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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2006
Research Ethics
and the APA Code

Loreto R. Prieto, University of Akron

The 2002 Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association [APA], 2002) offers both general principles and specific standards that pertain to conducting psychological research. All members of the APA are committed to upholding these ethics, including student members. The Code also stipulates that ignorance of ethical standards is not a defense against unethical conduct, so the first piece of advice for any student investigator is to be familiar with the APA Code and those ethical standards relevant to conducting research.
The purpose of my article is not to provide a comprehensive ethics resource to all issues that may arise when students conduct research. Rather, in my estimation, there seem to be a few key ethical issues or dilemmas in conducting research that students may find occurring more frequently than others. My intention is to highlight these issues and place them in the context of the Code as a way to spark and inform thinking on these points.
The two points I would like to focus on are publication credit and the proprietary nature of research. The Code standards do address other substantial elements concerning research activities (e.g., Institutional Review Board [IRB] approval, fraudulent data, informed consent, dual role issues, inducements for participation, deception, and debriefing). I have addressed some of these issues in an earlier Eye on Psi Chi article concerning IRB issues (see Prieto, 2005). The Code also includes plagiarism among its list of enforceable violation domains. This topic has been a long-standing issue within higher education and many educational institutions have local policies concerning this type of academic misconduct. Of course, the Code strictly prohibits the act of plagiarism and holds it as an unethical practice. Given that information about many elements of the Code appears elsewhere, in this article I will concentrate on publication credit and the proprietary nature of research, and will also briefly touch on strategies for handling dilemmas in these areas. I present these ideas to readers as a lay researcher, not as an ethicist or lawyer, so students must turn to appropriate advisors for the resolution of any dilemma they encounter in their work.
Publication Credit
For students, generally the issue of publication credit is not claiming too much credit on research projects, but rather, not being adequately credited for work done. Some research shows that students are willing to assign greater authorship ranking to the professors with whom they work (except for thesis projects; see Rose & Fischer, 1998), and students are in a less powerful (and often less knowledgeable) position when conducting research with senior investigators such as faculty.
Although the current Code attempts to clarify the typical order of authorship for certain projects (e.g., dissertation), the Code is far less clear on other research ventures. Also, students working on non-thesis projects may not know how authorship issues are best handled. To complicate matters, the area of research ethics has been comparatively less well investigated than clinical ethics, and few clear, enforceable ethical guidelines exist for faculty and students to follow.
Goodyear, Crego, and Johnston (1992) applied the concept of informed consent to the relationship among coinvestigators, especially in the case of faculty-student collaborations. Within this framework, it is imperative for students to have a very clear understanding, before a research project begins, as to the work they will be expected to do and the publication credit they will earn in exchange for such work. Some faculty collaborators even prefer to have a written contract between themselves and students, so that fading memories or differences of opinion do not end up deciding authorship issues when they arise. The Code also suggests that faculty advisors are responsible for talking about and clarifying authorship issues early on in a project. So, the first step to avoiding a misunderstanding or problem concerning publication credit is for all investigators to communicate early and clearly with one another. Of course, it is also important to realize that the nature, amount, and assignment of work can change during a project, so communication among investigators on authorship credit is also an appropriate topic to revisit as necessary throughout the life of a project.
Finally, students must remember that ethical responsibility on the issue of authorship credit goes both ways; that is, if students enter into an agreement to complete a set of tasks in order to earn authorship, then they are obligated to fulfill these responsibilities. If these responsibilities are not met, then students need to be willing to accept a lesser (or maybe even no) credit for a project, contingent upon the amount of work done and contribution actually made to a project. Neither a faculty member nor a student should take credit for work not done.
Finally, the Goodyear et al. (1992) article is a good resource for thinking through other potential ethical dilemmas that can arise when students are involved in research. These include the cases of incompetent, inadequate, exploitative, or abusive styles of advising students on research, as well as research advisors forcing their personal value systems (e.g., religious, political) onto students' projects. On these issues where the Code appears silent with respect to specific standards, Goodyear et al. demonstrated a way of reasoning through difficult issues based on the general ethical principles.
How is Research Owned?
The proprietary nature, or "ownership" of research is an important factor to consider. This general idea ties into some issues discussed in the Code (e.g., plagiarism) as well as legal issues (e.g., copyright). One way in which investigators can sometimes forget about ownership issues is in the use of (non)published instruments (or subscales or items from instruments) in their research projects. Simply because an instrument appears in a journal article or book does not automatically place it in the public domain, available for free use. Such material is still copyrighted and permission to use it needs to be sought from the author(s) and other appropriate copyright holders. This is especially the case for professional standardized instruments that are typically purchased for clinical use (e.g., intelligence tests, clinical inventories).
