4 Ethics in research

You have learnt how to ask a RQ, and identify different studies for obtaining data. In this chapter, you will learn to:

  • describe and list areas of academic integrity.
  • list common ethical issues to be considered in study design.

4.1 Ethical guidelines

All research must be ethical, and must meet ethical guidelines, to minimise risk of harm to the environment, property and to participants, and to preserve the well-being, dignity, rights and safety of participants (including animals). Practically every university and research organisation in the world promotes and enforces responsible research practices (RRPs).

Most research studies require a comprehensive ethics approval process before research begins, which must be approved by an ethics committee. We only give brief comments about research ethics.

Example 4.1 (Ethics) Ethics are important for all studies, not just those involving people or animals. For example:

  • A study (Rubbo et al. 2019) found \(238\) engineering articles published between 1945 and 2015 were retracted, mostly for unethical research practice.
  • In the chemical sciences, \(331\) retractions were reported in 2017 and 2018 due to QRPs, such as falsification of data and plagiarism (Coudert 2019).

4.2 Common ethical issues

Common ethical issues (most of which are evaluated by Ethics Committees) include:

  • Acknowledgement: All those who contributed to the research should be acknowledged. This includes those who make figures or have taken photographs, or have helped with data collection.
  • Analysis: The analysis must use appropriate methods.
  • Confidentiality: Data should be kept confidential, and only necessary data collected.
  • Consent: When appropriate, people should consent to being in the study, and hence should be told what the study involves. People should also be able to withdraw from the study without penalty.
  • Economic risks: Financial loss to participants should be avoided. Reimbursements of reasonable costs for participating may need to be considered.
  • Environmental risks: Environmental impacts and damage should be avoided or minimised.
  • Funding: Sources of funding should be disclosed. Any studies funded by, or at least not sanctioned by, companies or organisations with vested interests need to be carefully scrutinised. These may lead to, or give the impression, of conflicts of interest.
  • 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.
  • Plagiarism: The work of others should be appropriately acknowledged and not claimed to be original (Sect. 4.3).
  • Physical risks: Physical harm or discomfort (to researchers, participants or bystanders) should be avoided or minimised.
  • Psychological risks: Psychological harm or discomfort (to researchers, participants or bystanders) should be avoided or minimised.
  • Resourcing: The study should not waste resources, time or money (e.g, if the answer to the RQ is already known, the study is not necessary); see Sect. 30.2.
  • Sample size: The study should not use more individuals than necessary.
  • Social risks: Social harm or discomfort (to researchers, participants or bystanders) should be avoided or minimised.
  • Storage of data: Data should be stored securely, kept for the required amount of time, then securely disposed.

Example 4.2 (Poor ethics) In the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, conducted between 1932 and 1972, treatments were actively withheld from men with syphilis (Corbie-Smith 1999). The men's wives and children often were affected.

The men were lied to about their treatments, and prevented from seeking other treatments. This study was highly unethical, and would not be conducted now.

Example 4.3 (Poor ethics in analysis) In 1986, the American space shuttle Challenger exploded just after launch, killing all seven astronauts on board. A review (Dala, Fowlkes, and Hoadley 1989) found that the cause was partly that the engineers failed to use some data that should have been used. This was unethical.

4.3 Academic integrity

Academic integrity refers to conducting research ethically, honestly and responsibly. The opposite of academic integrity is academic misconduct. In the context of research, academic integrity covers areas such as collusion, fraud and plagiarism.

  • Collusion occurs when people work together to produce work, but the work is unfairly presented to give an advantage to some of the group.
  • Fraud refers to the intent to deceive.
  • Plagiarism refers to using other people's words and ideas without acknowledgement. To avoid plagiarism, all sources used when writing research should be acknowledged. Plagiarism is a serious offence: it is theft of intellectual property. Do not plagiarise; use quotes if necessary and cite work (sparingly). Plagiarism applies to words, text, images, photographs, ideas, etc.

Example 4.4 (Plagiarism) A journal published an article to discourage plagiarism (Shamim 2014). Later, the article was retracted because parts were plagiarised.

Example 4.5 (Fraud) A microbiologist had articles retracted due to fraud, including self-plagiarism and reusing figures that were claimed to come from different studies (Chatterjee and Sarkar (2015), p. 1527).

