The Importance of Ethics in Research

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Introduction

Research ethics are perhaps among the most important guidelines for undertaking research. Indeed, researchers are required to concentrate on all issues that arise in the research process and the diverse ways that their research affects all those involved (Bakewell, 2007, p. 217). Most ethical guidelines ensure researchers do not engage in unsafe, unreasonable or thoughtless practices that may cause harm to themselves or other parties (Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, 2009). This paper emphasizes the importance of ethics in research by explaining how to uphold ethical principles. An exploration of important ethical issues such as plagiarism, informed consent, risk assessment and privacy issues also forms an integral part of this study.

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Literature Review

Ordinarily, people perceive ethics to be the distinction between right and wrong. However, Berry (2004) defines ethics to be “an honest exchange of arguments, ideas, and information among writers and readers who share an interest in an issue” (p. 323). The importance of ethics in research is crucial because it is vital for researchers to operate in an honest manner. This way, researchers can avoid serious academic and professional mistakes like plagiarism, negligence, privacy, confidentiality errors (and the like).

The application of ethics normally varies across individuals, societies, countries and even institutions. For example, based on the importance of observing ethical conduct in research practice, different societies, institutions and governments have developed their ethical codes of conduct. The diversity in implementing ethical guidelines has introduced serious credibility debates regarding scientific studies and the importance of scientific findings to address relevant issues in society (Langlois & Lapointe, 2010).

In this regard, it is critical to review issues on credibility testing. These issues have increased the profile and importance of observing ethical practice because, in today’s digital era and the domination of modern technology, technology has become both a tool and a subject of research. The lack of awareness of existing ethical principles is among the top reasons why there is still a lot of misunderstanding and unprofessionalism in research. Thus, this research paper provides a widespread understanding of the importance of ethical practice in conducting simple and complex research.

Discussion

Plagiarism

Writing in the modern age can be difficult because of the conveniences created by modern-day technologies. Lilley (2003) affirms that modern age writing is prone to many challenges, which have been created by easy access to technology, which threatens the professionalism of writing. She cites tight deadlines and other work commitments as contributions to the increased instances of plagiarism and other academic offenses. Indeed, increased pressures and heavy workloads may cause sloppiness in writing research papers and this weakness may further lead to the improper acknowledgment of sources, thereby leading to plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a serious academic offense because it amounts to intellectual dishonesty. Plagiarism occurs when writers intentionally (or unintentionally) use someone else’s work and present them as theirs. Risquez & Ledwith (2011) explain that in plagiarized papers, it is often difficult for readers to distinguish the writer’s original work and the contribution of other authors. The concept of copyright infringement normally surfaces in plagiarism cases because plagiarized documents infringe on other people’s ownership of ideas.

The understanding of patents and copyrights is important in understanding plagiarism but sometimes, these two concepts can be confusing. Fine & Castagnera (2003) explain the distinction between patents and copyrights by associating the protection of inventions of patents and the protection of authors’ ideas and concepts to copyrights. Copyright laws, therefore, work to guarantee the protection of authentic works and the imposition of penalties if copyright infringement occurs. Through copyright protection, a strong sense of accountability is therefore established. To prevent plagiarism, it is critical to always quote borrowed materials by citing the original authors. This measure applies to direct quotations and borrowed ideas.

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Privacy and Confidentiality

The increased dominance of internet research has led to a growing need to protect data because online information has become increasingly available to users. The American Psychological Association (2012) posits that protecting data involves strict adherence to privacy and confidentiality rules. Loue (2000) explains, “Privacy is defined in terms of a person having control over the extent, timing, and circumstances of sharing oneself (physically, behaviorally, or intellectually) with others” (p. 147). Through this assertion, privacy stands out to be the limitation of personal information from public scrutiny. Here, the limitation of personal information involves the limitation of thoughts, identities or even location of individuals. The importance of upholding privacy is especially important when using people as sources of information. Their names, addresses, professions, or locations may be limited in this regard.

