While the concept of research ethics may appear like a recent issue, it has a long history that stretches back to the 1940s. Precisely, the very first attempt to come up with related regulations started during the Doctors Trial of 1946 to 1947, at a time when 23 German Nazi physicians faced accusations of having conducted ‘experiments’ that were termed as torturous and abhorrent on concentration camp inmates. In some of these experiments, the physicians exposed the inmates to extreme altitudes and temperatures. In response, the Nuremberg Code, which contained a list of ethical guidelines on how research should be conducted, was developed. Since then, several other codes of conduct in research have been developed (University of Minnesota, 2003). This is mainly by professional associations, higher education institutions, and government agencies that in addition to the codes of conduct, they have also put in place policies and rules relating to research ethics. In the US for instance, government agencies among them the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have formulated ethical rules that guide funded researchers (Resnik, 2011). In the contemporary world of research, it is extremely important for any person who wishes to conduct research or make use of results from research findings to understand what constitutes ethical research.
Notably, research constitutes a public trust that has to be conducted ethically, be socially responsible, and trustworthy for its results to be considered valuable. In this respect, all components of a research project right from the design to the results submission for purposes of peer review should be outstanding for them to be regarded as ethical (Web Centre for Social Research Methods, 2006). In a case where even one component of a research project is conducted unethically or raises questions, the integrity of the whole project becomes questionable. Here it is important to look at the general ethical issues that come up in the course of research. These issues are in fact, the ones that describe the ethical protection system that contemporary research establishments have developed mainly to assure protection of research participants (Web Centre for Social Research Methods, 2006).
Voluntary participation is a principle that requires those conducting research not to coerce people into taking part in it. This is primarily relevant in cases where researchers had on an earlier instance relied upon ‘captive audiences’ as their research subjects in places like universities, prisons and others. Closely related to this is the principle of informed consent. Basically, this implies that prospective participants of a research have to be comprehensively informed on the risks and procedures involved in the research upon which they must give consent for their participation (Web Centre for Social Research Methods, 2006). Another ethical standard dictates that researchers should not put participants in a situation that exposes them to a risk of harm owing to their participation. Such harm can be either psychological or physical. The privacy of participants is also critical to an ethical research. Here, two standards apply and these are confidentiality and anonymity. On confidentiality, an ethical research guarantees the participants that their identity information will not be disclosed to any person not directly involved in the research. A much stricter standard is that of anonymity. This basically implies that research participants should remain anonymous throughout the research and this includes to the researchers themselves. Though this serves as a stronger assurance of privacy, it often proves hard to achieve more so in research situations that require that participants be measured at multiple points of time for instance, in a pre-post study (Web Centre for Social Research Methods, 2006). Lastly, it has also become increasingly common for researchers to have to handle the issue of an individual’s right to service. The use of a no-treatment control group is usually considered to constitute a good research practice. However, those individuals who participate in a research, but do not get the treatment which may be having beneficial effects sometimes complain that their rights to equal access to services have been curtailed (Web Centre for Social Research Methods, 2006).
It is also important to note that even in the existence of clear ethical principles and standards, there are cases in which the need to achieve accuracy in research overlaps the rights of prospective participants. In fact, there is currently no set of standards that has the capacity to cover every ethical circumstance that may arise. Moreover, it is important to have a procedure that will guarantee that researchers will take into account all relevant ethical issues as they formulate their research plants (Web Centre for Social Research Methods, 2006). It is for these purposes that most organizations and institutions have created an Institutional Review Board (IRB); a board made up of a panel of individuals who review grant proposals in relation to ethical implications and determine whether there is a need to take additional actions to guarantee the rights and safety of participants. IRBs also assist in protecting both the researcher and the organization against any potential legal implications that may arise from failure to address critical ethical issues of research participants (Web Centre for Social Research Methods, 2006).
Researchers also have a role in ensuring they understand how to assess interpret, and apply the different research rules. They also have to possess skills that enable them to make decisions and act in the numerous situations that may arise. Fortunately, most of such decisions only involve the direct application of the existing rules.
Resnik, D.B. (2011).What is Ethics in Research & Why is it Important? Retrieved on 22/10/2014 from: http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/resources/bioethics/whatis/
University of Minnesota. (2003). A Guide to Research Ethics. Retrieved on 22/10/2014 from: http://www.ahc.umn.edu/img/assets/26104/Research_Ethics.pdf
Web Centre for Social Research Methods. (2006). Ethics in Research. Retrieved on 22/10/2014 from: http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/ethics.php