Ethics refers to the correct rules of conduct necessary when carrying out research. We have a moral responsibility to protect research participants from harm.
However important the issue under investigation psychologists need to remember that they have a duty to respect the rights and dignity of research participants. This means that they must abide by certain moral principles and rules of conduct.
In Britain ethical guidelines for research are published by the British Psychological Society and in America by the American Psychological Association. The purpose of these codes of conduct is to protect research participants, the reputation of psychology and psychologists themselves.
Moral issues rarely yield a simple, unambiguous, right or wrong answer. It is therefore often a matter of judgement whether the research is justified or not. For example, it might be that a study causes psychological or physical discomfort to participants, maybe they suffer pain or perhaps even come to serious harm.
On the other hand the investigation could lead to discoveries that benefit the participants themselves or even have the potential to increase the sum of human happiness. Rosenthal and Rosnow (1984) also talk about the potential costs of failing to carry out certain research. Who is to weigh up these costs and benefits? Who is to judge whether the ends justify the means?
Finally, if you are ever in doubt as to whether research is ethical or not it is worthwhile remembering that if there is a conflict of interest between the participants and the researcher it is the interests of the subjects that should take priority.
Studies must now undergo an extensive review by an institutional review board (US) or ethics committee (UK) before they are implemented. All UK research requires ethical approval by one or more of the following:
- (a) Department Ethics Committee (DEC): for most routine research.
- (b) Institutional Ethics Committee (IEC): for non routine research.
- (c) External Ethics Committee (EEC): for research that is externally regulated (e.g. NHS research).
Committees review proposals to assess if the potential benefits of the research are justifiable in the light of possible risk of physical or psychological harm. These committees may request researchers make changes to the study's design or procedure, or in extreme cases deny approval of the study altogether.