Ethics refers to the principles of good or right conduct, and also to the branch of philosophy that is concerned with such principles. Ethics are important in almost every area of life: academics, sports, family life and relationships, doing one’s job, and so on. It makes sense, therefore, that ethics would be important in conducting psychological research. In fact, a careful consideration of ethics is especially important in conducting psychological research for several reasons. One is that psychological research involves “doing things” to people and other animals, sometimes without their knowledge or consent. What are the limits of what researchers can and cannot do? A related reason is that is that psychological research is often used to develop new treatments or to affect social policy. Thus, psychological research can have wide ranging affects on people far beyond those who were originally studied. A third, different, kind of reason is that psychologists—like all scientists—can get so wrapped up in pursuing their research that ethical concerns “take a back seat” to purely scientific or personal ones. It is important, therefore, to encourage researchers to think about ethics, to act ethically, and—as we will see—to have some safeguards in place to help make sure that they do.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has developed a set of ethical principles for psychologists, which you can find on their Website. Many of these principles have to do with treating patients or clients in clinical practice. Although you might find these clinical principles interesting, what we are concerned with here are the principles for conducting research. The latest (2002) version of these principles appears below.
8. Research and Publication
8.01 Institutional Approval
When institutional approval is required, psychologists provide accurate information about their research proposals and obtain approval prior to conducting the research. They conduct the research in accordance with the approved research protocol.
8.02 Informed Consent to Research
(a) When obtaining informed consent as required in Standard 3.10, Informed Consent, psychologists inform participants about (1) the purpose of the research, expected duration, and procedures; (2) their right to decline to participate and to withdraw from the research once participation has begun; (3) the foreseeable consequences of declining or withdrawing; (4) reasonably foreseeable factors that may be expected to influence their willingness to participate such as potential risks, discomfort, or adverse effects; (5) any prospective research benefits; (6) limits of confidentiality; (7) incentives for participation; and (8) whom to contact for questions about the research and research participants' rights. They provide opportunity for the prospective participants to ask questions and receive answers. (See also Standards 8.03, Informed Consent for Recording Voices and Images in Research; 8.05, Dispensing With Informed Consent for Research; and 8.07, Deception in Research.)
(b) Psychologists conducting intervention research involving the use of experimental treatments clarify to participants at the outset of the research (1) the experimental nature of the treatment; (2) the services that will or will not be available to the control group(s) if appropriate; (3) the means by which assignment to treatment and control groups will be made; (4) available treatment alternatives if an individual does not wish to participate in the research or wishes to withdraw once a study has begun; and (5) compensation for or monetary costs of participating including, if appropriate, whether reimbursement from the participant or a third-party payor will be sought. (See also Standard 8.02a, Informed Consent to Research.)
8.03 Informed Consent for Recording Voices and Images in Research
Psychologists obtain informed consent from research participants prior to recording their voices or images for data collection unless (1) the research consists solely of naturalistic observations in public places, and it is not anticipated that the recording will be used in a manner that could cause personal identification or harm, or (2) the research design includes deception, and consent for the use of the recording is obtained during debriefing. (See also Standard 8.07, Deception in Research.)
8.04 Client/Patient, Student, and Subordinate Research Participants
(a) When psychologists conduct research with clients/patients, students, or subordinates as participants, psychologists take steps to protect the prospective participants from adverse consequences of declining or withdrawing from participation.
(b) When research participation is a course requirement or an opportunity for extra credit, the prospective participant is given the choice of equitable alternative activities.
8.05 Dispensing With Informed Consent for Research
Psychologists may dispense with informed consent only (1) where research would not reasonably be assumed to create distress or harm and involves (a) the study of normal educational practices, curricula, or classroom management methods conducted in educational settings; (b) only anonymous questionnaires, naturalistic observations, or archival research for which disclosure of responses would not place participants at risk of criminal or civil liability or damage their financial standing, employability, or reputation, and confidentiality is protected; or (c) the study of factors related to job or organization effectiveness conducted in organizational settings for which there is no risk to participants' employability, and confidentiality is protected or (2) where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations.
8.06 Offering Inducements for Research Participation
(a) Psychologists make reasonable efforts to avoid offering excessive or inappropriate financial or other inducements for research participation when such inducements are likely to coerce participation.
(b) When offering professional services as an inducement for research participation, psychologists clarify the nature of the services, as well as the risks, obligations, and limitations. (See also Standard 6.05, Barter With Clients/Patients.)
8.07 Deception in Research
(a) Psychologists do not conduct a study involving deception unless they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study's significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and that effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible.
(b) Psychologists do not deceive prospective participants about research that is reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress.
(c) Psychologists explain any deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the data collection, and permit participants to withdraw their data. (See also Standard 8.08, Debriefing.)
(a) Psychologists provide a prompt opportunity for participants to obtain appropriate information about the nature, results, and conclusions of the research, and they take reasonable steps to correct any misconceptions that participants may have of which the psychologists are aware.
(b) If scientific or humane values justify delaying or withholding this information, psychologists take reasonable measures to reduce the risk of harm.
(c) When psychologists become aware that research procedures have harmed a participant, they take reasonable steps to minimize the harm.
8.09 Humane Care and Use of Animals in Research
(a) Psychologists acquire, care for, use, and dispose of animals in compliance with current federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and with professional standards.
(b) Psychologists trained in research methods and experienced in the care of laboratory animals supervise all procedures involving animals and are responsible for ensuring appropriate consideration of their comfort, health, and humane treatment.
