2.2 Common ethical issues

Common ethical issues to consider are:

  • Physical risks: Participants should not experience physical harm or discomfort.
  • Psychological risks: Participants should not experience psychological harm or discomfort.
  • Social risks: Participants should not experience any social harm or discomfort.
  • Environmental risks: Any damage to the environment should be minimised.
  • Economic risks: Participants should not experience any significant financial loss. Reimbursements of reasonable costs may need to be considered.
  • Incentives to participate: If participants are offered incentives to participate (above reimbursement of costs), these should be acknowledged as it may (perhaps unconsciously) cause participants to influence the results.
  • Legal risks: Participants should not be put in the position of breaking any laws.
  • Acknowledgement: All those who contributed should be acknowledged.
  • Confidentiality: Data should be kept confidential.
  • Storage of data: Data should be stored securely.
  • Consent: Participants should consent to being in the study, and hence should be told what the study involves. Participants should also be able to withdraw from the study without penalty.
  • Plagiarism: The work of others should be appropriately acknowledged.
  • Analysis: The analysis must be approached ethically, and using the appropriate methods.

Example 2.2 (Ethics) In the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (Corbie-Smith 1999) (conducted between 1932 and 1972), effective treatments were witheld from men with syphilis. The men's wives and children often were affected.

The men were lied to about the treatment they were given, and were prevented from seeking treatment elsewhere. This was a highly unethical study, and could never be conducted now.

In 1986, the American space shuttle Challenger exploded just after launch, killing all seven astronauts on board.

A review of the disaster (Dala, Fowlkes, and Hoadley 1989) found that part of the cause was that the engineers dismissed some data that they should have used. This was unethical scientific practice.


Corbie-Smith, Giselle. 1999. “The Continuing Legacy of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study: Considerations for Clinical Investigation.” The American Journal of the Medical Sciences 317 (1): 5–8.
Dala, Siddharta R., Edward B. Fowlkes, and Bruce Hoadley. 1989. “Risk Analysis of the Space Shuttle: Pre-Challenger Prediction of Failure.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 84 (408): 945–57.