Even though the comprehension of the concept of privacy is different in many countries, the US constitution recognizes privacy as a fundamental human right. However, the perception of confidentiality is different because the American Psychological Association (2012) suggests that confidentiality is not a right but a professional obligation. In the research papers, the researcher will uphold the principles of privacy and confidentiality by adhering to the general principles of privacy and confidentiality discussed above. The outline of these principles is also in the ethics code. However, adhering to these principles is shallow because the researcher will also adopt study-specific protection strategies to improve personal structures for ensuring privacy and confidentiality. These study-specific protection strategies will involve the development of data protection plans (Loue, 2000). This plan includes important concepts of research, advanced by the American Psychological Association (2012).

Within this plan, the identification of people who gain access to the data and protect the data surfaces (this data protection plan also includes the introduction of data encryption, firewall installation and password protection tools). Finally, developing a contingency plan for any data breach will also ensure that I am able to control any damage if there is a security breach. The above strategies are insufficient for the personal data protection plan because the researcher will adopt auxiliary strategies aimed at enforcing the existing security measures. These auxiliary strategies center on ensuring the data obtained is anonymous, coded and delinked. Zorkadis & Donos (2004) explain the involvement of data coding in the assignment of a letter or number to a specific group of data. He further emphasizes that “A key that deciphers the code allows re-associating or linking the coded information with the identity of the participant” (Zorkadis & Donos, 2004, p. 145).

It is also common to see researchers seeking the services of third parties to secure coded information. However, Zorkadis & Donos (2004) warn that the introduction of a policy for re-identifying data when a third-party agency secures coded data is crucial. The argument advanced here centers on the importance of limiting a researchers’ ability to re-identify the data. This security measure closely resembles the concept of delinking data to their sources because this measure will also be useful in protecting personal respondents’ identities in future research. Finally, the researcher will endeavor to uphold the collection of anonymous data to safeguard the privacy and confidentiality of the research participants. This way, there will be no identifiers to link participant identities with the collected data. Collectively, the above strategies will uphold the privacy and security of personal future research.

Informed Consent

Informed consent is often important in research because it defines a participant’s consent to participate in research after understanding the risks, benefits and procedures of doing so. Cambridge (2001) explains that informed consent is a central concern for research ethics as set out in the 1947 Nuremberg Code. Specifically, informed consent facilitates proactive contribution since the participant will give views that are consistent with the research scope. Besides, informed consent protects the researcher from any legal, moral, or social eventuality with the participant.

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The importance of observing informed consent is similarly highlighted in the 1964 Helsinki Declaration, which stipulates the need for researchers to obtain consent without any form of coercion or threats. In other words, Cambridge (2001) explains that research participants need to give informed consent freely. From the contribution of the Nuremberg Code and the Helsinki Declaration, both frameworks have played an important role in the understanding of informed consent. Upholding informed consent for researchers is however marred with problematic issues like a language barrier, religious influence, and false expectations (Escobedo & Guerrero, 2007). Given the importance of informed consent in developing professional research papers, it is important to devise ways to ensure that personal future studies receive full consent from the participants. To do so, the researcher will adopt a four-tier strategy to ensure strict adherence to informed consent rules at all points of the research.

This strategy premises on undertaking a demographic survey of the respondents living in the geographic areas of study and hiring a translator to facilitate communication with research respondents who speak foreign languages. Furthermore, taking more caution to elaborate all the details in the informed consent form and asking relevant questions (to ensure the participants understand all the details about research consent) will also improve compliance with informed consent guidelines.

Risk Assessment

The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (2009) explains that risk assessment is crucial when undertaking research studies because researchers expose themselves to selective risks, which may affect their research process. Smith (2005) defines risk assessment as the potential harm or discomfort that occurs in the research process. He also categorizes these risks into “low” and “high” risks. Low risks are those that only cause discomfort while high risks may cause harm to the participants.

