Why are research ethics important? Before we answer this, we should define what research is. The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) et al (2007) defines research as “original investigation undertaken to gain knowledge, understanding and insight (pg. 6).” However, research that involves humans cannot be undertaken unless the methods for data collection are approved by an ethics committee/council.
NHMRC et al, Tinkler, and Weerakkody (2007; 2013; 2008) all mention that research projects must be approved by such a committee before they can begin to perform research or have their project funded by institutions. If research projects that involve humans cannot be conducted until the ethical nature and methods of these projects are analysed, then surely ethics are very important in the research process. If research projects were not approved by ethics committees there would be no funding, and without funding, there would be no project.
If ethics are important then researchers have a duty to “…foster and maintain a research environment of intellectual honesty and integrity, and scholarly and scientific rigour (NHMRC et al 2007 pg. 10).” According to NHMRC et al (2007 pg. 10), researchers have a duty to be respectful of their participants and their rights. This means that subjects need to be shown courtesy and have their choices respected in the research process if they wish to remain anonymous, be censored in photographs, etc.
Tinkler (2013 pp. 197-198) uses Rolph, Johnson, and Smith’s study on the elderly and residential care as an example of ethical research, highlighting their methods which included: deleting photos of nurses and residents upon request after showing them their photos, censoring residents faces in photos upon request, avoiding taking photos of residents that could be deemed as undignified, and taking the time to explain to and gain consent from residents of frail mind or who had dementia. These methods can be considered ethical because the researchers treated their subjects and their decisions with respect, gained consent from their subjects to involve them in their project, and avoided presenting their subjects in undignified ways.
In deference to The Nuremberg Code, Weerakkody (2008) says “…research should avoid the possibility of causing unnecessary physical or psychological suffering, nor should it inflict pain, trauma, injury or harm to subjects (pg. 77).” To emphasise this, Weerakkody (2008) uses the example of an American university instructor who organised a simulation where he had an acquaintance take his class hostage with an unloaded gun so he could observe the behavior and actions of his students (pg. 78). The instructor did not receive approval for this experiment from his superiors or an ethics committee, it was also later revealed a regular student of that class brought a gun with them but happened to be absent that day (Weerakkody 2008 pg. 78). This experiment was human based yet received no approval from an ethics committee automatically making it an unethical experiment, but apart from this, the experiment not only had the propensity to cause psychological trauma, but also physical harm and even death.
Ethics are undoubtedly important in research and researchers need to follow the correct procedures to act ethically so they do not break laws or cause harm to those they are involving in their projects.
National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Council, Universities Australia 2007, Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra, pp. 01-41
Tinkler, P 2013, ‘Ethical Issues and Legalities’, Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research, SAGE Publications, London, pp. 195-208
Weerakkody, N 2008, ‘Research ethics in media and communication’, Research Methods for Media and Communications, Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand, South Melbourne, Victoria, pp. 73-91