SOCI2000: 2.1 Research Ethics

Lecture Slides

Slides for Week 2 Lecture


Guiding values

Research merit and integrity







Privacy in data storage

Privacy in publishing

Informed Consent

Components of …

Describe study



Length of time

Privacy protections

Contact details of researchers

Contact details of ethics committee

Right to withdraw

How to get a copy of research

Do you consent to participate?

Other fundamental concepts


Illegal vs Unethical research

Safety of researchers

Legal reporting obligations

Types of harm

Vulnerable populations

Opening Exercise

Think about your research project.

  1. What ethical problems or issues do you think you might face? If you can’t think of any, imagine you are doing a more high risk study, such as on domestic violence, interviewing survivors. What issues might this study face?

Once you have identified a set of ethical issues, answer the following question:

  1. What methods could you, and should you, use to address these ethical issues?

1. Introduction

Today we are going to talk about research ethics.

Before we move through the main lecture, I want to encourage you to watch this short video on YouTube called 5 Psychology Experiments You Couldn’t Do Today. It provides a very useful overview some of the core principles of research ethics, and some colourful examples of unethical research.

2. Guiding values

It is worth noting that the ethics we are talking about is actually a very limited notion of ‘ethics’.

We are not talking about:

  • How a researcher can choose topics that help make a better society.
  • How a researcher can be a good colleague.
  • How a researcher can organise their personal life in a ethical matter.

When we talk about research ethics, we are mainly talking about just one aspect:

  • How can a researcher ensure they treat participants (such as people they interview or survey) ethically?
  • Particularly, how can the researcher make sure they do not harm participants, and also provide participants with the maximum benefits?

So how does a researcher ensure they treat participants ethically? The international research community has settled on four main values, which we will review in turn.

Research merit and integrity

This value essentially means ‘do high quality and honest research’.

This value exists because some researchers do very low quality or research of no value, but in the process take up the time, energy, and resources of participants.

Characteristics of research with merit and integrity include:

  • having qualified researchers;
  • having enough funding to do research;
  • having done a review of the existing academic literature;
  • conducting the research with honesty; and
  • using the best available methods in the world (given your resources).

Examples of research which does not show merit or integrity include:

  • plagarised research;
  • research with false data;
  • research that makes no contribution to knowlede;
  • research that repeats past experiments, but with inferior methods; and
  • doing research before you have done a literature review.


Research should respect the autonomy and dignity of the participant.

This value exists because there is often the temptation for researchers to justify their research in terms of ‘the greater good’ or some ‘higher value’, and either ignore the interests of participants, or treat them as simple tools.

Other ways of stating this value include:

  • All humans have intrinsic value;
  • All humans have the right to control their lives and to be protected from harm;
  • All humans are owed courtesy.

Research which show respect for participants will:

  • obtain informed consent;
  • protect participants from risk;
  • empower participants.

Practices of research which violates the principle of ‘autonomy/respect’ include:

  • coercion;
  • deception;
  • treating participants as objects;
  • treating participants as means to an end;
  • using a utilitarian logic (the ends justifies the means) that ignores individual rights of participants.


Beneficence means to ‘do good’. This value means ‘do good, and do no harm’.

The Hypocratic oath of doctors (‘first do no harm’) is an example of the value of beneficence being established as a norm for a profession (in this case, doctors).

This value exists because there can often be the temptation on the part of researchers to only think about the purposes of their research, and be indifferent to the consequences for participants. This value establishes the norm of not harming, and ideally helping, participants.

Researchers implement beneficence by:

  • minimising risks;
  • ensuring the benefits of a study to individual participants outweigh the risks;
  • not harming participants;
  • ensuring all participants get treatment equal to the current state of the art.

Examples of research practices that violate the value of beneficience include:

  • dangerous research, such as research that risks:
    • serious harm to a participants employment,
    • legal consequences,
    • harm to participant’s physical body;
    • harm to participants’s emotions or mental state.
  • denying access to treatment
  • consciously disadvantaging an experimental group
  • making private data public


Justice means that we treat all participants equally.

In the case of justice, we don’t just mean individual participants, but also groups of participants, such as participants of different ethic groups, genders, or different social classes (socioeconomic status).

This principle exists because basically market forces and differences in power in most societies mean that it is cheap for researchers to experiment on the poor and powerless, and profitable for researchers to sell the results of their research to the rich and powerful.

The effect of such market forces and power differences can be grossly unfair: the poor get experimented on, and suffer the dangers, while the rich get the benefits. The principle of justice aims to work against these forces and provide justice to the poor and less powerful.

Researchers implement justice by:

  • ensuring the placebo or control treatment has benefits similar to that of the experimental treatment;
  • giving poor communities access to the benefits of research;
  • ensuring research risks are spread across individuals and groups.

