GuidesResearch methodsA guide to ethical considerations in research

A guide to ethical considerations in research

Last updated

12 March 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Research is a critical aspect of any design journey, but ensuring that the research is accurate, unbiased, and ethical is just as important.

Whether you are conducting a survey, running focus groups, doing field research, or holding interviews, the chances are participants will be a part of the process.

Taking ethical considerations into account and following all obligations are essential when people are involved in your research. Upholding academic integrity is another crucial ethical concern in all research types. 

So, how can you protect your participants and ensure that your research is ethical? Let’s take a closer look at the ethical considerations in research and the best practices to follow.

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The importance of ethical research

Research ethics are integral to all forms of research. They help protect participants’ rights, ensure that the research is valid and accurate, and help minimize any risk of harm during the process.

When people are involved in your research, it’s particularly important to consider whether your planned research method follows ethical practices.

You might ask questions such as:

  • Will our participants be protected?

  • Is there a risk of any harm?

  • Are we doing all we can to protect the personal data and information we collect?

  • Does our study include any bias?

  • How can we ensure that the results will be accurate and valid?

  • Will our research impact public safety?

  • Is there a more ethical way to complete the research?

Conducting research unethically and not protecting participants’ rights can have serious consequences. It can discredit the entire study. Human rights, dignity, and research integrity should all be front of mind when you are conducting research.

How to conduct ethical research

Before kicking off any project, the entire team must be familiar with ethical best practices. These include the considerations below.

Voluntary participation

In an ethical study, all participants have chosen to be part of the research. They must have voluntarily opted in without any pressure or coercion to do so. They must be aware that they are part of a research study. Their information must not be used against their will. 

To ensure voluntary participation, make it clear at the outset that the person is opting into the process.

While participants may agree to be part of a study for a certain duration, they are allowed to change their minds. Participants must be free to leave or withdraw from the study at any time. They don’t need to give a reason.

Before kicking off any research, it’s also important to gain consent from all participants. This ensures participants are clear that they are part of a research study and understand all of the information related to it.

Gaining informed consent usually involves a written consent form—physical or digital—that participants can sign.

Best practice informed consent generally includes the following:

  • An explanation of what the study is

  • The duration of the study

  • The expectations of participants

  • Any potential risks

  • An explanation that participants are free to withdraw at any time

  • Contact information for the research supervisor

When obtaining informed consent, you should ensure that all parties truly understand what they are signing and their obligations as a participant. There should never be any coercion to sign.

Anonymity

Anonymity is key to ensuring that participants cannot be identified through their data. Personal information includes things like participants’ names, addresses, emails, phone numbers, characteristics, and photos.

However, making information truly anonymous can be challenging, especially if personal information is a necessary part of the research.

To maintain a degree of anonymity, avoid gathering any information you don’t need. This will minimize the risk of participants being identified.

Another useful tool is data pseudonymization, which makes it harder to directly link information to a real person. Data pseudonymization means giving participants fake names or mock information to protect their identity. You could, for example, replace participants’ names with codes.

Confidentiality

Keeping data confidential is a critical aspect of all forms of research. You should communicate to all participants that their information will be protected and then take active steps to ensure that happens.

Data protection has become a serious topic in recent years and should be taken seriously. The more information you gather, the more important it is to heavily protect that data.

There are many ways to protect data, including the following:

  • Restricted access: Information should only be accessible to the researchers involved in the project to limit the risk of breaches.

  • Password protection: Information should not be accessible without access via a password that complies with secure password guidelines.

  • Encrypted data: In this day and age, password protection isn’t usually sufficient. Encrypting the data can help ensure its security.

  • Data retention: All organizations should uphold a data retention policy whereby data gathered should only be held for a certain period of time. This minimizes the risk of breaches further down the line.

In research where participants are grouped together (such as in focus groups), ask participants not to pass on what has been discussed. This helps maintain the group’s privacy.

Data falsification

Regardless of what your study is about or whether it involves humans, it’s always unethical to falsify data or information. That means editing or changing any data that has been gathered or gathering data in ways that skew the results.

Bias in research is highly problematic and can significantly impact research integrity. Data falsification or misrepresentation can have serious consequences.

