Ethical issues in research

Sometimes research is used for political, financial and other motives. Manipulation of research at strategic level has proved dangerous for many. Freedom for research means that outside bodies should have little institutional authority over research. This places even greater demands on the will and ability of researchers and the research community to meet ethical demands and to take ethical considerations into account. Research must be regulated by ethical norms and values, even where there is disagreement over which ethical norms are applicable. Some norms express general ethical values which are absolutely fundamental. In other areas ethical views are less clear and considered, or may even be mutually contradictory. Because research gives us new insights and opportunities on which we are unable to take immediate ethical stands, such unclearness and disagreement often arise in research. In such cases, researchers bear a special responsibility for helping to resolve ethical problems. The ethical obligations of research relate partly to norms in the research process and partly to responsibility for the consequences of research.

There are a number of key phrases that describe the system of ethical protections. The principle of voluntary participation requires that people not be coerced into participating in research. This is especially relevant where researchers had previously relied on ‘captive audiences’ for their subjects – prisons, universities, and places like that. Closely related to the notion of voluntary participation is the requirement of informed consent. Essentially, this means that prospective research participants must be fully informed about the procedures and risks involved in research and must give their consent to participate. Ethical standards also require that researchers not put participants in a situation where they might be at risk of harm as a result of their participation. Harm can be defined as both physical and psychological. There are two standards that are applied in order to help protect the privacy of research participants. Almost all research guarantees the participants‘ confidentiality – they are assured that identifying information will not be made available to anyone who is not directly involved in the study. The stricter standard is the principle of anonymity which essentially means that the participant will remain anonymous throughout the study – even to the researchers themselves. Clearly, the anonymity standard is a stronger guarantee of privacy, but it is sometimes difficult to accomplish, especially in situations where participants have to be measured at multiple time points (e.g., a pre-post study). Increasingly, researchers have had to deal with the ethical issue of a person’s right to service. Good research practice often requires the use of a no-treatment control group -a group of participants who do not get the treatment or program that is being studied.

But when that treatment or program may have beneficial effects, persons assigned to the no-treatment control may feel their rights to equal access to services are being curtailed. Even when clear ethical standards and principles exist, there will be times when the need to do accurate research runs up against the rights of potential participants. No set of standards can possibly anticipate every ethical circumstance. Furthermore, there needs to be a procedure that assures that researchers will consider all relevant ethical issues in formulating research plans.

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