There are several reasons why it is important to adhere to ethical norms in research. First, some of these norms promote the aims of research, such as knowledge, truth, and avoidance of error. Many of the norms of research promote a variety of other important
moral and social values, such as social responsibility and human rights. Given the importance of ethics for the conduct of research, it should come as no surprise that many different professional associations, government agencies, and universities have adopted specific codes, rules, and policies relating to research ethics. It has been argued that researchers need to develop better understandings of the politics and contexts within which ethics are regulated in order to increase both the perceived and actual legitimacy of their research investigations.
Understanding ethical principal
A formal system of ethics is the means by which professionals establish explicit standards of behavior and hold themselves accountable to those standards. An ethical code helps both professionals and those affected by the professionals’ actions (e.g., clients and consumers) identify and understand the principles which must guide the professionals’ work (Keith-Spiegal, 1998). Less altruistically but more practically, professionals’ systems of ethics can also represent or be motivated by the profession’s desire to minimize regulation by external organizations and systems (e.g., state licensing boards, the civil and criminal courts) (World Medical Association, 2000). The origin or elaboration of formal ethical systems can also be a response to pressure from consumers, clients, and the public who seek a change from laissez faire and caveat-emptor approaches to professional responsibilities. The paternalism inherent in the attitude that professionals “know best” and are beyond accountability is not tolerated among the public as it once was (Keith-Spiegal, 1998).
Department of Health and Human Services regulations define research as “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge” (45 CFR 46.102 d). Often it is assumed that a specific question is being addressed by the researcher, and that the design is appropriate to answer the proposed question.
Data collection to evaluate a specific program’s effectiveness is generally not considered research since findings are not normally generalizable. Collecting information regarding client change or satisfaction also may not fall under the aegis of research, because results are specific and informative to an individual therapist with the intent of improving therapeutic competence and success and therefore, are not generalizable (National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2001). However, if therapists plan organized, well-thought-out designs to investigate a specific research question about a therapeutic procedure and intend to disseminate the results through publication or other means, they are engaging in human subject research (Institute of Medicine, 2002).
Psychological theories on ethics
During the 1960s there was increased interest in moral reasoning. Psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg developed theories which are based on the idea that moral behavior is made possible by moral reasoning. Their theories subdivided moral reasoning into so-called stages, which refer to the set of principles or methods that a person uses for ethical judgment. The first and most famous theory of this type was Kohlberg’s theory of moral development (Macrina, 2000).
Another group of influential psychological theories with ethical implications is the humanistic psychology movement. One of the most famous humanistic theories is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that the highest human need is self-actualization, which can be described as fulfilling one’s potential, and trying to fix what is wrong in the world. Carl Rogers’s work was based on similar assumptions
(Sherry, 1991). He thought that in order to be a ‘fully functioning person’, one has to be creative and accept one’s own feelings and needs. He also emphasized the value of self-actualization. A similar theory was proposed by Fritz Perls, who assumed that taking responsibility of one’s own life is an important value (Macrina, 2000).
R.D. Laing developed a broad range of thought on interpersonal psychology. This deals with interactions between people, which he considered important, for an ethical action always occurs between one person and another. In books such as The Politics of Experience, he dealt with issues concerning how we should relate to persons labeled by the psychiatric establishment as “schizophrenic”. He came to be seen as a champion for the rights of those considered mentally ill. He spoke out against (and wrote about) practices of psychiatrists which he considered inhumane or barbaric, such as electric shock treatment. Like Wittgenstein, he was frequently concerned with clarifying the use of language in the field — for example, he suggested that the effects of psychiatric drugs (some of which are very deleterious) be called just that: “effects”, and not be referred to by the preferred euphemisms of the drug companies, who prefer to call them “side effects” (Keith-Spiegal, 1998). Laing also did work in establishing true asylums as places of refuge for those who feel disturbed and want a safe place to go through whatever it is they want to explore in themselves, and with others.
A third group of psychological theories that have implications for the nature of ethics are based on evolutionary psychology. These theories are based on the assumption that the behavior that ethics prescribe can sometimes be seen as an evolutionary adaptation. For instance, altruism towards members of one’s own family promotes one’s inclusive fitness (Macrina, 2000).
Ethical Principles for Conducting Research
The Standing Committee on Ethics in Research with Human Participants has now completed its revision of the Ethical Principles for Research with Human Subjects and the new ‘Ethical Principles for Conducting Research with Human Participants’ have been approved by the Council.
In the forefront of its considerations was the recognition that psychologists owe a debt to those who agree to take part in their studies and that people who are willing to give up their time, even for remuneration, should be able to expect to be treated with the highest standards of consideration and respect. This is reflected in the change from the term ‘subjects’ to ‘participants’ (National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2001). To psychologists brought up on the jargon of their profession the term ‘subject’ is not derogatory. However, to someone who has not had that experience of psychological research it is a term which can seem impersonal.
