This is “Putting Ethics Into Practice”, section 3.3 from the book Psychology Research Methods: Core Skills and Concepts (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.
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In this section, we look at some practical advice for conducting ethical research in psychology. Again, it is important to remember that ethical issues arise well before you begin to collect data and continue to arise through publication and beyond.
As the American Psychological Association (APA) Ethics Code notes in its introduction, “Lack of awareness or misunderstanding of an ethical standard is not itself a defense to a charge of unethical conduct.” This is why the very first thing that you must do as a new researcher is know and accept your ethical responsibilities. At a minimum, this means reading and understanding the relevant standards of the APA Ethics Code, distinguishing minimal risk from at-risk research, and knowing the specific policies and procedures of your institution—including how to prepare and submit a research protocol for institutional review board (IRB) review. If you are conducting research as a course requirement, there may be specific course standards, policies, and procedures. If any standard, policy, or procedure is unclear—or you are unsure what to do about an ethical issue that arises—you must seek clarification. You can do this by reviewing the relevant ethics codes, reading about how similar issues have been resolved by others, or consulting with more experienced researchers, your IRB, or your course instructor. Ultimately, you as the researcher must take responsibility for the ethics of the research you conduct.
As you design your study, you must identify and minimize risks to participants. Start by listing all the risks, including risks of physical and psychological harm and violations of confidentiality. Remember that it is easy for researchers to see risks as less serious than participants do or even to overlook them completely. For example, one student researcher wanted to test people’s sensitivity to violent images by showing them gruesome photographs of crime and accident scenes. Because she was an emergency medical technician, however, she greatly underestimated how disturbing these images were to most people. Remember too that some risks might apply only to some participants. For example, while most people would have no problem completing a survey about their fear of various crimes, those who have been a victim of one of those crimes might become upset. This is why you should seek input from a variety of people, including your research collaborators, more experienced researchers, and even from nonresearchers who might be better able to take the perspective of a participant.
Once you have identified the risks, you can often reduce or eliminate many of them. One way is to modify the research design. For example, you might be able to shorten or simplify the procedure to prevent boredom and frustration. You might be able to replace upsetting or offensive stimulus materials (e.g., graphic accident scene photos) with less upsetting or offensive ones (e.g., milder photos of the sort people are likely to see in the newspaper). A good example of modifying a research design is a 2009 replication of Milgram’s study conducted by Jerry Burger. Instead of allowing his participants to continue administering shocks up to the 450-V maximum, the researcher always stopped the procedure when they were about to administer the 150-V shock (Burger, 2009).Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64, 1–11. This made sense because in Milgram’s study (a) participants’ severe negative reactions occurred after this point and (b) most participants who administered the 150-V shock continued all the way to the 450-V maximum. Thus the researcher was able to compare his results directly with Milgram’s at every point up to the 150-V shock and also was able to estimate how many of his participants would have continued to the maximum—but without subjecting them to the severe stress that Milgram did. (The results, by the way, were that these contemporary participants were just as obedient as Milgram’s were.)
A second way to minimize risks is to use a prescreeningAny procedure used to select participants for further study based on demographic or other characteristics. Often used to identify and remove participants who are particularly at high risk of harm. procedure to identify and eliminate participants who are at high risk. You can do this in part through the informed consent process. For example, you can warn participants that a survey includes questions about their fear of crime and remind them that they are free to withdraw if they think this might upset them. Prescreening can also involve collecting data to identify and eliminate participants. For example, Burger used an extensive prescreening procedure involving multiple questionnaires and an interview with a clinical psychologist to identify and eliminate participants with physical or psychological problems that put them at high risk.
A third way to minimize risks is to take active steps to maintain confidentiality. You should keep signed consent forms separately from any data that you collect and in such a way that no individual’s name can be linked to his or her data. In addition, beyond people’s sex and age, you should only collect personal information that you actually need to answer your research question. If people’s sexual orientation or ethnicity is not clearly relevant to your research question, for example, then do not ask them about it. Be aware also that certain data collection procedures can lead to unintentional violations of confidentiality. When participants respond to an oral survey in a shopping mall or complete a questionnaire in a classroom setting, it is possible that their responses will be overheard or seen by others. If the responses are personal, it is better to administer the survey or questionnaire individually in private or to use other techniques to prevent the unintentional sharing of personal information.
Remember that deception can take a variety of forms, not all of which involve actively misleading participants. It is also deceptive to allow participants to make incorrect assumptions (e.g., about what will be on a “memory test”) or simply withhold information about the full design or purpose of the study. It is best to identify and minimize all forms of deception.
Remember that according to the APA Ethics Code, deception is ethically acceptable only if there is no way to answer your research question without it. Therefore, if your research design includes any form of active deception, you should consider whether it is truly necessary. Imagine, for example, that you want to know whether the age of college professors affects students’ expectations about their teaching ability. You could do this by telling participants that you will show them photos of college professors and ask them to rate each one’s teaching ability. But if the photos are not really of college professors but of your own family members and friends, then this would be deception. This deception could easily be eliminated, however, by telling participants instead to imagine that the photos are of college professors and to rate them as if they were.
