The beginning researcher in psychology must simultaneously acquire the skills needed to conduct research and the knowledge needed to implement research in an ethical manner. Increasing awareness about research ethics will help ensure that the ethical breaches of the past will not be repeated. Notable cases from the past include the medical experiments conducted by the Nazis on concentration camp prisoners during World War II (Weindling, 2005) and the syphilis study conducted on Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, by doctors under the direction of the Public Health Service of the United States from 1932 to 1972 (Jones, 1981). Recent cases of ethical breaches include Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, a researcher from Korea, who fabricated data in reports claiming that a human embryo had been cloned (Associated Press, 2006) and Harvard University's Professor Marc Hauser, whom Harvard found guilty of scientific misconduct (Wade, 2010).
By increasing awareness of research ethics among beginning researchers in psychology, we can also ensure that participants in psychological research are not harmed. Without a doubt, research experience is an essential part of the undergraduate curriculum in psychology (Silvia, Delaney, & Marcovitch, 2009), especially for students planning to pursue graduate studies in psychology (Grover, 2006; Kuther, 2004). In 2007, members of the APA Board of Educational Affairs Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies developed the guidelines for the undergraduate major in psychology and stated that the ideal curriculum should train students in research. Student researchers must not only design and carry out research, but also be knowledgeable about the ethical conduct of research.
Students conducting research with human research participants must adhere to the same ethical principals as any other researcher. The current regulations governing research with human research participants can be traced to the famous Belmont Report (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1979), which was produced by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This commission was created following the passage of the National Research Act in 1974 and asked "to identify the basic ethical principles that should underlie the conduct of biomedical and behavioral research involving human subjects and to develop guidelines which should be followed to assure that such research is conducted in accordance with those principles" (para 1). The commission's report has come to be called the Belmont Report because the commission deliberated in the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge, Maryland.
The Belmont Report identified three principles that form the core of ethical conduct of research: a) respect for person-individuals should be treated as autonomous agents, and second, that persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection;" b) beneficence-maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms;" (para 18) and c) justice—ensuring that individuals are not imposed upon in the research process when they will not directly benefit from the research results.
The National Research Act required that all research funded by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later renamed the Department of Health and Human Services) be reviewed by a committee to review, approve, and monitor the research to ensure the ethical protection of human participants. These committees are called Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). Most college and university campuses now have IRBs. At institutions with IRBs, all researchers embarking on a project involving human research participants must adhere to their institution's rules regarding the review of research and application procedures. Even for the experienced researcher, ethical issues arise during the research process. In this article, we discuss steps in the research process where ethical issues are most commonly encountered. We provide tips for how each issue can be appropriately managed.
Most professional organizations for scientists have developed codes of ethical conduct. For example, the American Psychological Association developed a code of ethics that covers not only research that psychologists might conduct, but also covers activities related to education and other professional roles, such as therapists, consultants, etc. (Ethical Principles, 2002; 2010). Psi Chi has also developed a statement detailing the organization's recommendations for researchers (Ethics in Research, 2010). Students who receive a research award from Psi Chi must document that their projects were reviewed and approved by the IRBs at their home institutions.
Participants Must Be Volunteers
Following the principle of "respect for persons," researchers must approach prospective subjects as volunteers who should be informed of the purpose and nature of the research and asked whether they would like to participate. Similarly, researchers must allow participants to withdraw from participation at any time without penalty. Often research conducted by psychology faculty and student researchers recruit participants from department subject pools. The subject pools include students enrolled in psychology courses. In exchange for participation in research, students receive points that can be used for course points. When participants are informed of the study, they learn of their right to withdraw at any time and how many points of the total would be received. In our experience, there is a common norm of awarding points based on the time spent in the study up to the point of withdraw. For short, single session studies, this might be full credit. For studies that involve multiple sessions or a long first session, participants are likely to receive partial credit.
Providing Compensation for Participants
Often researchers provide compensation to participants as a "thank you" for their taking the time to complete a survey or to attend a session at a particular time and place. Because it is important that participants be volunteers, researchers must be mindful not to offer an amount of compensation that may inadvertently coerce participants. Coercive compensation would be any amount that would be "too much to turn down." The amount that may be coercive varies from setting to setting. In the setting, one would want to reflect on how easily participants might earn comparable amounts of compensation doing activities other than the research. The compensation for the research should not be more than what a typical participant could easily earn for a comparable amount of time. Participants recruited from psychology subject pools are generally compensated with points for class or money, but not both.
In the IRB application, researchers are required to describe in detail the recruitment plan. How will participants be initially contacted and invited to participate in the research? Researchers may use posted flyers in schools or daycare centers, newspaper advertisements, in-class announcements, email invitations, letters to parents, etc. Whatever the method, the IRB application must include copies of the exact text and images that will be used to attract participants to your study. In those cases in which flyers will be posted in restricted locations (e.g., hospitals, schools, businesses), the IRB application must also include permissions from officials at each site. A permission letter would state that the official is aware of your study and has granted you permission to post your flyer on the premises or disseminate your research solicitation through other means (e.g., employee listserv, email, meeting).
