Ethics and Research Ethics

When it comes to discussing Ethics it is regarded as a ‘grey’ topic, meaning that each person has a different view of what ethics is and what it entails. According to Hunter (2014) ethics are widely-agreed moral principles about what is right and wrong, what is proper and improper. Ethical research ensures the researcher is doing the right thing – by the project, its participants and society at large.

Different people will have different ideas and standards about what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable making ethics subjective. There are no universal definitions of ethics therefore professions, organisations and governments adopt guidelines although they are more broad generalisations.

When conducting research there are four main ethical principles which relate to your research.

  • Autonomy (or self-determination) refers to respecting the rights, values and decisions of other people and making sure they have given you informed consent.
  • Non-maleficence which deems that members of your research do not intentionally inflict harm on another or yourself.
  • Beneficence which relates to remove existing harms and confer benefits on others.
  • Non-maleficence and beneficence operate together because you must weigh the possible benefits of research against harmful risks
  • Justice meaning people should be treated equitably and the benefits of research should be shared with all who qualify.

A recent study conducted by Facebook has come under fire from the public for perhaps breaching research ethics practises. Facebook’s ‘Emotional Manipulation Study’ which aimed to see if emotions could be transferred to other Facebook user without them realising it was conducted through some strategically placed advertisements and sponsored messages. The study then examined to see if users would alter their posting habits and be more in tune with the messages Facebook was conveying.

Facebook is being slammed for this study due to the fact that users where not asked for consent by Facebook before becoming involved in the study. However research M. Verma ensures that the study conducted was within the regulatory framework known as Common Rule (Hunter 2014). His argument revolves around the fact that this experiment was conducted by Facebook for internal purposes. He states;

“as a private company Facebook was under no obligation to conform to the provisions of the Common Rule when it collected the data used by the authors”.

“Their work was limited to initial discussions, analysing the research results and working with colleagues from Facebook to prepare the peer-reviewed paper” […]

“Because the research was conducted independently by Facebook and Professor Hancock had access only to results – and not to any individual, identifiable data at any time – Cornell University’s Institutional Review Board concluded that he was not directly engaged in human research” […]

The conclusion of the argument is that it is merely a matter of interpretation. There are no set guidelines on ethics therefore we are left with the question of when is someone involved in human research?

Reference List:

Hunter, David, 2014, Facebook puts ethics of research by private companies in spotlight

Kramer, Adam D. I., Guillory, Jamie E. & Hancock, Jeffrey T. 2014, ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 24, pp. 8788-8790


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