Research Ethics: Meaning and Application

Research is an ongoing, exacting process. In fields like the humanities, social sciences, biology, and medicine, the researcher and the subject of their study are in close contact. The science of humanity as a whole is called anthropology. The researcher and the researcher (interviewer-interviewee, scientist-subject) share ecosystems, histories, and occasionally ethnic and linguistic identities in most fields of the discipline. Researchers frequently hold positions of authority in the area, which increases the likelihood that they may project their preconceptions and stigmas onto the individuals they encounter with.

Research Ethics Meaning

The Nuremberg trials, which took place in 1945–1946 and saw the prosecution of numerous Nazi scientists who had done cruel experiments on disabled people, homosexuals, and other persecuted groups, contributed to the development of the area of research ethics. The world was appalled when these scientists' cruel tactics were revealed. This demonstrated the lengths scholars would go to in their ostensible quest for knowledge—torture. This served as a wake-up call to the scientific community, highlighting the necessity of establishing ethical guidelines that researchers must abide by when conducting their study.

The Nuremberg Code (1947), which established the guidelines for human testing, contained these regulations. Its fundamental tenet is that no human subject may be subjected to an experiment without that subject's agreement. Any study participant should not suffer any injury during an experiment that has the potential to cause them harm or even death. Any associated risk with a study is only acceptable because the predicted rewards from the investigation offset it. All other factors are superseded by the study subject's safety and consent.

All the following ethical principles and regulations for research ethics are founded on the Nuremberg Code. Many professional groups and research councils worldwide, including India, have embraced several of these standards. The Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research on Human Participants (2006), published by the Indian Council of Medical Research, and the Ethics Guidelines for Social Science Research in Health (2000), published by the National Committee for Social Science Research in Health are two important ethical guidelines for research in India.

Theoretical Approach

There are two theoretical perspectives to comprehend ethics and its application to social sciences. Theoretically, consequentialism or utilitarianism holds that an action's morality or immorality may be determined by its repercussions. As long as the goal is achieved, any forms of experimentation and inquiry are legitimate. According to this viewpoint, it is OK to test novel medications or treatments on humans without understanding how they would affect their bodies.

They contend that if it benefits "experimental participants," it will also assist millions of other people. However, if "subjects" suffer or even pass away during the trial, it is determined that the experiment must be stopped, saving millions in both financial and human costs. This philosophical approach's ethics are based on cost-benefit calculations.

This approach, sometimes known as deontology or non-consequentialism, has its roots in the work of the great philosopher Emanuel Kant. According to this strategy, any form of the deceit of respondents constitutes a violation of their basic human rights. It discusses unequivocal moral principles.

According to consequentialism, the "goal" is valued more than the "means." However, the deontological approach opposes that and argues that subject protection is crucial regardless of potential future advantages because people should be viewed as "ends" rather than "means."

Human experimentation is any experiment performed on a living individual, not for therapeutic purposes but to learn how it would affect him. Examples include administering growth hormones to young children to observe the effects, administering low doses of insulin to healthy individuals as a control group, administering trial medications to patients to determine their potential for healing, administering electric shocks to individuals to gauge their capacity for endurance, etc. Several instances of "live ethics in research human subjects" being treated inhumanely during social and medical research.

The most notorious instance is that of Nazi Germany when war captives were put through cruel examinations and torture in the name of medical research. These included "incompatible unsterile blood transfusions, (e.g., giving Rh positive or Rh negative blood to an Rh-positive individual, or giving blood from blood type A to inmates, etc.)" injections of harmful chemicals, forced sterilization of women because they are mentally ill and would likely produce mentally ill offspring disrupting the population's gene pool, and performing surgeries without anesthesia. Holocaust survivors and others subjected to these experiments had psychological effects for the rest of their lives. This emphasized the necessity of voluntary involvement and informed consent in all types of study.

Principles of Research Ethics

Some of the principles that are crucial to conducting ethical research are −

  • Honesty − Honesty ensures that the researchers truthfully share crucial details of the study with respondents, colleagues, and authorities.

  • Objectivity − This principle helps avoid any biases influencing the study.

