Ethics & Qualitative Research

Ethics & Qualitative Research

Ethical considerations for qualitative research will be examined in this module.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe why adhering to ethical principles is important in research
  • Explain the specific ethical issues to consider in qualitative research
  • List the core ethical principles that should guide the researcher's actions in qualitative research
  • Describe the purpose and function of the Institutional Review Board


Ethical considerations in research are critical. 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 impacts the integrity of the research project and can affect whether the project receives funding.

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 to avoid misconduct. The resources on this page address many of those issues and the case studies used in these resources provide excellent examples of these types of issues.

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 quantitative 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. In qualitative 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 that are important in qualitative research:

  • 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.


One of the most important ethical considerations in qualitative research is the use of human subjects. To address these considerations, 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.

The following SlideShare presentation, Ethics in Qualitative Research, offers an overview of ethical considerations. In addition to the consideration discussed above, the presentation also addresses the ethical concerns related to "access" to research participants.



Suggested Readings

Berg, B. L., & Lune, H. (2004).Qualitative research methods for the social sciences (Vol. 5). Boston: Pearson.
Marshall, C., & Rossman, G. B. (2010).Designing qualitative research. Sage.
Maxwell, J. A. (2012).Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach: An Interactive Approach. Sage.
Miller, T., Birch, M., Mauthner, M., & Jessop, J. (Eds.). (2012).Ethics in qualitative research. Sage.
Punch, M. (1994). Politics and ethics in qualitative research.Handbook of qualitative research, 2, 83-98.
Orb, A., Eisenhauer, L., & Wynaden, D. (2001). Ethics in qualitative research.Journal of nursing scholarship,33(1), 93-96.

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