Ethics & Descriptive Research

Ethics & Descriptive Research

Ethical considerations relating to descriptive research are discussed in this module.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe why adhering to ethical principles is important in research
  • Discuss the ethical principles that should guide the researcher’s actions in descriptive research
  • Describe the purpose and function of the Institutional Review Board 

Ethics are the norms or standards for conduct that distinguish between right and wrong.  They help to determine the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors on the part of the researcher.  Why are ethical considerations so important in research?  The integrity, reliability and validity of the research findings rely heavily on adherence to ethical principles. The readers and the public want to be assured that researchers followed the appropriate guidelines for issues such as human rights, animal welfare, compliance with the law, conflicts of interest, safety, health standards and so on.  The handling of these ethical issues greatly impact the integrity of the research project and can affect whether or not the project receives funding.

Ethical considerations in research are critical in descriptive research, just as they are in other types of research. Descriptive research designs actually have some benefits over experimental research designs in terms of ethical issues.  The random assignment of test subjects used in true experimental designs may expose a test subject to a potentially harmful treatment who would not have otherwise been exposed. The reverse may also happen.  By nature of random assignment into groups, a beneficial treatment may be withheld from test subjects.  These ethical concerns are not present in descriptive research because it primarily studies participants and test subjects in their natural environment with no manipulation of any variables.

Regardless of the type of research, the researcher should take into consideration both general research principles and those that are more specific to the type of research.  In general, ethical standards prevent against such things as the fabrication or falsifying of data and therefore, promote the pursuit of knowledge and truth which is the primary goal of research. In descriptive research, ethical principles are primarily centered on protecting research participants and the guiding foundation of “do no harm”.  Following is a list of core ethical principles related to the protection of research subjects.

  • Respect for persons – Respect the autonomy, decision-making and dignity of participants.
  • Beneficence – Minimizing the risks (physically, psychologically and socially) and maximizing the benefits to research participants.
  • Justice – Participants should be selected from groups of people whom the research may benefit.
  • Respect for communities – Protect and respect the values and interests of the community as a whole and protect the community from harm.

To address these considerations when working with human subjects, most institutions and organizations have developed an Institutional Review Board (IRB).  An IRB is a panel of people who help to ensure the safety of human subjects in research and who assist in making sure that human rights are not violated.  They review the research methodology in grant proposals to assure that ethical practices are being utilized.  The use of an IRB also helps to protect the institution and the researchers against potential legal implications from any behavior that may be deemed unethical.

Examples of some of these issues include voluntary participation and informed consent.  These principles are followed to guarantee that all human subjects are choosing to participate of their own free will and that they have been fully informed regarding the procedures of the research project and any potential risks.  Potential participants must be competent to make a decision regarding participation and must be free from any coercion.  The consent may be given in a written or oral form depending on the nature of the research.  Ethical standards also protect the confidentiality and anonymity of the subjects. Researchers should not share information between participants and should have procedures in place to protect the data and names of participants. Please refer to the resource links on this page for additional information regarding IRB and working with human subjects.

Because ethical considerations are so important in research, many professional associations and agencies have adopted codes and policies that outline ethical behavior and guide researchers.  These codes address issues such as honesty, objectivity, respect for intellectual property, social responsibility, confidentiality, non-discrimination and many others.  These codes and policies provide basic guidelines, but researchers will still be faced with additional issues that are not specifically addressed and this will require decision-making on the part of the researcher in order to avoid misconduct.  The resources on this page address many of those problems and the case studies used in these resources provide excellent examples of these types of issues.  For additional information and examples of ethical codes and standards, researchers can refer to The Belmont Report and the APA’s Ethics Code.

Most descriptive studies involve the use of human subjects and therefore, this module has focused on issues related to this topic.  The following video, Research Ethics Involving Human Subjects, provides examples from history that demonstrate the need for ethical guidelines and principles that govern the research process, especially where the use of human subjects is concerned.  This video further discusses the Belmont Report, IRB and other topics discussed in this module.


Suggested Readings

Bernard, H. R., & Bernard, H. R. (2012). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sage.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage publications.
Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., & Gall, J. P. (1996). Educational research: An introduction . Longman Publishing.
Knupfer, N. N., & McLellan, H. (1996). Descriptive research methodologies. Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, 1196-1212.
Neuman, W. L., & Neuman, W. L. (2006). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches.
Punch, K. F. (2013). Introduction to social research: Quantitative and qualitative approaches. Sage.
Rosenthal, R., & Rosnow, R. L. (1991). Essentials of behavioral research: Methods and data analysis. McGraw-Hill Humanities Social.

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