Module 2: Research Ethics

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Ethical Concerns in Social Research

Before we begin talking about how social scientific data may be collected and analyzed, we need to talk about a few of the ethical concerns of social research methods in general. One doesn’t immediately think about ethics when discussing research methods. It is not like drug trials in medical research where life and death may hang on the randomized receipt of a potentially life-saving drug. Yet, there are a number of critical concerns that may develop in the course of social scientific research. For example, a researcher investigating drug users or gangs must consider whether to then turn over information about participants engaged in harmful illegal activities to the local law enforcement. In other cases, a project might be most insightful if the researcher were to conceal their identity as an investigator from the people they are observing so as not to influence the actions or activities of the subjects. In other cases, it might be most beneficial to society if the researcher could perform a social or psychological experiment on subjects without their knowledge if. In all of these cases, there are rules, policies, and laws that limit deception, require confidentiality, and protect the subjects from harm.

There is a long history of abuse in research. For example, Nazi concentration camps during World War II conducted atrocious medical experiments on Jews interred in the camps. These experiments resulted in the creation of the Nuremberg Code which declares that participants in research must be voluntary. Similarly, researchers in the USA knowingly allowed more than 400 African American men to go untreated for syphilis for more than 40 years while they watched the progression of the disease which eventually killed more than 140 (see Tuskegee Experiment). This led to the passage of the 1974 National Research Act and later the 1991 Common Rule which declared that “any institution receiving federal funds for research must establish an institutional review committee. These committees, known as Institutional Review Boards(IRBs), have the job of watching over all research proposals that involve working with human subjects and animals” (Hesse-Biber, 2009).

Watch this short video which presents the principles of informed consent:

Requirements for ethical review of research involving human subjects are based on a growing consensus that potential human subjects needed to be protected from being used as ‘guinea pigs’ in scientific research. Yet, some question whether IRBs have overstepped their boundaries in protecting human subjects.  Social and behavioral research in particular has come under increasingly acute scrutiny by university Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) charged with the protection of human subjects. The marked intensity of oversight was noted in a report by the American Association of University Professors which concluded that federal regulations and overzealous IRBs “constitute a threat to academic freedom” (Thomson,Elgin, Hyman, Rubin, and Knight 2006). In 2006, the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois concluded in their study that many IRBs have experienced “mission creep” redirecting them from their charge of ethical oversight and diverting them to “often-meaningless paperwork” (Gunsalus, et al 2006). The reaction by researchers to the burden of bureaucratic barriers has been to avoid submission to the IRB and avoid topics or methodologies that may be perceived as ‘risky.’ According to the Law and Society Association there has been a “chilling effect on the research inquiries of junior scholars, particularly students” (Barzilai et al 2007). The situation has become so difficult in some fields of scholarship that professional associations have launch campaigns to “fix” the institutional review board system. For example, the American Psychological Associate (APA) created a task force in 2007 to address concerns about routinely inaccurate assessments of risk, confusing and often nonsensical requirements, and the shift in focus from review of research protocols on the basis of ethical treatment of human subjects to that of legal protection of the universities (Munsey 2007).

The growing power of IRBs to regulate and control social science as well as that of humanities research is especially worrisome for qualitative researchers, particularly those who employ innovative methodologies or operate within critical paradigms. Lincoln and Tierney (2004) analyzed a set of qualitative research projects denied approval from various IRBS. The denials often resulted from board members who misunderstood qualitative epistemologies and did not understand the kinds of data produced from the methodologies supported by these modes of inquiry. They also found disturbing evidence of a prejudice regarding particular qualitative methodologies. Lincoln and Tierney note:

The ongoing disapproval of the cases does not serve either ethical criteria or protective criteria. Rather, disapproval (or endless requests for changes, alterations, etc. in the research design, which often act to connote future disapproval or at least to discourage researchers) signals what one IRB group frankly admitted to one dissertation advisor: The interests of the institution (whatever they are) are more important than the interests of fostering sound research — even when the research is deemed important to the IRB itself. (230)

In this module…

In this module, we will read about the historical developments of IRBs as well as past cases of the abuses perpetrated by unethical researchers(Babbie Ch 3)  . You will also complete an online training module required by all researchers who wish to collect data from people (Exercise 4), engage in a discussion on research ethics (Discussion 2), and discuss the ethical implications of your own research project.

Check your Course Schedule for due dates. 

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