In general, it is considered acceptable to wait until debriefing before you reveal your research question as long as you describe the procedure, risks, and benefits during the informed consent process. For example, you would not have to tell participants that you wanted to know whether the age of college professors affects people’s expectations about them until the study was over. Not only is this information unlikely to affect people’s decision about whether or not to participate in the study, but it has the potential to invalidate the results. Participants who know that age is the independent variable might rate the older and younger “professors” differently because they think you want them to. Alternatively, they might be careful to rate them the same so that they do not appear prejudiced. But even this extremely mild form of deception can be minimized by informing participants—orally, in writing, or both—that although you have accurately described the procedure, risks, and benefits, you will wait to reveal the research question until afterward. In essence, participants give their consent to be deceived or to have information withheld from them until later.
Once the risks of the research have been identified and minimized, you need to weigh them against the benefits. This requires identifying all the benefits. Remember to consider benefits to the research participants, to science, and to society. If you are a student researcher, remember that one of the benefits is the knowledge you will gain about how to conduct scientific research in psychology—knowledge you can then use to complete your studies and succeed in graduate school or in your career.
If the research poses minimal risk—no more than in people’s daily lives or routine physical or psychological examinations—then even a small benefit to participants, science, or society is generally considered enough to justify it. If it poses more than minimal risk, then there should be more benefits. If the research has the potential to upset some participants, for example, then it becomes more important that the study be well designed and answer a scientifically interesting research question or have clear practical implications. It would be unethical to subject people to pain, fear, or embarrassment for no better reason than to satisfy one’s personal curiosity. In general, psychological research that has the potential to cause harm that is more than minor or lasts for more than a short time is rarely considered justified by its benefits. Consider, for example, that Milgram’s study—as interesting and important as the results were—would be considered unethical by today’s standards.
Once you have settled on a research design, you need to create your informed consent and debriefing procedures. Start by deciding whether informed consent is necessary according to APA Standard 8.05. If informed consent is necessary, there are several things you should do. First, when you recruit participants—whether it is through word of mouth, posted advertisements, or a participant pool—provide them with as much information about the study as you can. This will allow those who might find the study objectionable to avoid it. Second, prepare a script or set of “talking points” to help you explain the study to your participants in simple everyday language. This should include a description of the procedure, the risks and benefits, and their right to withdraw at any time. Third, create an informed consent form that covers all the points in Standard 8.02a that participants can read and sign after you have described the study to them. Your university, department, or course instructor may have a sample consent form that you can adapt for your own study. If not, an Internet search will turn up several samples. Remember that if appropriate, both the oral and written parts of the informed consent process should include the fact that you are keeping some information about the design or purpose of the study from them but that you will reveal it during debriefing.
Debriefing is similar to informed consent in that you cannot necessarily expect participants to read and understand written debriefing forms. So again it is best to write a script or set of talking points with the goal of being able to explain the study in simple everyday language. During debriefing, you should reveal the research question and full design of the study. For example, if participants are tested under only one condition, then you should explain what happened in the other conditions. If you deceived your participants, you should reveal this as soon as possible, apologize for the deception, explain why it was necessary, and correct any misconceptions that participants might have as a result. Debriefing is also a good time to provide additional benefits to research participants by giving them relevant practical information or referrals to other sources of help. For example, in a study of attitudes toward domestic abuse, you could provide pamphlets about domestic abuse and referral information to the university counseling center for those who might want it.
Remember to schedule plenty of time for the informed consent and debriefing processes. They cannot be effective if you have to rush through them.
The next step is to get institutional approval for your research based on the specific policies and procedures at your institution or for your course. This will generally require writing a protocol that describes the purpose of the study, the research design and procedure, the risks and benefits, the steps taken to minimize risks, and the informed consent and debriefing procedures. Do not think of the institutional approval process as merely an obstacle to overcome but as an opportunity to think through the ethics of your research and to consult with others who are likely to have more experience or different perspectives than you. If the IRB has questions or concerns about your research, address them promptly and in good faith. This might even mean making further modifications to your research design and procedure before resubmitting your protocol.
Your concern with ethics should not end when your study receives institutional approval. It now becomes important to stick to the protocol you submitted or to seek additional approval for anything other than a minor change. During the research, you should monitor your participants for unanticipated reactions and seek feedback from them during debriefing. One criticism of Milgram’s study is that although he did not know ahead of time that his participants would have such severe negative reactions, he certainly knew after he had tested the first several participants and should have made adjustments at that point (Baumrind, 1985).Baumrind, D. (1985). Research using intentional deception: Ethical issues revisited. American Psychologist, 40, 165–174. Be alert also for potential violations of confidentiality. Keep the consent forms and the data safe and separate from each other and make sure that no one, intentionally or unintentionally, has access to any participant’s personal information.
Finally, you must maintain your integrity through the publication process and beyond. Address publication credit—who will be authors on the research and the order of authors—with your collaborators early and avoid plagiarism in your writing. Remember that your scientific goal is to learn about the way the world actually is and that your scientific duty is to report on your results honestly and accurately. So do not be tempted to fabricate data or alter your results in any way. Besides, unexpected results are often as interesting, or more so, than expected ones.