Ethics at their very core are “norms for conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour”. They are a set of values that in theory everyone shares – from the Ten Commandments to something I’m sure we all heard during our childhood, treat others how you wish to be treated.
They are something that in the end are meant to make our lives a better experience, but how do they play out in the field of research?
Ethics are important in research for multiple reasons. One of these is simply that ethics really promote the aims of research. Research is aimed at finding the truth and knowledge about a particular issue, and not following a code of ethics or code of conduct can lead to falsified or misrepresented information finding its way into research results.
Another reason is simply that working ethically is vital to collaborative work, and as research is often a collaborative effort, it’s important that the word everyone carries out is to a high ethical standard. Within this, there are guidelines from authorship to data sharing policies and confidentiality rules.
Ethics are also important, as they are required to hold researchers accountable to the public. This is particularly relevant when it comes to publicly funded research that us, the tax payer are covering. That research is being done to (in the end) benefit us, and thus those researchers should be held accountable.
One group ethics is also particularly important for people being studied in tests or surveys. Researchers should always “avoid any risk of considerably harming people, the environment, or property unnecessarily.” As well as make sure they get informed consent from any parties involved. This does raise other questions however, like how do you study someones behaviour if they know they are being watched? Surely that would skew results? This is where some considerations need to be taken into account. According to Dr Mark Mahler, there are some circumstances in which consent may be obtained after an event, as “…obtaining informed consent [may] influence behaviours under study”.
“In accordance with the autonomy principle, consent should be obtained before an experimental intervention, but in some circumstances may be obtained after the occurrence of a natural event, and before the observation of the outcome.” (Mahler)
Really though, ethics is just as we said at the beginning – Common sense. Unfortunately making a widely agreed upon set of rules based off of common sense isn’t as easy as it really should be.
Mahler M, 1986, Ethics and Human Research, ‘When to Obtain Informed Consent in Behavioral Research: A Study of Mother-Infant Bonding’, The Hasting Center Vol 8, No. 3, pp 7-11