal to the IRB, which includes specific data collection instruments, research advertisements, and informed consent documentation. The IRB may perform a complete or expedited review depending on the nature of the study and the risks involved. Until researchers obtain full IRB approval, they cannot contact potential participants or start collecting data. Sometimes, multi-site studies require approvals from several IRBs, all of which may have different forms and review processes. [3]

A significant study aspect of interest to IRB members is the use of any participants from vulnerable groups. Vulnerable groups may include individuals who cannot give fully informed consent or those individuals who may be at elevated risk of unplanned side effects. Examples of vulnerable participants include pregnant women, children younger than the age of consent, terminally ill individuals, institutionalized individuals, and those with mental or emotional disabilities. In the case of minors, assent is also an element that must be addressed per Subpart D of the Code of Federal Regulations, 45 CFR 46.402 which defines assent to mean “a child's affirmative agreement to participate in research; mere failure to object should not, absent affirmative agreement, be construed as assent.” [9] There is paucity in the literature on when minors possess the ability to understand research although current research suggests that the age by which a minor could assent is around 14. [10]  Anytime researchers include vulnerable groups in their studies, they must include extra safeguards to uphold Belmont Report ethical principles, especially the principle of beneficence. [3]

Research ethics is a foundational principle of modern medical research across all disciplines. The overarching body, the IRB, is intentionally comprised of experts across a range of disciplines that can include ethicists, social workers, physicians, nurses, other scientific researchers, counselors and mental health professionals, and advocates for vulnerable subjects. There is also often a legal expert either on the panel, or available to it, to discuss any questions regarding the legality or ramifications of studies.

This book is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/ ), which permits others to distribute the work, provided that the article is not altered or used commercially. You are not required to obtain permission to distribute this article, provided that you credit the author and journal.

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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.

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:

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: .

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 Guidelines for Online Interviews

In all research encounters, it is vital to keep in mind that the ethnographer’s primary goal should be maintaining the wellbeing of interlocutors. This mission extends into virtual environments as well, including in the realm of online interviews. In order to ensure that both the ethnographer and the participant benefit from this experience, the following ethical guidelines should be kept in mind:

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Types of Interviews in Research | Guide & Examples

Published on March 10, 2022 by Tegan George . Revised on December 2, 2022.

An interview is a qualitative research method that relies on asking questions in order to collect data . Interviews involve two or more people, one of whom is the interviewer asking the questions.

There are several types of interviews, often differentiated by their level of structure.

Interviews are commonly used in market research, social science, and ethnographic research .

Table of contents

What is a structured interview, what is a semi-structured interview, what is an unstructured interview, what is a focus group, examples of interview questions, advantages and disadvantages of interviews, frequently asked questions about types of interviews.

Structured interviews have predetermined questions in a set order. They are often closed-ended, featuring dichotomous (yes/no) or multiple-choice questions. While open-ended structured interviews exist, they are much less common. The types of questions asked make structured interviews a predominantly quantitative tool.

Asking set questions in a set order can help you see patterns among responses, and it allows you to easily compare responses between participants while keeping other factors constant. This can mitigate   research biases and lead to higher reliability and validity. However, structured interviews can be overly formal, as well as limited in scope and flexibility.

Semi-structured interviews are a blend of structured and unstructured interviews. While the interviewer has a general plan for what they want to ask, the questions do not have to follow a particular phrasing or order.

Semi-structured interviews are often open-ended, allowing for flexibility, but follow a predetermined thematic framework, giving a sense of order. For this reason, they are often considered “the best of both worlds.”

However, if the questions differ substantially between participants, it can be challenging to look for patterns, lessening the generalizability and validity of your results.

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An unstructured interview is the most flexible type of interview. The questions and the order in which they are asked are not set. Instead, the interview can proceed more spontaneously, based on the participant’s previous answers.

Unstructured interviews are by definition open-ended. This flexibility can help you gather detailed information on your topic, while still allowing you to observe patterns between participants.

However, so much flexibility means that they can be very challenging to conduct properly. You must be very careful not to ask leading questions, as biased responses can lead to lower reliability or even invalidate your research.

A focus group brings together a group of participants to answer questions on a topic of interest in a moderated setting. Focus groups are qualitative in nature and often study the group’s dynamic and body language in addition to their answers. Responses can guide future research on consumer products and services, human behavior, or controversial topics.