4.4 Reproducible research

One way to ensure that the results of research are reliable and trustworthy is to encourage reproducible research: enabling someone else to repeat the study and analysis. For research to be reproducible, the methods, data, analysis methods and any relevant computer code must be made available (Laine et al. 2007).

Methods for ensuring reproducible research is discipline dependent, and beyond the scope of this book. Different journals also have different expectations regarding reproducibility. However, realising that reproducibility is nexcessary is important.

Many researchers strongly advise against using point-and-click interfaces (e.g., Excel) for statistical analysis since the results are not reproducible. The importance of reproducibility in the analysis phase is crucial:

There are serious medical consequences to errors attributable to the effects of spreadsheet programs and software operated through a graphical user interface [...] that could have been avoided through a reproducible research paradigm...

--- Simons and Holmes (2019), p. 471

Rather than using spreadsheets (also see Sect. 2.12), using tools which encourage reproducible research are recommended. Statistical software packages, such as R (on which jamovi is based), are recommended.

Example 4.6 (Unethical reporting and practice) A 'Letter to the Editor' of a paramedicine journal (George, Brown, and Allison 2015) questioned an article (Hosseini et al. 2015) in which researchers claimed to have randomly allocated participants into two groups. The Letter noted that the average weights of the participants in each group were substantially different: "It is extraordinarily unlikely that any variable would be that different between two groups if allocation was truly random" (George, Brown, and Allison (2015), p. 153).

4.5 Chapter summary

Studies must be ethical, and any formal study must obtain ethical approval before beginning. Ethics covers issues including, but not restricted to:

  • acknowledgements.
  • analysis methods.
  • confidentiality.
  • consent.
  • economic risks.
  • environmental risks.
  • funding
  • incentives for participants.


  • legal risks.
  • plagiarism.
  • physical risks.
  • psychological risks.
  • resourcing.
  • sample size.
  • social risks.
  • storage of data.

4.6 Quick review questions

Are the following statements true or false?

  1. Ethical considerations apply for any type of study.
  2. Ethical considerations only refer to the interactions of the researchers with participants in the study.
  3. Ethical considerations only apply when people are the individuals in the study.
  4. Ethical considerations only apply when people or animals are the individuals in the study.
  5. Ethical considerations can extend to storage of data and plagiarism.
  6. Ethics only apply to the design of the study.
  7. Ethics apply even to the analysis of the data.
  8. Ethical clearance is provided by (for example) the University Ethics Office.

4.7 Exercises

Selected answers are available in App. E.

Exercise 4.1 Consider this research conundrum (Crozier and Schulte-Hostedde 2015):

A research team has an extraordinarily successful long-term study of a population of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) on Ram Mountain [...]

The population contains marked individuals for which the research team has incredibly detailed data on phenotype, pedigree, and life-history [...] this research has lead to numerous important publications.

Recently, however, a cougar (Puma concolor) that has learned to specialize on these sheep is slowly but surely eating all of them. This is a study of a natural population, which includes predation, but this cougar is drastically reducing the sample size of the study.

Since it is legal to hunt cougars in the region where this study is taking place, one option is to try to kill the predator; however, even if a cougar were successfully hunted, this would not ensure that it was the correct one.

What action would you recommend, from an ethical point-of-view?

Exercise 4.2 Suppose a research group is testing a new drug, with the potential to cure a debilitating illness. The researchers could decide to (a) use a control group that does not receive the new drug, and so obtain stronger evidence for using the drug in the event that it works; or (b) not use a control group, so that everyone in the study potentially benefits from the using the new drug.

What would you decide?

Exercise 4.3 Suppose a very deadly and highly contagious disease breaks out. Is it ethical to begin the use of a new drug to treat those affected, even though the drug is still experimental and the potentially harmful side effects are unknown? Discuss your point-of-view.

Exercise 4.4 Is it ethical to lie to the subjects in a study? Deception is used in some disciplines, and may be approved by ethics committees under certain circumstances (such as the potential benefits of the study, and whether the deception is likely to cause physical or psychological discomfort to the participants).

Do you think it is ethical to tell participants that they are taking an active medication, when it is actually ineffective (a 'placebo') (Waber et al. 2008)? Discuss the advantages and disadvantages, including what we can learn from such a study that may be beneficial.