  • Integrity − Integrity helps to maintain consistency of actions throughout the conduction of the study.

  • Carefulness − Carefulness helps avoid any errors committed during the study and rectify the errors made.

  • Openness − This principle ensures that the researcher is open to criticism and new ideas that may help improve the study.

  • Transparency − This principle helps ensure that all necessary information is accurately disclosed to evaluate the research adequately.

  • Accountability − Accountability ensures that the researcher holds responsibility regarding all concerns of the study.

  • Originality − This principle helps ensure that the study is free from plagiarism and that proper credits are given to the sources used in the study.

  • Confidentiality − This principle helps to ensure that all sensitive information is safeguarded and the participants' responses stay only with the researcher.

  • Protecting of rights − This principle helps protect the rights of humans and ensures that no animal is harmed during the conduction of the study.

  • Legal Consideration − This principle helps researchers ensure that all legalities are followed during the study.

Each research participant must be made aware of the following by the researcher −

  • The purpose of the study.

  • The participants have free will to participate in the study.

  • The respondents can withdraw from the study at any point.

  • The possible benefits and risks involved in the study.

  • Confidentiality of the study will be maintained.

Ethical Failure in Research

Ethical failure occurs when participants are mistreated by the researcher or their rights or dignity are violated during the conduction of the study. Research misconduct is another ethical failure in which the researcher falsifies data, manipulates the results, misinterprets the results, or commits academic fraud. Such actions are carried out intentionally and may waste the resources and funding involved in the study. Another type of ethical failure is plagiarism, which indicates that the study is not original and that someone else's work is copied, either intentionally or unintentionally. Ethical failure also occurs when harm is caused to the participants.

  • Psychological harm is caused when triggering questions are asked, causing anxiety or shame.

  • Social harm involves social stigma, stereotypes, public embarrassment, and social risks.

  • Physical harm occurs when any injury is caused during the research conduction.

  • Legal harm is caused to respondents when privacy is breached or the confidentiality of participants is not maintained.

Application of Principles of Ethics

  • Assessment − Identifying the research problems effectively, chalking out the goals of the study

  • Transparency − Clear the purpose of the study to participants, clarify the possible threats and advantages involved in the study and share the study results with the participant.

  • Voluntary Participation − Not forcing individuals to become a part of the study and letting them become a part of the research by their will.

  • Rights of the participant − The participants should be told that they can choose not to share particular information and choose to withdraw from the study at any given point.

  • Beneficence − Ensuring that the benefit of the participants is maximized.

  • Confidentiality − The privacy and anonymity of the participants should be maintained.

  • Non-discrimination −  Avoiding participants' discrimination on race, religion, sex, and creed.

Advantages of Research Ethics

  • Research ethics increase the trust between researchers and the respondents.

  • Ethical principles help protect the respondents' rights, welfare, and dignity.

  • The respondents can hold researchers accountable for answers.

  • Research helps in promoting social as well as moral values.

  • Research ethics help avoid errors, publish original research and veracity, and better understand the study.

  • Ethical values adopted in research help increase cooperation, answerability, impartiality, and mutual respect.

  • Respondents are likely to trust the researcher, and the research study follows ethics and increases the trust and reliability of the study.

Limitations of Research Ethics

  • Research involving experimental drugs or equipment such as x-ray machines can cause physical harm to the participants.

  • Some research can cause psychological harm to individuals as some questions may trigger anxiety and bring back memories of certain traumatic events.

  • Tribal or other backward groups may face stigmatization and discrimination during the study.

  • The data collected may be released unintentionally, violating the rights and confidentiality of the participants.

How can studies be made ethical?

The following steps can be followed to make a research ethical −

  • Collect accurate facts.

  • Map out the ethical concerns.

  • Respondents should recognize their responsibilities.

  • Respecting the privacy and confidentiality of participants.

  • Resolving the ethical issues once recognized.


Principles of ethics are essential to be followed by researchers to ensure that fair research is conducted, which is free from plagiarism, and the rights of respondents are not violated. Ethical research does not violate legal norms and ensures that no harm is caused to the respondents intentionally or unintentionally.