Ethical Considerations

Ethical Considerations

The purpose of this module is to overview ethical issues that should be considered when designing and conducting research.

Learning Objectives:

  • Identify ethical considerations.
  • Describe the purpose of the the Institutional Review Board.
  • List and explain the ethical issues that must be considered when using human subjects.


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.  Why are ethical considerations so important in research?  First, ethical standards prevent against the fabrication or falsifying of data and therefore, promote the pursuit of knowledge and truth which is the primary goal of research.  Ethical behavior is also critical for collaborative work because it encourages an environment of trust, accountability, and mutual respect among researchers.  This is especially important when considering issues related to data sharing, co-authorship, copyright guidelines, confidentiality, and many other issues.  Researchers must also adhere to ethical standards in order for the public to support and believe in the research.  The public wants 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. 

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 issues and the case studies used in these resources provide excellent examples of these types of issues. 

One of the most important ethical considerations in 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.  Ethical standards also protect the confidentiality and anonymity of the subjects. 

Review the following slideshow to begin understanding the key ethical considerations for researchers and the history of ethical issues in research.  This slideshow is a comprehensive discussion of ethical issues that researchers may face and provides definitions of key terminology for new researchers.  This slideshow includes the use of case studies to illustrate many of these considerations.


Research Ethics Video:  The following video discusses all types of ethical considerations in research including use of human subjects, consent, plagiarism, guiding principles, and so forth.

Suggested Readings: 

  • Burgess, R. G. (Ed.). (1989). The ethics of educational research (Vol. 8). Psychology Press.
  • Devlin A. (2006)  Research Methods.  Thompson Wadsworth.
  • Dich, L., McKee, H. A., & Porter, J. E. (2013). Ethical Issues in Online Course Design: Negotiating Identity, Privacy, and Ownership. Selected Papers of Internet Research, 3.
  • Grady, C. (2010). Do IRBs protect human research participants?. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 304(10), 1122-1123.
  • Hoyle, R. H., Harris, M. J., & Judd, C. M. (2002). Research methods in social relations.
  • May, T. (2011). Social Research: Issues, Methods and Research. McGraw-Hill International.
  • Munhall, P. L. (1988). Ethical considerations in qualitative research. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 10(2), 150-162.
  • Mazur, D. J. (2007). Evaluating the science and ethics of research on humans: a guide for IRB members.

Resource Links:

What is Ethics in Research & Why is it Important - Ethical concerns must also be considered when designing a research project.  The following website discusses common codes and policies regarding ethics in research.

 Ethics in Research - The Web Center for Social Research Methods - Some of the key terminology associated with research ethics are described on this site, as well as a brief history of ethical considerations in research.

 Ethics in Research and Publication - This website is a comprehensive set of resources that are helpful in learning examining and learning about ethical issues in research.  The site contains webcasts, PDFs, examples, links to other sites and numerous other resources.  It covers a broad range of topics including plagiarism, conflict of interest, scientific misconduct, and many other topics relating to research ethics. 

 Ethics in Research - There are many ethical considerations when conducting research.  This presentation defines and describes various types of ethical misconduct and gives examples.

 What is an IRB and its Purpose? - What does IRB stand for?  What is the purpose of an IRB and how does a researcher know when they need to use it?

 Ethics Video Series - This series of eight YouTube videos looks at all types of ethical considerations relating to research and publishing.

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