What Is Research Ethics?

What is Research Ethics?
by Nancy Walton, Ph.D.
Research that involves human subjects or participants raises unique and complex ethical, legal, social and political issues. Research ethics is specifically interested in the analysis of ethical issues that are raised when people are involved as participants in research. There are three objectives in research ethics. Thefirst and broadest objective is to protect human participants. The second objective is to ensure that research is conducted in a way that serves interests of individuals, groups and/or society as a whole. Finally, the third objective is to examine specific research activities and projects for their ethical soundness, looking at issues such as the management of risk, protection of confidentiality and the process of informed consent.

For the most part, research ethics has traditionally focused on issues in biomedical research. The application of research ethics to examine and evaluate biomedical research has been well developed over the last century and has influenced much of the existing statutes and guidelines for the ethical conduct of research. However in humanities and social science research, different kinds of ethical issues arise. New and emerging methods of conducting research, such as auto-ethnography and participatory action research raise important but markedly different ethical issues and obligations for researchers.

Research involving vulnerable persons, which may include children, persons with developmental or cognitive disabilities, persons who are institutionalized, the homeless or those without legal status, also raises unique issues in any research context.

Research ethicists everywhere today are challenged by issues that reflect global concerns in other domains, such as the conduct of research in developing countries, the limits of research involving genetic material and the protection of privacy in light of advances in technology and Internet capabilities.

In Canada, current debates and challenges in research ethics include the changing notions of what constitutes research and therefore requires formal ethics review, the oversight and monitoring of the work of Research Ethics Boards (known as Institutional Review Boards, in the U.S.) at federal and provincial levels, the jurisdiction of Research Ethics Boards in academic, clinical and corporate settings, the increasing multidisciplinarity of research collaborations and pursuits and challenges created by rigorous federal and provincial privacy legislation. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the kinds of live issues there are in research ethics today. Aside from the epistemological and philosophical issues in this dynamic field, research ethicists also face anecdotal issues at the level of individual research ethics reviews, systemic issues related to the institutions in which research ethics reviews are carried out and social, legal and political issues related to governance and oversight of research ethics activities.