Research Ethics for Conducting Primary Research

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Whenever human participants are involved in your primary research, take into account the ethical considerations. Throughout history, various studies took advantage of participants, causing mental trauma, physical trauma and, in some cases, death. Because of this, any primary research today must follow certain research ethics.

In the United States, the Belmont Report (1979) details the ethical guidelines for primary research involving human participants. Similarly, your college or university has an Institutional Review Board (IRB) to oversee research. A research paper primary research study may not require the approval of the IRB, but check with your profession before starting a primary research project of any type that involves human participants.

Ethical considerations to consider before beginning any primary research include the following:

  • Informed consent
  • Privacy and confidentiality
  • Fabrication and falsification of data
  • Non-publication of data
  • Fault data-gathering methods

Ethical consideration #1: Informed consent

Obtaining informed consent from any primary research participants has four elements to which you should adhere:

  • Your participants are fully informed (risks, benefits) of what your research entails and the purpose of your research
  • Your participants give their consent voluntarily
  • Your participants all have the legal capacity to give voluntary consent
  • You are solely responsible for obtaining informed consent and having the necessary forms
  • You ensure participant confidentiality

Ethical consideration #2: Privacy and confidentiality

While conducting primary research, you must also consider the research ethics of maintaining privacy and confidentiality for all participants. A participant’s privacy is the control a participant has over the sharing of their behaviors, beliefs and values. Your participants should control when and under what conditions others have access to that information. Confidentiality is maintained by ensuring information about your participants cannot be linked to their identities when you report the research.

How you intend to guarantee confidentiality should be carefully laid out when you obtain informed consent. To maintain confidentiality, you have multiple options:

  • Obtain and record all information anonymously
  • Use codes to record data that is free of personal identification information
  • Develop substitute names for all participants
  • Refrain from reporting individual statistics or data
  • Use only group data
  • Employ computerized data encryption

Ethical consideration #3: Fabrication and falsification of data

Research ethics demand the truthful reporting of data, so avoid fabrication and falsification of data at all costs. This making up, or altering of data is often called “cooking the data.” Regardless of the results of your primary research, always use accurate, truthful data. This means never making up data for imaginary participants when you are short a few –even if you are running out of time. Likewise, if your results are not what you expected, never falsify the data to reflect your expectations.

Ethical consideration #4: Non-publication of data

The non-publication of data, another form of cooking the data, involves the violation of research ethics. This violation occurs when you omit certain information because it is not what you expected, or it does not support your hypothesis.

Outliers, or extreme scores outside the normal data ranges, should never be trimmed from your primary research results. Do not make the mistake of assuming that these results are insignificant and that they should be cut from your data sets. In many instances, these seemingly non-significant results provide important information that may prove more useful than significant results.

Ethical consideration #5: Faulty data-gathering methods

While omitting data is a violation of research ethics, so too are faulty data-gathering methods. Here are several instances that result in a failure to meet this ethical consideration:

  • Obtaining data from a participant you know does not meet the requirements of your primary research
  • Using faulty equipment to gather data
  • Recording data incorrectly, accidentally or on purpose

Just like plagiarism damages your academic integrity, a failure to follow research guidelines that incorporate ethical considerations in primary research hurts the integrity of your research and your research paper. Because of this, it is important to always use the highest ethical standards for all your research, which can help you avoid many of the common mistakes and pitfalls of conducting primary research.