Ethics & Experimental Research

Ethics & Experimental Research

Ethical considerations for experimental research will be examined 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 quantitative research
  • Describe the purpose and function of the Institutional Review Board
  • Provide specific examples of unethical research in history


Ethical considerations in research are critical in experimental research, just as they are in other types of research. 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 issues are important in all types of research. 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 experimental research, 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. It is also important to protect research participants and follow the guiding foundation of “do no harm” if human subjects are utilized in the study.

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.

Following are just a few examples of infamous cases of unethical research practices that demonstrate the importance of adhering to ethical standards:

  • Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-1972) – Over 400 African American men In Alabama were infected with syphilis as part of study by the Public Health Service. The men were not informed of the true nature of the study and did not give consent. In fact, the purpose was misrepresented to the men and later treatment was withheld. This study became a symbol for medical misconduct and a blatant disregard for human rights.
  • Milgram Obedience to Authority Study (1961-1963) – Residents of New Haven, CT were recruited to be part of study of “memory and learning” by Stanley Milgram, a Yale University professor. Participants were told to inflict electric shocks of increasing voltage on other participants who answered questions incorrectly. It was intended to study whether ordinary people would follow orders they considered to be immoral.

The following series of videos, Research Ethics, describes these two cases in more detail, as well as additional cases of unethical research in history. The videos also contain additional information about research ethics in general.

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.
Fraenkel, J. R., Wallen, N. E., & Hyun, H. H. (1993). How to design and evaluate research in education (Vol. 7). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Jones, K.(2000).A regrettable oversight or a significant omission? Ethical considerations in quantitative research in education.In,Helen Simons and Robin Usher (eds.)Situated Ethics in Educational Research.Routledge.
Keppel, G. (1991). Design and analysis: A researcher's handbook . Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Lipsey, M. W. (1990). Design sensitivity: Statistical power for experimental research (Vol. 19). Sage.
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.
Panter, A. T., & Sterba, S. K. (Eds.). (2011). Handbook of ethics in quantitative methodology. Taylor & Francis.
Simons, H., & Usher, R. (Eds.). (2000). Situated ethics in educational research. Psychology Press.

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