Broadly, failing to protect participants from research risks may cause physical harm, psychological stress, social disadvantage, financial disadvantages and invasion of privacy and confidentiality to the participants. Smith (2005) explains that a researcher does not often intentionally cause harm because some of the risks defined above are accidental (and often unavoidable). Therefore, the best way to remedy such a risk is by minimizing its probability of occurrence. By minimizing such risks, the research participants protect themselves from research extremes. Based on this importance, as the researcher undertakes future studies, the researcher will first get informed consent from participants before approving their participation in the research and protect the anonymity of the participants throughout the research process.

By observing these two principles, the probability of experiencing research risks reduces (American Psychology Association, 2012). However, based on the diverse nature of research risks, the researcher will also avoid deceptive practices when designing personal research process and provide an opportunity for the researchers to withdraw from the research process at any time so that they are shielded from any harm or discomfort that may be realized in the research process. Overall, these measures will help reduce research risks.

Data Handling and Reporting

The researcher’s ethical obligations do not end at the production and compilation of data. Mohamed & Hussein (2012) explain the need for researchers to uphold ethical practice when handling data and reporting it. Data handling normally occurs during the analysis stage of the research process. Here, Mohamed & Hussein (2012) explain that the applicable ethical principles are very specific to the chosen methodology of research. For example, different ethical implications apply when human participants are involved or when the research merely relies on secondary data. Similarly, a different ethical profile applies when the research is a review.

However, regardless of the research methodology, Mohamed & Hussein (2012) explain that some of the key ethical issues to be observed include how the participants are identified, how the identities of the participants are made anonymously, and if the participants have the right to be named. For research studies that use secondary data, strong ethical dilemmas that may arise include, whether the researcher enjoys the consent to use the data and if there is a possibility of identifying individual cases. Finally, Mohamed & Hussein (2012) explain the need for researchers to ask what responsibility they owe those who undertook the ethical research on their behalf (for secondary research and reviews).

To overcome some of the ethical problems caused by the failure to observe ethical principles in data handling and reporting, the researcher will endeavor to have a balanced approach to data presentation and handling. One issue that the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (2009) perceives as a contribution to the failure to observe ethical principles in data presentation and handling is the failure to include the views or contributions of vulnerable groups. Today, many researchers tackle research topics that are sensitive to society but more importantly, they affect minorities and vulnerable groups in society. Since it is important to reflect these dynamics in research, the researcher will present a fair and impartial presentation of the research dynamics. This strategy includes presenting both the “positives” and “negatives” of the research topic and ensuring there is a balanced approach when presenting the study’s findings.

Some of the ethical issues present in data analysis also mirror other ethical issues that manifest during the presentation of research findings – reporting. For example, The Institute for the Study of Applied and Professional Ethics (1997) explains that it is vital to understand the impact of the research findings once the research is complete. Here, researchers need to evaluate how their findings will be interpreted, how their findings could be used (or misused) and what information needs to be availed to the readers regarding the methodologies used in formulating the research (like the approach to ethics).

Institute for the Study of Applied and Professional Ethics (1997) cautions researchers to pay close attention to the responses given by the readers because this is a strong indication of the readers’ interpretation of the research. To prevent negative outcomes in data reporting and presentation, the researcher will pay close attention to how misunderstandings may arise and consequently reschedule the data analysis process to avoid such occurrences. This approach will be highly crucial to the comprehension of the research findings because upon presentation of the research findings, it is almost impossible to control its interpretation. If misunderstandings occur, there may be a ripple effect on the sample population presented in the paper or any other research group included in the research.

To better shape the outcomes of the research, the researcher provides a description of the personal research ethics approach and provides a link between the research findings and practice.

Another area of possible ethical attention is the dissemination of research outcomes. Oliver (2010) points out that the design of most research papers affects or changes policies and in this manner, research studies may affect people’s beliefs, feelings, and values. Similarly, since research affects people, it may upset or challenge them and therefore elicit negative responses (American Psychology Association, 2012). Albeit dissemination creates complex dynamics, the expectation of researchers is to uphold an ethical virtue to ensure their research is widely accepted and applied in practice. Oliver (2010) insists that this practice is especially important for social scientists because the nature of their research requires a widespread application.