Avoiding Coercion During Recruitment
Researchers who conduct studies involving college students must always be mindful of the possibility that coercion can occur during recruitment. When a research study is introduced to a class of students by the instructor, students may feel unable to say no out of a fear that their failure to participate will be viewed as socially undesirable by the teacher. There may be a perception that the failure to participate may negatively impact their grade in the course. IRBs always want to know that students invited to participate in research studies in exchange for some course credit have access to no research opportunities to obtain comparable course credit.
The Process of Informed Consent is More Than Obtaining a Signature on a Form
In order for prospective research participants to volunteer for any study, they must understand the purpose and nature of the study. Informed consent cannot occur if participants do not fully understand what will occur in the study. Comprehension failure commonly occurs because the language in informed consent forms contains jargon and/or technical language. The researcher should always be mindful of the likely reading level of the research population and to prepare written documents appropriately. For research populations involving the general English-speaking public, it is recommended that researchers prepare documents at a sixth to eighth grade reading level. For research populations involving non-English speakers or those for whom English is a second language, the process of informed consent can be achieved with interpreters.
When research involves participants under the age of 18, parental consent must be obtained. Before the child can be contacted, parents must provide permission. Researchers generally parents with information about the study and invite them to allow their child to participate. The child must also agree to participate. The process of informing the child is referred to as Assent. The processing of assent varies depending on the age of the child. The researcher must be aware of what language the child will be able to understand. For a teenager or older child, the researcher may prepare an informational form similar to the parental consent form and even collect a signature on the form. For very young children, researchers generally do not collect signatures.
For research involving deception, researchers must document for the IRB that the research cannot be feasibly conducted without using deception. Participants are informed of as much of the purpose of the study as possible. For example, participants should be informed of the tasks that will be performed, procedures that will be encountered, the length of the study, etc. Researchers are required to inform participants the nature of the deception following the study. The process is referred to as debriefing. During debriefing, the research should explain what deception was used and why the deception was necessary.
Communicating the Purpose of Your Research
The IRB will want to know not only what procedures you plan to implement in your research, but also the purpose of the research. The burden of the research that falls on the participant must be balanced with some benefit. Sometimes participants may experience a direct benefit from their participation in research. More often, it is society that will one day benefit if the results of the research contribute to some advancement in knowledge. Research without a clear purpose that is unlikely to produce a benefit to anyone would not be worth the cost (i.e., participants' time and effort). Many IRBs require researchers to submit a research plan so that the pre-existing literature and likely benefits of the research can be evaluated.
Handling/Protecting Participants' Data
The IRB will want to know how the data that are collected will be accessed and stored throughout the duration of its use. Researchers must always be mindful that data can be accessed inappropriately (i.e., hacked) if stored on a computer that is connected to the Internet. Researchers should restrict access to the data to only those who play a key role in the research project and have proper training in the ethical conduct of research. The data management plan should include information about when and how data will be destroyed in the future. The American Psychological Association (2002) recommends that researchers retain research data for at least five years following the publication of the research findings. Retaining the data for this length of time ensures that the researcher has ample opportunity to share the data with other researchers who may have interest in replicating or challenging the findings.
Navigating the procedures and paperwork of IRBs can be daunting for student researchers. The IRB office at your institution is there to help. Too often, researchers have questions about the review process and neglect to pick up a phone to call their IRB office. Your IRB staff is in the best position to advise you as you prepare your IRB application. Most often, when you call, you will find a group of people who not only enjoy their role in protecting the well-being of human research participants, but also enjoy their role in facilitating research on their campuses.
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Associated Press. (2006, May 12). Disgraced Korean cloning scientist indicted. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/12/world/asia/12korea.html?_r=1
Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (1979). The Belmont report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research. Retrieved April 18, 2010 from http://ohsr.od.nih.gov/guidelines/belmont.html
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Grover, S. F. (2006, Fall). Undergraduate research: Getting involved and getting into graduate school. Eye on Psi Chi, 11(1), 19-20.
Jones, J. (1981). Bad blood: The Tuskegee syphilis experiment: A tragedy of race and medicine. NY: The Free Press.
Kuther, T. L. (2004). Graduate study in psychology: Your guide to success. Springfield, IL, US: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.
Silvia, P. J., Delaney, P. F., & Marcovitch, S. (2009). What psychology majors could (and should) be doing: An informal guide to research experience and professional skills. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wade, N. (2010, August 21). Harvard finds scientist guilty of misconduct. New York Times, pp. A1.
Weindling, P.J. (2005). Nazi medicine and the Nuremberg Trials: From medical war crimes to informed consent. London: Palgrave Macmillan.