Research which violates the value of justice:

  • experiment on poor people because they are cheap to recruit;
  • study only vulnerable populations (and not the powerful);
  • don’t distribute the benefits of research to the population being studied;
  • research on poor people to make products for rich clients (such as patented AIDS drugs, trialed in poor African communities)

3. Privacy

Privacy is the right all humans have to keep somethings out of public view.

Private things don’t need to be kept private. But discretion to share private things rests with the individual whose ‘thing’ it is.

Examples of things that are often private are:

  • your name, address, email address, phone number;
  • your job, the company you work for;
  • your income, your marital status;
  • any information the person might reasonabily expect to be private;
  • accounts of illegal activities;
  • stories or information that could embarrass or cause harm to the participant.

Some things are generally NOT private. These include:

  • behaviour in public places, such as a shopping mall or a park or on the street;
  • private information which has been shared with informed consent (i.e. permission has been given by individual to share in public)


As researchers, we protect privacy in two ways:

  • anonymity; and
  • confidentiality.

Anonymity is the strongest form of privacy protection.

Anonymous data is data that cannot identify participants, even if the data is made public.

The main way we anonymise data is by removing any direct identifiers, such as names, addresses, phone numbers; and also removing any indirect identifiers, such as age, race, salary, locality, or job, which might identify individuals (particularly when put together).

Indirect identifiers can often identify people, particularly when these people have unique experiences or characteristics. For example, you might have an account of an injured worker, and you might leave out their name, but you mention that they have a broken leg, and mention the name of the construction site they worked on. Given most construction projects are only a year or two long (at most), and there are limited numbers of workers who break their leg, this information can be enough to identify the worker.


Keeping information confidential means storing it in a way that only a limited number of people can access.

Methods of keeping information confidential include:

  • password protected files;
  • encrypted data;
  • getting researchers to sign confidentiality agreements.

Methods of ensuring privacy in data storage

Some key measures for keeping data private in data storage include:

  • asking researchers to sign confidentially agreements;
  • de-identifying data (reviewing it and removing phone numbers, names, etc.);
  • password protecting files;
  • encrypting files;
  • using online services that have secure data collection (e.g. Qualtrics, not Survey Monkey);
  • storing data offline (i.e. on computer with no access to internet);
  • having an anonymous phone number for respondants to call into;
  • voice modification software;
  • avoiding video and audio recordings.

Methods of ensuring privacy in publishing

We also need to keep data private when we publish.

However, we also want to give enough detail to be able to show evidence to the reader.

These are some measures we use to protect privacy when publishing:

  • use only small excerpts
  • publish only aggregate data (e.g. not individuals, but rather averages)
  • when publishing datasets, merge categories potentially identifying fields (e.g. transform ages in years, into ten year brackets. 41 years old => 40-49 years)

5. Other fundamental concepts


Deception is lying to (or omiting cruicial information) participants.

It is a form of harm, because it damages their trust in human relations.

It is acceptable in a limited number of circumstances, so long as:

  • no other method is possible;
  • it is done to the minimum amount necessary;
  • you obtain permission to use the data after the experiment (or you throw the data away);
  • you debrief the participant, so as to explain the purpose and reduce harm.

Illegal vs Unethical research

Legality and ethics are not the same thing.

What is unethical can be legal. For example, internet pranks.

What is illegal can be ethical. For example, participating in protests; travel to Cuba; researching an authoritarian government.

Safety of researchers

This is not strictly within the remit of ethics committees. Ethics committees are concerned with participants.

However, it is important for researchers to be safe.

Advice for safety of researchers:

  • Don’t go into people’s homes;
  • Collect data in pairs;
  • Don’t collect data after dusk, unless there is a good reason;
  • Ensure you have a safe route home.

Types of harm

It is important for the researcher to know the main types of harm that can be done to participants.

Psychological harm e.g. emotional distress from recall of incidents, or becoming away of their ability to be immoral.

Physical harm Injury or death or pain.

Legal harm Data being used in legal action against participants e.g. drug users, drug dealers, admission of crimes.

Social harm e.g. damage to significant relationships, damage to reputation.

Economic harm e.g. loss of job.

Vulnerable populations

Also called, Special Populations.

Examples of vulnerable populations, include:

  • students
  • prison inmates
  • employees
  • military personnel
  • the homeless
  • welfare recipients
  • children
  • disabled

Characteristic of vulnerable populations:

  • they can not give free informed consent. Generally there is a power imbalance which makes it difficult to say ‘non’ to participation on an informed basis.

What do we do?

  • permission from legal guardian;
  • extra protections from harm.
Last updated on 03 March, 2020 by Dr Nicholas Harrigan (