Deception – The issue of deception caused the Committee considerable problems. To many outside the psychology profession, and to some within it, the idea of deceiving the participants in one’s research is seen as quite inappropriate. At best, the experience of deception in psychological research can make the recipients cynical about the activities and attitudes of psychologists. However, since there are very many psychological processes that are modifiable by individuals if they are aware that they are being studied, the statement of the research hypothesis in advance of the collection of data would make much psychological research impossible. The Committee noted that there is a distinction between withholding some of the details of the hypothesis under test and deliberately falsely informing the participants of the purpose of the research, especially if the information given implied a more benign topic of study than was in fact the case. While the Committee wishes to urge all psychologists to seek to supply as full information as possible to those taking part in their research, it concluded that the central principle was the reaction of participants when deception was revealed. If this led to discomfort, anger or objections from the participants then the deception was inappropriate. The Committee hopes that such a principle protects the dignity of the participants while allowing valuable psychological research to be conducted (National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2001).
Debriefing – Following the research, especially where any deception or withholding of information had taken place, the Committee wished to emphasize the importance of appropriate debriefing. In some circumstances, the verbal description of the nature of the investigation would not be sufficient to eliminate all possibility of harmful after-effects. For example, an experiment in which negative mood was induced requires the induction of a happy mood state before the participant leaves the experimental setting (National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2001).
Risk – Another area of concern for the Committee was the protection of participants from undue risk in psychological research. Since this was an area in which the Principles might be looked to during an investigation following a complaint against a researcher, the Committee was concerned to seek a definition that protected the participants in the research without making important research impossible. Risks attend us every moment in life, and to say that research should involve no risks would be inappropriate. However, the important principle seemed to be that when participants entered upon a psychological investigation they should not, in so doing, be increasing the probability that they would come to any form of harm. Thus, the definition of undue risk was based upon the risks that individuals run in their normal lifestyle. This definition makes possible research upon individuals who lead a risk-taking or risk-seeking life (e.g. mountaineers, cave divers), so long as the individuals are not induced to take risks that are greater than those that they would normally encounter in their life outside the research (National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2001).
Implementation – The Council of the Society approved the Principles at its meeting in February 1990.There followed a two-year period during which the new Principles were provisionally in operation. In spring 1992 the Council reviewed the Principles, in the light of experience of their operation. During this period researchers were unable to identify problems in the working of the Principles. Following minor amendment the Principles were formally adopted in October 1992 (National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2001).
The Council urges all research psychologists to ensure that they abide by these Principles, which supplement the Society’s Code of Conduct and thus violation of them could form the basis of disciplinary action. It is essential that all members of the psychological profession abide by the Principles if psychologists are to continue to retain the privilege of testing human participants in their research (Sherry, 1991).
have legal as well as moral responsibilities for those who help them in their study, and the long-term reputation of the discipline depends largely upon the experience of those who encounter it first-hand during psychological investigations (National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2001).
Unethical practices / Current regulation
A scandal that was made public in 1972 was the Tuskegee study, which began in Alabama in the 1930s and continued for about 40 years. Black males who were diagnosed with syphilis were left untreated to experimentally observe the natural course of the disease. The public outcry to this disclosure was considerable, especially after it was learned that a Public Health Service committee review of the experiment had recommended that the experiment be continued (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000)! The government response to the resultant public outrage was to regulate even greater public control of research ethics and provide for the bureaucracy to ensure its implementation. The National Research Act, which required mandatory ethics review by Institutional Review Boards in institutions receiving federal research grants, also created the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Over the next several years it was proposed to extend required ethics review to research in all disciplines, whether federally funded or not.
Yet in another case that leaves question and concern, a funded collaborative research project between the county schools and probation office is aimed at 8th and 9th grade students who are on probation and are failing two classes. Funding requires that therapeutic intervention procedures be compared to determine if a specific approach is more effective in improving grades. A family therapy clinic that provides in-school counseling service is asked to lead two solution-focused groups. The family therapy clinic will be paid its standard fee for individual clients plus an additional $250 per student to complete research outcome measures. Students are identified by a school-probation professional team to take part in the research project. After identifying students, a letter and consent form is sent to parents that describe a “special program aimed at improving grades so the student may be promoted.” Parents are to send back a form if they do not want their child to be part of the program. One of the therapists is a part-time faculty member at the local university. She is requested to submit the study for IRB approval. Also, she plans to ask the department chair about using a MFT graduate student to assist with co-leading therapy sessions and with data collection and analysis. Confidentiality may also be violated. Because the therapy research was conducted at the school, faculty and other students may have been aware of who was in the study and for what reason. In addition, what would happen if a research participant revealed illegal behavior during the study (e.g., drug use or vandalism) is not specified (McCollum,2002).
Currently, the federal government is emphasizing education and training for professionals who are or will be engaged in human participant research. Led by the OHRP and the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), professionals are expected not only to know the ethical principles underpinning human research, but also be familiar with the responsible conduct of research (Institute of Medicine, 2002). In addition to knowing human subject regulations, researchers are expected to know about other areas of responsible conduct of research, including data acquisition and management, publication practices, research misconduct or falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism (National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2001).
In conclusion, ethical regulation is an element that has been permanently added to the design and conduct of psychological research. Regrettably, some researchers have been reluctant to acknowledge this fact. When psychologists engage in research activities, they are expected to cultivate a culture of research integrity. Professional ethical standards and federal and state regulations must be understood and followed. These regulations serve as the leading guidelines for correct research practice involving human participants. They are also the foundation for best research standards and practice, which simply stated is, “Respect people while doing good science.” (World Medical Association, 2000)