It is highly inadvisable to simply photocopy such instruments for use in a project, or to even use a single item from such an instrument, without first contacting the publisher of the instrument to obtain permissions and pay the required fees, if any. Because use of these instruments also often requires a particular level of education, training, and expertise, students should always make sure they are supervised in their research by a person holding these required qualifications.
Another way in which investigators need to consider proprietary issues is in the privilege they have to view others' work in prepublication or prepresentation form. The Code speaks directly to the need for viewers of such work to respect the confidentiality and ownership of the information to which they have access. For example, students are often members of research teams working on related projects, or may have access to the ongoing results of many student and faculty studies within a department or institution.
Sometimes, the results of certain projects could actually improve or advance the ability of other projects to move forward or make greater gains in findings. However, all investigators must realize that the ongoing work they become aware of is not theirs to use or reference (even if cited) without the express permission of the owners of the work. All investigators enjoy the right to be the first to make public their work, and in the form they wish to do so. When others use or make reference to, without permission, unpublished works or data findings not yet made public by the principal investigators of a project, they are in danger of engaging in unethical behavior.
Complaints and Resolutions
Rose and Fischer (1998) found that students may choose not to raise questions and concerns over ethical dilemmas when conducting research because of a fear of retribution or a worry that it will ultimately not change a situation. Dealing with student colleagues and especially with faculty or senior coinvestigators on concerns that one is not being treated in an ethical manner is an extremely difficult task. However, there are some initial strategies that could be helpful in handling such sensitive affairs.
The Code is clear in recommending that any ethical problem first be informally resolved, if possible, between the parties involved. This first means determining if the issue at hand is indeed an ethical one or if it is more an issue of misunderstanding, a lack of clarity on responsibilities, or poor or absent communication.
If one or both parties determine the problem is an ethical issue, then agreements that have been forged before the project was undertaken make a good starting point for discussing adjustments in workload, authorship, or other task related issues. If the problem is an interactive or stylistic one, sometimes a respectful discussion between parties can iron out differences. Regardless, it is always advisable to enter into such problem solving encounters with coinvestigators holding the perspective that all involved are acting in good faith and with best intentions. Even if concerns are not satisfactorily resolved through these initial attempts, this type of positive approach increases the probability that parties will remain as amicable as possible in any additional attempts to resolve issues.
After reasonable measures have been taken to address concerns informally, if necessary, there may be additional options for gaining information and guidance. Some higher learning institutions have dispute resolution offices or "Ombudspersons" where students (and faculty) can go for informal advice and resolution of conflicts or concerns. Other avenues where information on ethical situations can be sought include grievance policies or relevant entities within an academic institution, state licensing boards or psychological associations, or APA. Ethics consultants staffing these organizations may be willing to listen to and advise students (and faculty), in an anonymous or confidential manner, on points of concern surrounding psychological research activities. Finally, students may also seek more formal resolutions of difficulties through institutional processes or psychology ethics committees, although for most this type of action is a last resort because of the time, energy, stress, and uncertainly involved in the process. Students choosing this route should take the time to thoroughly understand what can and cannot be accomplished through such actions, so they make decisions about entering into formal complaints fully informed
The 2002 Code still leaves a great many issues concerning research unaddressed by specific standards. This is unfortunate for psychology students, in that professional policies and the Code can be primary ways in which students can learn about their rights and responsibilities when it comes to research.
However, despite these gaps, the Code does offer both general principles and specific standards that are very helpful in guiding students and their coinvestigators toward having rewarding and successful research ventures. Additionally, the Code keeps us mindful of the immense responsibility psychology researchers have toward ensuring the well-being of the participants in their projects, as well as their duty to advance the scientific knowledge bases of psychology in a responsible manner.
American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060-1073.
Goodyear, R., Crego, C., & Johnston, M. (1992). Ethical issues in the supervision of student research: A study of critical incidents. Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 23, 203-210.
Prieto, L. R. (2005, Spring). The IRB and psychological research: A primer for students. Eye on Psi Chi, 9(3), 24-25.
Rose, M., & Fischer, K. (1998). Do authorship policies impact students' judgments of perceived wrongdoing? Ethics & Behavior, 8, 59-79.

Loreto R. Prieto, PhD, is an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Akron. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, associate editor for Research for the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, and an Institutional Review Board vice-chair at the University of Akron. Dr. Prieto can be reached at: 127 Carroll Hall, University of Akron, Akron, OH, 44325-5007; via phone at (330) 972-6743; or via email at

Copyright 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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