Mistakes and Negligence

According to the American Psychology Association (2012), researchers are discouraged from presenting false and fabricated information in their research works. However, Oliver (2010) defends researchers and explains that they are prone to human error and considering the pressures that today’s researchers are faced with, many research papers may contain mistakes unknowingly. Some of these mistakes may occur from differences in opinion or misinterpretations among researchers and even readers.

However, according to the American Psychological Association (2012), the above intrigues do not provide an excuse to harbor mistakes in research studies. Instead, the association proposes that research works need to demonstrate high-quality standards of ethics while acknowledging any mistakes that may occur in the research process. Therefore, there is a strict requirement demanding the presentation of factual research information (which is free from mistakes and errors).

To avoid negligence and mistakes in the personal research process, the researcher will ensure that he or she reads and understands the university’s ethical policies and guidelines regarding research processes. This way, the researcher will have a detailed understanding of the obligations as a researcher and the duties owed to all stakeholder groups that depend on the research. Similarly, the researcher will ensure that an independent source reviews the work to identify some of the mistakes that the research will not be able to detect easily. The independent source may be the researcher’s supervisor.

Working with a Mentor

Nobel laureate prize winner Rosalyn Yalow stated that self-belief in humanity is critical in motivating the current generation to be better off than the previous generation (Gaither 2012). The Laureate made this statement in 1977 when she emphasized the importance of transferring knowledge to scientists as part of a widening cycle of learning. Several accredited institutions have advanced the importance of mentorship programs (such as the Institute of Medicine, which supports the introduction of strict mentorship programs) (Shamoo, 2009).

Shamoo (2009) re-emphasizes the importance of mentorship by explaining that it is a crucial tool for transferring knowledge to new scientists. However, like other research practices, mentorship programs pose some serious ethical concerns. Shamoo (2009) explains that the main aim of introducing mentorship programs (in education and training programs) is to ensure trainees understand the ethical codes of conduct surrounding their practice.

However, because of the expanding number of learning groups, there has been little regard for ethical conduct in mentorship programs.

Most of the ethical issues that arise from mentorship programs stem from the imbalance of power between mentors and their subjects. Since mentors are equipped with a strong body of knowledge and authority over their subjects, their students are often vulnerable to their power. In fact, Shamoo (2009) cautions that even mentors who are not in senior positions still wield a lot of power over their subjects. The intimidation that is likely to occur in such circumstances and the quest for the students to gain from the mentors’ contribution increasingly dramatizes the power imbalance between the two groups. Shamoo (2009) explains that the greatest power imbalance occurs when the student hails from a foreign country.

Cases of mentors using their dominant positions to exploit their subjects by demanding sexual favors, or even soliciting personal favors from their students are common. Shamoo (2009) also cites the insufficient time students get to attend to personal issues as an ethical concern for mentorship programs.

Another ethical issue that arises in a mentorship program is the distinction between the trainee’s responsibility and the mentor’s responsibility. Stated differently, it is difficult to establish the distinction of student and mentor responsibilities. Another area of ethical concern any mentorship program is the extent that faculty members have on influencing their student’s research and the extent they have on guiding their students to produce the best research outcomes. For example, this dilemma exists during the selection of the research topic. These dilemmas pose serious ethical concerns in mentorship and it is, therefore, vital to ensure the research process is free from unethical behavior. As part of personal responsibility (as a researcher) to prevent the occurrence of unethical conduct in research studies, the researcher will ensure that emphasis is made to promote a personal interest as a researcher as opposed to merging personal interest with the mentors.

Secondly, the researcher will be clearer about personal needs and expectations as a researcher because Shamoo (2009) identifies the lack of clarity in researchers’ needs and expectations as one reason unethical conduct arises in mentorship programs. Indeed, Shamoo (2009) elaborates that mentorship programs need not be a passive process for any of the participants. All stakeholders (especially the students and the mentor) need to be actively involved in the mentorship exercise. In this regard, it is crucial to outline the objectives of the mentorship program to avoid any misunderstanding between the parties involved. Through a direct communication of personal needs and expectations, there will be more clarity in the mentorship exercise and subsequently, the entire exercise will be undertaken ethically.

