Why It Matters: Research Ethics

What Are Primary Research Ethics?

Just as every secondary research project must be ethical (by appropriately summarizing, paraphrasing, or quoting the secondary sources used as well as by attributing those words and/or ideas to their original authors), every primary research project must be ethical. What does this mean? In brief, it means that primary research projects must be designed to have as minimal risk as possible for their human (and, where applicable, animal) participants.

In order to ensure that primary research projects meet these standards, educational institutions, hospitals, and other non-profit and research organizations have their own Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). An IRB oversees any and all human (and animal) subject research that originates from or takes place at its institution.

Why Should We Care?

The following hypothetical examples are topics that are more than appropriate for primary research projects; however, how the primary research is designed and/or carried out raises many ethical concerns:

  • An exercise science major is researching underage drinking habits and observes underage peers drinking at weekend parties.
  • A psychology major is researching the effects of marijuana and PTSD and sends out a survey link asking veterans about their drug use and/or medical history.
  • A social work major researches child abuse and its effects and approaches other social work students to interview them about their experiences with child abuse and its effects.

All of these examples are based on interesting research questions: What are the habits driving underage drinking on campus? How do veterans self-treat for PTSD? How does child abuse impact young adults and their educational choices? The problem is that, in WRIT 250, the class is given minimum IRB approval (forms are found here) and so students have not gone through the proper training and approval for such “high risk” projects.

The overarching ethical guideline for primary research is quite simple: Do no harm.  Unfortunately, the practice of primary research can be more complicated.

research in real life

In 2014, an article titled, “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks,” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study on which the article was based, almost 700,000 Facebook users were shown altered newsfeeds for one week. Some users were exposed to posts that were more positive/happy than would have otherwise been in their feed; other users were exposed to posts that were more negative/sad. The users’ own posts were then analyzed, and their posts were found to correlate to the emotional state of their newsfeed: either positive/happy or negative/sad. The results thus indicated that the Facebook newsfeed could drive an “emotional contagion.”

So far, you may not see any issue with this primary research process, but the publication was met with resistance from many scholars. Here is the main reason why: the Facebook users had not given Facebook permission to alter their newsfeeds. Users were subjected to emotionally altered newsfeeds without knowing it was happening, and Facebook had no way of knowing whether any of these users suffered from mental or emotional disorders that may have put them at heightened risk for harm. Furthermore, the researchers who published the article were based at Cornell, where the IRB determined no approval was necessary since Facebook had already collected the data set before contacting the researchers. The entire study, then, was conducted outside the purview of an IRB. (See The Atlantic and The Washington Post for news coverage of this article’s publication.)

All of these examples demonstrate the need to treat research subjects (i.e., the humans participating in a primary research protocol) with care, respect, and dignity.