Historically, psychology, and other fields of study, have not always been very ethical in terms of the research studies that were performed, and how participants were treated. Some infamous examples where extreme harm came to the participants can be reviewed below:
As a result of these gross oversights regarding participants’ ethical protection, psychology as a field went through a lot of changes. Changes included the development of The Belmont Report, the adoption of the APA Ethical Codes and Standards, and the development of numerous Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in colleges and universities throughout the world.
Today, when psychologists conduct research, they must be sure they have avoided the possibility of any psychological or physical harm to the participant. This exemplifies Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence from the APA Ethical Codes and Standards (APA, 2016).
Be sure to read and review these five principles and 10 standards within the APA Ethical Codes and Standards (link provided in the resources), and take the time to become familiar with these, as you will be asked to uphold these principles and standards in any research that you are a part of!
To ensure research participants’ rights have been protected, there are usually steps to take, similar to the system of checks and balances in government. One of these checks is an entity called the Institutional Review Board (IRB).
This board is responsible for reviewing and approving scholarly research within an institution or organization like NCU. You will be happy to learn that there is an active and vibrant IRB here at NCU. This review board consists of faculty and professionals, both within and outside of NCU. They have expertise in research design and are fully aware of relevant ethical issues that could be a concern when conducting a research study.
Here at NCU, the IRB holds monthly webinars and offers individual consultations by appointment to students who are thinking about conducting scholarly research. If you are looking to do some research in the near future, it is highly recommended that you check out their website!
You are encouraged to explore the IRB’s website and consider attending a webinar, or making an appointment to talk to a board member and learn more about the IRB and what it does, and the types of issues that are important to be aware of when designing a research study.
So what might an IRB reviewer be looking for when reviewing a research study? There are common issues or ethical concerns that frequently arise when IRB members review research: privacy and confidentiality; informed consent; the right to withdraw; deception; and debriefing.
Basically, an IRB member focuses on reviewing materials based on the three principles of The Belmont Report; namely, that of respect for persons, beneficence or ‘do no harm, and justice, or making sure that subjects are selected into the study sample, and benefit equally, regardless of race, gender, etc. (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, n.d.). You will now briefly examine each of these to have a clearer understanding of what IRB reviewers are looking for when they decide whether or not to approve a study.
One of the more commonly encountered ethical concerns that psychological researchers experience with respect for persons includes the issue of privacy and confidentiality (Gravetter & Foranzo, 2018). Taking steps to ensure that participant data is collected and stored confidentiality is an important issue to consider.
This often includes making the data anonymous or removing personal identifiers from the dataset, and storing data in a password-protected file or locked cabinet. Informed consent is another commonly encountered concern for IRB reviewers, which gets at the principle of respect for persons.
With informed consent, participants must be fully aware of any risks or benefits that accompany their participation in the study. Two types of informed consent are commonly encountered: fully informed and limited informed consent.
In a fully informed consent, participants must have a clear understanding of what will happen from start to finish if they consent to participate in the research (Gravetter & Foranzo, 2018). In a limited informed consent, some key ideas or parts of the hypothesis might be intentionally omitted in order to obtain more objective findings and results.
Otherwise, you might encounter expectancy effect or experimenter bias, where participants behave in a way that conforms to the expectations of the researcher. The right to withdraw is another concern that must be clearly discussed, typically during the informed consent process. This issue can fit within the principles of both respects for persons and beneficence.
It involves making sure that a participant is fully aware from the start of the study that they can end their participation at any time, without penalty or negative consequences. This was an issue in the Milgram studies that you read about. Additionally, any benefits of participation in the study should be given to participants, regardless of whether or not they complete the study, and remain in it to the end (e.g., extra credit, monetary incentives).