Focus groups can provide more nuanced and unfiltered feedback than individual interviews and are easier to organize than experiments or large surveys . However, their small size leads to low external validity and the temptation as a researcher to “cherry-pick” responses that fit your hypotheses.

Depending on the type of interview you are conducting, your questions will differ in style, phrasing, and intention. Structured interview questions are set and precise, while the other types of interviews allow for more open-endedness and flexibility.

Here are some examples.

Interviews are a great research tool. They allow you to gather rich information and draw more detailed conclusions than other research methods, taking into consideration nonverbal cues, off-the-cuff reactions, and emotional responses.

However, they can also be time-consuming and deceptively challenging to conduct properly. Smaller sample sizes can cause their validity and reliability to suffer, and there is an inherent risk of interviewer effect arising from accidentally leading questions.

Here are some advantages and disadvantages of each type of interview that can help you decide if you’d like to utilize this research method.

The four most common types of interviews are:

The interviewer effect is a type of bias that emerges when a characteristic of an interviewer (race, age, gender identity, etc.) influences the responses given by the interviewee.

There is a risk of an interviewer effect in all types of interviews , but it can be mitigated by writing really high-quality interview questions.

Social desirability bias is the tendency for interview participants to give responses that will be viewed favorably by the interviewer or other participants. It occurs in all types of interviews and surveys , but is most common in semi-structured interviews , unstructured interviews , and focus groups .

Social desirability bias can be mitigated by ensuring participants feel at ease and comfortable sharing their views. Make sure to pay attention to your own body language and any physical or verbal cues, such as nodding or widening your eyes.

This type of bias can also occur in observations if the participants know they’re being observed. They might alter their behavior accordingly.

A focus group is a research method that brings together a small group of people to answer questions in a moderated setting. The group is chosen due to predefined demographic traits, and the questions are designed to shed light on a topic of interest. It is one of 4 types of interviews .

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to systematically measure variables and test hypotheses . Qualitative methods allow you to explore concepts and experiences in more detail.

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Sensitive Interviewing in Qualitative Research


In this paper we focus on important considerations when planning and conducting qualitative interviews on sensitive topics. Drawing on experiences of conducting interviews with dementia caregivers, a framework of essential elements in qualitative interviewing was developed to emphasize study participants' needs while also providing guidance for researchers. Starting with a definition of sensitive research, the framework includes preparing for interviews, interacting with gatekeepers of vulnerable groups, planning for interview timing, and location, building relationships and conducting therapeutic interactions, protecting ethically vulnerable participants, and planning for disengagement. This framework has the potential to improve the effectiveness of sensitive interviewing with vulnerable groups. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: caregivers; dementia; hidden population; protection of human subjects; qualitative research; recruitment; sensitive topics; vulnerable populations.

© 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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Research ethics guidance - ESRC

Our framework for research ethics helps you to consider ethics issues during the complete lifecycle of a project and includes information and guidelines on good research conduct and governance.

Our policy and guidelines for good research conduct

Find out about your responsibilities to carry out research to the highest scientific and ethical standards

Framework for research ethics

Find out about our principles, commitment, terms and conditions and when to contact us

Researchers and research teams

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Find out how researchers should treat you if you are participating in their research

Risk and benefit

Answers to commonly asked questions about risk and benefit

Answers to commonly asked questions about consent

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Learn about the specific ethical considerations when using the internet and social media for research

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Considerations when using children in research

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Considerations when using vulnerable people in research

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What should you consider if your research has an international dimension

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Build and maintain appropriate structures and support for good practice

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Ethical Considerations in Primary Research

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Primary research involves collecting data about a given subject directly from the real world. This section includes information on what primary research is, how to get started, ethics involved with primary research and different types of research you can do. It includes details about interviews, surveys, observations, and analysis.

Primary research is conducted all of the time--journalists use it as their primary means of reporting news and events; national polls and surveys discover what the population thinks about a particular political figure or proposal; and companies collect data on their consumer base and market trends. When conducting research in an academic or professional setting, you need to be aware of the ethics behind your research activity.

Here are some specific points to consider:


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    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.

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    They first asked why I'm applying for a short-term contract position, how my skills/experiences fit, followed by some knowledge based questions and behavioural. The knowledge-based questions include: 1. What do you know about Research Ethics (provincial, federal, and institutional)? 2. Who are the key stakeholders in research?

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