Ethical Dilemma in Conducting Research With Humans

Investigators who conduct research with human participants value knowledge and hope to contribute to it and human welfare. They also value the dignity and well-being of others, which naturally includes the human subjects of their inquiry. Often, their research will involve little or no discord between these two values: the outcome of a study may clarify an important theoretical issue, and the cost for participants may be small, such as a 2-hour time commitment. In respecting participants' dignity and well-being, the investigator fully informs them about all features of the experiment likely to affect their decision to participate, exerts no coercion to influence their choice, and, throughout the experiment, makes every effort to protect them from any anticipated harm. To offset the costs for participants, the investigator may also attempt to make the experience an educational one for them and/or compensate them, for example, with money or course credit.

To make a valid contribution, the investigator is duty-bound to conduct the best research of which he or she is capable. Unfortunately, this obligation can sometimes conflict with the best interests of participants. For example, on the one hand, telling participants that they are being observed may alter their behavior and affect the internal validity of a study; on the other hand, treating participants with respect seems to imply that they have a right to know that they are the subject of observation. While the solution to the ethical dilemma "does not lend itself to any quantitative formula or decision rule" (APA, 1982, p. 19), one maxim stands above all others: in weighing the pros and cons of conducting the research, "priority must be given to the research participants' welfare" (APA, 1982, p. 18). While the investigator may have obtained required permission from a regulatory board, followed standard practice, and consulted with other experts, the ultimate choice to conduct the study is his or hers alone, and he or she retains responsibility for the ethical treatment of participants.

The 10 ethical principles to be considered in this tutorial were prepared by the American Psychological Association's Committee for the Protection of Human Participants in Research; the resultant document was published in 1982 as a book called Ethical Principles in the Conduct of Research with Human Participants. (For more information about this book, click here.) The principles concentrate on "the investigator's obligations to safeguard the dignity and well-being of the participants" (APA, 1982, pp. 22-23). They do not, however, encompass the full range of ethical responsibilities of the investigator. For example, in the sponsorship of research, the investigator must consider questions about the nature and the mission of the supporting institution, and, with regards to the research results, how they will be used and who will have access to them (APA, 1982). Also, conducting good science can be considered an ethical responsibility of the investigator. Rosenthal (1994) argues "bad science makes for bad ethics" (p. 128). Bad science includes poor research design (e.g., insufficient to answer the research question), questionable data analysis (e.g., dropping data that do not support one's theory), and inappropriate reporting of the research (e.g., claiming cause where there is only a correlation). Finally, ethical issues arise in publishing research, such as assigning authorship, plagiarism, and editorial decisions by journals (Koocher & Keith-Spiegel, 1998).

This tutorial attempts to illustrate the 10 ethical principles with straightforward examples. Be aware, though, that in the real world ethical dilemmas may not be so easily solved. In fact, you will probably find some of the examples to follow debatable. This is perhaps unavoidable in a subject matter that involves human values.

The 10 ethical principles in the conduct of research with human participants are:

Before learning about each principle, first read the following background information about a hypothetical experiment.