(c) Psychologists ensure that all individuals under their supervision who are using animals have received instruction in research methods and in the care, maintenance, and handling of the species being used, to the extent appropriate to their role. (See also Standard 2.05, Delegation of Work to Others.)
(d) Psychologists make reasonable efforts to minimize the discomfort, infection, illness, and pain of animal subjects.
(e) Psychologists use a procedure subjecting animals to pain, stress, or privation only when an alternative procedure is unavailable and the goal is justified by its prospective scientific, educational, or applied value.
(f) Psychologists perform surgical procedures under appropriate anesthesia and follow techniques to avoid infection and minimize pain during and after surgery.
(g) When it is appropriate that an animal's life be terminated, psychologists proceed rapidly, with an effort to minimize pain and in accordance with accepted procedures.
8.10 Reporting Research Results
(a) Psychologists do not fabricate data. (See also Standard 5.01a, Avoidance of False or Deceptive Statements.)
(b) If psychologists discover significant errors in their published data, they take reasonable steps to correct such errors in a correction, retraction, erratum, or other appropriate publication means.
Psychologists do not present portions of another's work or data as their own, even if the other work or data source is cited occasionally.
8.12 Publication Credit
(a) Psychologists take responsibility and credit, including authorship credit, only for work they have actually performed or to which they have substantially contributed. (See also Standard 8.12b, Publication Credit.)
(b) Principal authorship and other publication credits accurately reflect the relative scientific or professional contributions of the individuals involved, regardless of their relative status. Mere possession of an institutional position, such as department chair, does not justify authorship credit. Minor contributions to the research or to the writing for publications are acknowledged appropriately, such as in footnotes or in an introductory statement.
(c) Except under exceptional circumstances, a student is listed as principal author on any multiple-authored article that is substantially based on the student's doctoral dissertation. Faculty advisors discuss publication credit with students as early as feasible and throughout the research and publication process as appropriate. (See also Standard 8.12b, Publication Credit.)
8.13 Duplicate Publication of Data
Psychologists do not publish, as original data, data that have been previously published. This does not preclude republishing data when they are accompanied by proper acknowledgment.
8.14 Sharing Research Data for Verification
(a) After research results are published, psychologists do not withhold the data on which their conclusions are based from other competent professionals who seek to verify the substantive claims through reanalysis and who intend to use such data only for that purpose, provided that the confidentiality of the participants can be protected and unless legal rights concerning proprietary data preclude their release. This does not preclude psychologists from requiring that such individuals or groups be responsible for costs associated with the provision of such information.
(b) Psychologists who request data from other psychologists to verify the substantive claims through reanalysis may use shared data only for the declared purpose. Requesting psychologists obtain prior written agreement for all other uses of the data.
Psychologists who review material submitted for presentation, publication, grant, or research proposal review respect the confidentiality of and the proprietary rights in such information of those who submitted it.
Some Particularly Important Points
You should be familiar with all of these ethical principles, but a few of the most important ones are worth elaborating on just a bit.
Institutional Review Boards
Note that the first principle has to do with “institutional approval.” This means that researchers at a university or any government or private organization must have their proposed research approved by their organization’s institutional review board or IRB. An IRB is a group of people from within, and often outside, the institution who review research proposals involving human or animal subjects and decide whether they meet the appropriate ethical standards and can go forward, or whether they must be revised or abandoned. The federal government requires that any institution that receives federal money of any kind have an IRB that meets certain criteria. So of course CSUF has an IRB because the university receives federal grants and contracts. We also have an IRB within the Department of Psychology—made up of psychology faculty—who review proposals. If they determine that the research involves minimal risk, they do not send it to the university IRB. If they determine that participants are at risk, then they forward it to the university IRB.
Students often confuse the concept of informed consent with the process of having the participant sign a consent form. Although informed consent usually (but not always) involves signing a consent form, there is more to it.
A research participant has given informed consent if he or she has agreed to participate after being informed of everything that might reasonably be expected to affect his or her decision. We would expect the fact that a study will involve physical pain, for example, to affect a person's decision about whether or not to participate. Therefore, the participant has given informed consent only if he or she knows ahead of time that the study will involve physical pain. Putting this information in a consent form and getting the person's signature on the form does not necessarily mean that the person has read and understood that physical pain is involved. Informed consent in this case might also require a clear verbal description of the procedure, including how strong the pain will be, how long it will last, and how the participant can stop the pain if necessary.
Sometimes researchers find it necessary to deceive their subjects. For example, participants might interact with others who they believe are also participants in the study but who are really confederates of the experimenter (as in the famous conformity research of Solomon Asch).
It is important to realize, however, that the vast majority of psychological research does not involve deception. We have rarely (if ever) used deception in our research in cognitive and social psychology. It is also important to realize that there scholars who argue that deception in any form is unethical because, for example, it is antithetical to the concept of informed consent.
However, the APA considers deception acceptable if 1) it is justified by the potential importance of the study, 2) there is no good way to do the study without deception, 3) participants are not deceived about anything that might cause them harm, and 4) participants are informed of the deception as soon as possible.
Debriefing is the process of informing participants as soon as possible about the study and its results, including deception. This usually involves giving participants a written or spoken description of the study as soon as it is over, and allowing them an opportunity to ask questions.
When necessary, debriefing also involves trying to identify and correct any misconceptions and alleviate any distress that participants might have as a result of being in the study. Imagine, for example, an experiment in which some participants are put into a negative mood to see how this affects their memory. At the end of the experiment, the researcher might need to do something (e.g., show a humorous video clip) to put these participants back into a positive mood before sending them on their way.