Ethical Issues in Research Powlin V. Manuel MD, MBA

Research, once completely unregulated now undergoes close scrutiny when human participants are involved. The question is why does research that uses humans as participants need to be regulated? The currently imposed stringent requirements and oversight are the result of studies that were conducted prior to the current laws and the long range and devastating effects they had and, in some cases, still have.  Because humans have demonstrated a tendency to disregard the moral rights of individuals in the name of conducting scientific experiments in the past, oversight became a necessary step. Occasionally, eager to study and publish data in order to get recognition, scientists have tendency to make use of subjects who are kept in the dark, exposed to conditions that create great anxiety and nervousness in their part for “the greater good and growth and prosperity of science” (Robinson, 1997);  it is now considered not acceptable. The well known Milgram study, even though provided information on obedience, the most common form of social influence, showed that humans are capable of inflicting pain under order by authorities (Martin, 2006). The study has been criticized for not following ethical standards needed to be observed in a human research.  Many organizations found the need for setting their own rules on the ethical issues related to research and psychologists are expected to follow the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct Web site. The special areas of ethics that applies to research and publication are the following as stated in the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct 2002:

Institutional approval

Informed consent to research

Informed consent for recording voice and images in research

Ethical standards in client/patient, student, and subordinate research participants

Dispensing with informed consent for research

Offering inducements research participation

Deception in research

Human care and use of animals in research

Reporting research results


Publication credit

Sharing research data

The code of ethics of American Psychological Association has set its codes addressing practitioners and researchers in various disciplines. The question however is, whether these codes cover all aspects of the evolving nature of the discipline of psychology.  Detwiler (2007) argues that as the psychologists are changing fields of their practices, it presents challenges as the existing system does not encompass all areas of practice. Understanding the importance of awareness of all issues related to ethical behavior, universities have taken steps to sensitize their students through mandatory courses in ethics. Gothjelpsen (2007) found that 82.73% of syllabi contained discussion on APA codes of ethics.

The ethical issues in research can be anticipated in the following areas (Creswell, 2009):

  • Ethical Issues in Research problems:

There is a need to make sure that the research will benefit the individuals participating in the study, and to make sure that the inquirer will not further marginalized the participants.

  • Ethical issues in the purpose and questions:

Purpose of study needs to be explained to the participants; any sponsorship of the study needs to be revealed.

  • Ethical issues in data collection:

Research plan must be submitted to institutional review board (IRB) for approval after assessing any physical, psychological, social, economic or legal harm to the participants. The researcher needs to assess special needs of minors, mentally incapacitated, victims, and persons with neurological impairment, pregnant women, fetuses, prisoners, and individuals with AIDS. Informed consent form need to be signed which should provide identification of the researcher, of sponsoring institutions, selection of participants, purpose of the research, benefits for participating, the level and type of participant involvement, risks to the participants, guarantee of confidentiality, assurance that the participant can withdraw any time, and provision of contact person. Other issues include: access to study participants, respect for the research site, benefit for all participants, reciprocity between researcher and participants, avoiding any harm from interview, and safeguarding the privacy of data collected.

  • Ethical issues in data analysis and interpretation:

Ethical issues in data analysis and interpretation include protecting the anonymity of participants, safe keeping of the data, the ownership of the data, and provision of accurate account of the information.

  • Ethical issues in writing and disseminating of the research:

Ethical issues in writing and disseminating of the research includes avoiding use of biased language of any type, avoid suppressing, falsifying, or inventing finding to meet the researcher’s needs, avoiding miss use of results, not exploiting the labor of colleagues and providing authorship to individuals who made substantial contribution to the study, and the need to release details of the research with the study design.

Emanuel, Wender, & Grady (2000) argue that the following requirements must be met for evaluating the ethics of clinical research studies: value enhancement, scientific validity, fair subject selection, favorable risk-benefit ratio, independent review, informed consent, and respect for enrolled subjects. The authors argue that these requirements are universal, and must be adapted to the health, economic and cultural contexts.


Detwiler, W.W. (2007). Does one size fit all? Interpretation and application of the American Psychological Association code of ethics by clinical and organizational psychologists. Ph.D. dissertation, Alliant International University, San Diego, California, Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation database. (Publication No.AAT3273276)

Gothjelpsen, S. M. (2007). Current state of ethics training in Canadian professional graduate programs. M.Ed. dissertation, University of Alberta (Canada). Retrieved on  from ProQuest Dissertation database. (Publication No.AAT MR 29904)

Creswell, J.W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods       approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Emanuel, E.J., Wendler, D., & Grady, C. (2000). What makes clinical research ethical?.        JAMA, 283(20), 2701-2711.

Martin, D. W. (Speaker). (2006). Psychology of human behavior: Part I (CD Recording         Course No. 1620 Disc 1): Chantilli, VA: The Teaching Company: USA

Robinson, D.N. (speaker). (1997). The Great ideas of psychology. (CD Course          No.660). Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.