6.6 Ethical Considerations

When the research you propose to undertake includes human or animal participants, is funded by an institute, or uses the assets of an institution (e.g., you plan to carry out the study at a University in one of the classrooms), it needs to be approved by a Research Ethics Board. Most universities and colleges that offer degree programs have an internal research ethics board consisting of faculty with research experience. This group of qualified researchers examines a written description of your anticipated research (such as this very research proposal) and makes recommendations based on whether key ethical standards have been met with respect to human dignity, informed consent, and privacy and confidentiality. Your institution can provide you with more details about how you go about the ethical review application process.

In writing your proposal, you need to discuss the relevant ethical concerns and how you plan to address them. Here are some questions to consider that may help you determine how ethical issues pertain to your study:

  • Who are the participants for your study and how do you plan to recruit them?
  • What kind of information are you collecting?
  • Will you ask participants any kind of sensitive or personal questions?
  • How will responses be kept confidential?
  • How will information about individuals in the study be safeguarded?
  • Does participating in your study involve any risk of injury?
  • How might the procedures of your study pose psychological implications for participants?
  • Is any kind of deception necessary in the procedures for carrying out your study?

Most Canadian research ethics boards adhere to the Tri Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Human Participants (Canadian Institutes of Health Research et al, 2018), also known as TCPS 2. Outlined next are some of the major ethical issues incorporated in the policy.

Respect for Human Dignity

The core value of the TCPS 2 (Canadian Institutes of Health Research et al, 2018) is respect for human dignity meaning that all research involving humans as participants must be planned and conducted in a manner that is sensitive to the worthiness of individuals such that their safety and overall well-being is paramount. For example, a study should be designed in a manner that minimizes the potential for harm. Harm may be in the form of physical injury, as might be the case if the study entails a physical activity or exercise. But it can also take more subtle forms that are difficult to define, measure, or even predict in advance as in the case of psychological stress or strain. For example, in a study about driving, you might want to interview motorists about behaviours they engage in. A participant in your study might answer a question and later regret having done so, or the participant might feel discomfort while recalling a careless driving episode. Every effort must be made in the research planning process to identify potential sources of harm and include means for mitigating them (e.g., participants are told they do not have to answer all questions and they are reminded of this at various stages). An ethics committee considers, among other questions, whether the benefits of the research outweigh the potential risks of harm and whether participants knowingly and willingly agree to take on any potential risks. Finally, participants need to understand that their participation is voluntary and that they can withdraw their participation at any time without penalty.

Free and Informed Consent

All participants give informed consent prior to the onset of the study. Informed consent means that potential participants agree to participate in the study only after learning about the requirements and possible risks of participation. This information is typically outlined in a consent form that the participants read and then sign. For example, a consent form could note that students are being asked to participate in a fifteen-minute study on mood and violence in television programming. Requirements would include filling out a very short questionnaire assessing their current mood, watching a two-minute video clip that depicts a shoot-out from an old Western movie that is rated PG, and then filling out another short questionnaire. Subjects are ensured that their participation is voluntary and that they are free to withdraw that participation at any time without penalty.

In the case of a proposed observational study of aggressive behaviour among children, consent would need to be obtained from the children, the day care director, the day care staff, and the parents or legal guardians of the children since they are under the age at which they can legally consent to participating in such a study. The proposal would need to clearly outline the objectives of the study (i.e., the intended uses of the information gathered), how the participants would be observed (e.g., via trained observers unobtrusively standing behind the one-way glass viewing area oblivious to the children), and so on. Although it increases reliability in the coding of aggressive behaviour, recording the children would likely not be a recommended method of observation since it poses additional risks (e.g., privacy concerns) to an already vulnerable participant group. Lastly, note that consent is an ongoing process. Hence, while consent may be given in advance of participation, participants also need to be aware that consent is freely given and thus can also be revoked at any time without penalty.

Respect for Privacy and Confidentiality

Another ethical concern related to participating in research centers on privacy and confidentiality. Privacy is protected by legislation, for instance the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in Alberta (https://www.servicealberta.ca/foip), and it must be handled in accord with existing guidelines. Confidentiality means that although a researcher may be able to identify a given respondent (e.g., perhaps the participant in a case study was a former prostitute who is known to the researcher who interviewed her), the researcher promises not to do so publicly. In this case, the researcher may report some of the conversation shared in the interview but promises not to release any details that might identify the individual interviewee.

Use of Deception and the Need for Debriefing

In rare cases, some details of a study are initially withheld from the participants. In an experiment, for example, it may be essential to leave out details about the procedures to successfully manipulate an independent variable that tests a causal relationship that cannot be explored with full disclosure. For instance, a researcher may wish to study students’ reactions to a request for course assistance by another student who is a stranger (e.g., a fictitious student). If the researcher informed participants in advance that someone unknown to them was about to ask for their course notes (i.e., the independent variable or manipulation in an experimental design), the psychological process would be compromised. In this case, the researcher explains the need for deception in the research proposal and outlines that participants would be notified of the deception and its purpose at the end of the study (e.g., immediately after the decision to lend or not lend the notes becomes apparent).

All of these considerations are weighed out in advance by ethics review board members who ultimately determine whether the study can proceed as described (i.e., it receives ethical approval), that procedures or other elements of the proposed study need to be modified before proceeding, (i.e., conditional approval), or that potential harm exceeds the overall benefits of the research (i.e., the study is not granted ethical approval and cannot be carried out as described). Consult with your instructor about ethics and the need to undergo a review process if you plan to conduct research involving humans as participants. Most universities have online resources such as templates and checklists for assisting in the creation of consent forms and completing an ethical review application form.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Navigating an Undergraduate Degree in the Social Sciences Copyright © 2019 by Diane Symbaluk, Robyn Hall, and Geneve Champoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.