Take the case of Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk, for example. Woo-suk, once considered a scientific leader in stem-cell research, was found guilty of fabricating experiments in the field and making ethical violations. Once discovered, he was fired from his role and sentenced to two years in prison.

All conflicts of interest should be declared at the outset to avoid any bias or risk of fabrication in the research process. Data must be collected and recorded accurately, and analysis must be completed impartially.

If conflicts do arise during the study, researchers may need to step back to maintain the study’s integrity. Outsourcing research to neutral third parties is necessary in some cases.

Potential for harm

Another consideration is the potential for harm. When completing research, it’s important to ensure that your participants will be safe throughout the study’s duration. 

Harm during research could occur in many forms.

  • Physical harm may occur if your participants are asked to perform a physical activity, or if they are involved in a medical study.

  • Psychological harm can occur if questions or activities involve triggering or sensitive topics, or if participants are asked to complete potentially embarrassing tasks.

  • Harm can be caused through a data breach or privacy concern.

  • A study can cause harm if the participants don’t feel comfortable with the study expectations or their supervisors.

Maintaining the physical and mental well-being of all participants throughout studies is an essential aspect of ethical research.

Gaining ethical approval

Gaining ethical approval may be necessary before conducting some types of research. 

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise that approval is likely required for studies involving people.

To gain approval, it’s necessary to submit a proposal to an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The board will check the proposal and ensure that the research aligns with ethical practices. It will allow the project to proceed if it meets requirements.

Not gaining appropriate approval could invalidate your study, so it’s essential to pay attention to all local guidelines and laws.

The dangers of unethical practices

Not maintaining ethical standards in research isn’t just questionable—it can be dangerous too. Many historical cases show just how widespread the ramifications can be.

The case of Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk shows just how critical it is to obtain information ethically and accurately represent findings.

A case in 1998, which involved fraudulent data reporting, further proves this point.

The study, now debunked, was completed by Andrew Wakefield. It suggested there may be a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism in children. It was later found that the data was manipulated to show a causal link when there wasn’t one. Wakefield’s medical license was removed as a result, but the fraudulent study was still widely cited and continues to cause vaccine hesitancy among many parents.

Large organizational bodies have also been a part of unethical research. The alcohol industry, for example, was found to be highly influential in a major public health study in an attempt to prove that moderate alcohol consumption had health benefits. Five major alcohol companies pledged approximately $66 million to fund the study.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) is clear that research shows there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. After pressure from many organizations, the study was eventually pulled due to biasing by the alcohol industry. Despite this, the idea that moderate alcohol consumption is better than abstaining may still appear in public discourse.

In more extreme cases, unethical research has led to medical studies being completed on people without their knowledge and against their will. The atrocities committed in Nazi Germany during World War II are an example.

Unethical practices in research are not just problematic or in conflict with academic integrity; they can seriously harm public health and safety.

The ethical way to research

Considering ethical concerns and adopting best practices throughout studies is essential when conducting research.

When people are involved in studies, it’s important to consider their rights. They must not be coerced into participating, and they should be protected throughout the process.

Accurate reporting, unbiased results, and a genuine interest in answering questions rather than confirming assumptions are all essential aspects of ethical research.

Ethical research ultimately means producing true and valuable results for the benefit of everyone impacted by your study.

FAQs

What are ethical considerations in research?

Ethical research involves a series of guidelines and considerations to ensure that the information gathered is valid and reliable. These guidelines ensure that:

  • People are not harmed during research

  • Participants have data protection and anonymity

  • Academic integrity is upheld

Not maintaining ethics in research can have serious consequences for those involved in the studies, the broader public, and policymakers.

What are the most common ethical considerations?

To maintain integrity and validity in research, all biases must be removed, data should be reported accurately, and studies must be clearly represented.

Some of the most common ethical guidelines when it comes to humans in research include avoiding harm, data protection, anonymity, informed consent, and confidentiality.

What are the ethical issues in secondary research?

Using secondary data is generally considered an ethical practice. That’s because the use of secondary data minimizes the impact on participants, reduces the need for additional funding, and maximizes the value of the data collection.

However, secondary research still has risks. For example, the risk of data breaches increases as more parties gain access to the information.

To minimize the risk, researchers should consider anonymity or data pseudonymization before the data is passed on. Furthermore, using the data should not cause any harm or distress to participants.

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