Research Ethics & Ethical Considerations

A Plain-Language Explainer With Examples

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewers: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | May 2024

Research ethics are one of those “unsexy but essential” subjects that you need to fully understand (and apply) to conquer your dissertation, thesis or research paper. In this post, we’ll unpack research ethics using plain language and loads of examples.

What (exactly) are research ethics?

At the simplest level, research ethics are a set of principles that ensure that your study is conducted responsibly, safely, and with integrity. More specifically, research ethics help protect the rights and welfare of your research participants, while also ensuring the credibility of your research findings.

Research ethics are critically important for a number of reasons:

Firstly, they’re a complete non-negotiable when it comes to getting your research proposal approved. Pretty much all universities will have a set of ethical criteria that student projects need to adhere to – and these are typically very strictly enforced. So, if your proposed study doesn’t tick the necessary ethical boxes, it won’t be approved.

Beyond the practical aspect of approval, research ethics are essential as they ensure that your study’s participants (whether human or animal) are properly protected. In turn, this fosters trust between you and your participants – as well as trust between researchers and the public more generally. As you can probably imagine, it wouldn’t be good if the general public had a negative perception of researchers!

Last but not least, research ethics help ensure that your study’s results are valid and reliable. In other words, that you measured the thing you intended to measure – and that other researchers can repeat your study. If you’re not familiar with the concepts of reliability and validity, we’ve got a straightforward explainer video covering that below.

The Core Principles

In practical terms, each university or institution will have its own ethics policy – so, what exactly constitutes “ethical research” will vary somewhat between institutions and countries. Nevertheless, there are a handful of core principles that shape ethics policies. These principles include:

  1. Respect for persons
  2. Beneficence
  3. Objectivity
  4. Integrity

Let’s unpack each of these to make them a little more tangible.

Ethics Principle 1: Respect for persons

As the name suggests, this principle is all about ensuring that your participants are treated fairly and respectfully. In practical terms, this means informed consent – in other words, participants should be fully informed about the nature of the research, as well as any potential risks. Additionally, they should be able to withdraw from the study at any time. This is especially important when you’re dealing with vulnerable populations – for example, children, the elderly or people with cognitive disabilities.

Another dimension of the “respect for persons” principle is confidentiality and data protection. In other words, your participants’ personal information should be kept strictly confidential and secure at all times. Depending on the specifics of your project, this might also involve anonymising or masking people’s identities. As mentioned earlier, the exact requirements will vary between universities, so be sure to thoroughly review your institution’s ethics policy before you start designing your project.

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Ethics Principle 2: Beneficence

This principle is a little more opaque, but in simple terms beneficence means that you, as the researcher, should aim to maximise the benefits of your work, while minimising any potential harm to your participants.

In practical terms, benefits could include advancing knowledge, improving health outcomes, or providing educational value. Conversely, potential harms could include:

  1. Physical harm from accidents or injuries
  2. Psychological harm, such as stress or embarrassment
  3. Social harm, such as stigmatisation or loss of reputation
  4. Economic harm – in other words, financial costs or lost income

Simply put, the beneficence principle means that researchers must always try to identify potential risks and take suitable measures to reduce or eliminate them.

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Ethics Principle 3: Objectivity

As you can probably guess, this principle is all about attempting to minimise research bias to the greatest degree possible. In other words, you’ll need to reduce subjectivity and increase objectivity wherever possible.

In practical terms, this principle has the largest impact on the methodology of your study – specifically the data collection and data analysis aspects. For example, you’ll need to ensure that the selection of your participants (in other words, your sampling strategy) is aligned with your research aims – and that your sample isn’t skewed in a way that supports your presuppositions.

If you’re keen to learn more about research bias and the various ways in which you could unintentionally skew your results, check out the video below.

Ethics Principle 4: Integrity

Again, no surprises here; this principle is all about producing “honest work”. It goes without saying that researchers should always conduct their work honestly and transparently, report their findings accurately, and disclose any potential conflicts of interest upfront.

This is all pretty obvious, but another aspect of the integrity principle that’s sometimes overlooked is respect for intellectual property. In practical terms, this means you need to honour any patents, copyrights, or other forms of intellectual property that you utilise while undertaking your research. Along the same vein, you shouldn’t use any unpublished data, methods, or results without explicit, written permission from the respective owner.

Linked to all of this is the broader issue of plagiarism. Needless to say, if you’re drawing on someone else’s published work, be sure to cite your sources, in the correct format. To make life easier, use a reference manager such as Mendeley or Zotero to ensure that your citations and reference list are perfectly polished.

FAQs: Research Ethics

Research Ethics & Ethical Considertation
What is informed consent?

Informed consent simply means providing your potential participants with all necessary information about the study. This should include information regarding the study’s purpose, procedures, risks, and benefits. This information allows your potential participants to make a voluntary and informed decision about whether to participate.

How should I obtain consent from non-English speaking participants?
When working with non-English speaking participants, you should provide consent forms and information sheets in their native language. Use a translator if necessary to ensure they fully understand the research and their involvement.
What about animals?

When conducting research with animals, ensure you adhere to ethical guidelines for the humane treatment of animals. Again, the exact requirements here will vary between institutions, but typically include minimising pain and distress, using alternatives where possible, and obtaining approval from an animal care and use committee.

What is the role of the ERB or IRB?

An ethics review board (ERB) or institutional review board (IRB) evaluates research proposals to ensure they meet ethical standards. The board reviews study designs, consent forms, and data handling procedures, to protect participants’ welfare and rights.

How can I obtain ethical approval for my project?

This varies between universities, but you will typically need to submit a detailed research proposal to your institution’s ethics committee. This proposal should include your research objectives, methods, and how you plan to address ethical considerations like informed consent, confidentiality, and risk minimisation. You can learn more about how to write a proposal here.

How do I ensure ethical collaboration when working with colleagues?

Collaborative research should be conducted with mutual respect and clear agreements on roles, contributions, and publication credits. Open communication is key to preventing conflicts and misunderstandings. Also, be sure to check whether your university has any specific requirements with regards to collaborative efforts and division of labour. 

How should I address ethical concerns relating to my funding source?
This can be a little tricky, but as a rule of thumb, you should be fully transparent about your funding sources and disclose any potential conflicts of interest. Most importantly though, ensure that your research remains objective and is not unduly influenced by the interests of your funders.

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Key Takeaways: Research Ethics 101

Here’s a quick recap of the key points we’ve covered:

  1. Research ethics are a set of principles that ensure that your study is conducted responsibly.
  2. It’s essential that you design your study around these principles, or it simply won’t get approved.
  3. The four ethics principles we looked at are: respect for persons, beneficence, objectivity and integrity

As mentioned, the exact requirements will vary slightly depending on the institution and country, so be sure to thoroughly review your university’s research ethics policy before you start developing your study.

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This post was based on one of our popular Research Bootcamps. If you're working on a research project, you'll definitely want to check this out...

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