North Central University (NCU) Requirements for IRB Approval

Dissertation research involving human subjects at the North Central University requirements requires IRB approval. This requirement is in accordance with title 45 of the code of federal regulations. The northern central University’s requirement for IRB approval includes approved sponsorship by NCU, supervision by NCU, and the use of NCU’s non-public information.

The purpose of seeking IRB approval is to protect all the stakeholders involved in the research from undue risk. Another purpose for seeking IRB approval is to ensure the research process complies with the laid down standards of research (this way, compliance with ethical guidelines improves). Indeed, NCU emphasizes the need for researchers to comply with not only the federal guidelines for conducting research but also the ethical and professional principles of research. Some of these ethical and professional standards include gaining informed consent from the research participants, protecting the participants from physical and mental discomfort, designing the research process in a way that benefits the participants and conducting the research fairly. However, another principle that is often encouraged by NCU is honoring the commitments made to the research participants. Collectively, the above principles inform NCU’s approval requirements for IRB approval.

Recommendations

Based on the findings of this paper, research ethics outline a serious responsibility for researchers. It is therefore crucial for researchers to ensure that they comply with all ethical principles that outline their research. More importantly, they should ensure their research meets the ethical guidelines of their disciplines. However, since this paper already shows the need for researchers to uphold fundamental principles of ethics, future research needs to explain if these ethical guidelines apply to all types of research. For example, there is already a consensus among most institutions of higher learning to uphold common ethical principles for studies that involve human participants. However, is it correct to uphold the same ethical principles for all disciplines? If this is the case, at what point do these ethical principles merge (across various disciplines), or at what point do they disperse? These questions need more clarification in future research.

Conclusion

Shamoo (2009) explains that it is crucial for researchers to write a statement of ethics in their research papers to outline what ethical guidelines are in their research papers. Alternatively, Shamoo (2009) encourages researchers to provide external links to readers where additional information regarding their ethical framework is available (such practices mirror the high standards of research writing such as the ones witnessed in the development of journal articles). For example, journal editors do not condone unethical writing in their publications. After weighing the findings of this paper, three distinct roles surface for researchers. These responsibilities benefit the participants, funders and the sponsoring institutions. Researchers owe an ethical duty to their participants by living up to the expectations of the consent form. Here, resolutions of issues like participant anonymity and research use occur.

Funders equally demand an ethical duty from the researchers because researchers need to establish if they can disseminate the findings without the consent of the funders, or if the publication of the findings will have a negative impact on the reputation of the funders. Furthermore, issues like the intellectual property of the founders are also resolved here. Lastly, this paper also highlights the importance of owing a duty of care to the sponsoring institutions and to the colleagues who are involved in the research process. Here, issues like co-authorship and the permission for the production of the research findings are processed. Comprehensively, researchers owe an ethical duty to all the stakeholders of the research process.

References

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Mohamed, N. & Hussein, R. (2012). Computer Use Ethics among University Students and Staffs: The Influence of Gender, Religious Work Value and Organizational Level. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 29 (5), 12-19.

Oliver, P. (2010). The Student’s Guide to Research Ethics. London: McGraw-Hill International.

Risquez, A. & Ledwith, A. (2011). Technology-enhanced learning and plagiarism in entrepreneurship education. Education + Training, 53 (8/9), 750 – 761.

Shamoo, A. (2009). Responsible Conduct of Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, A. (2005). Research Ethics (Routledge Annals of Bioethics Annals of Bioethics). New York: Taylor & Francis.

Zorkadis, V. & Donos, P. (2004). On biometrics-based authentication and identification from a privacy-protection perspective: Deriving privacy-enhancing requirements. Information Management & Computer Security, 12 (1), 125 – 137.

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