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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 15, 2005
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Research ethics: Reforming postgraduate formation

Roger J. Vallance
The University of Notre Dame, Australia
Research ethics is not only a matter of doing no harm, or even abiding by the guidelines of the Ethics Review Board of the institution. While these matters are important and legal requirements, there is much more at stake in discussions of research ethics. Research ethics establish the foundation upon which research rests. Taking the social sciences and qualitative research in general, this article argues that sound formation in research ethics is critical for today's higher degree students. Sound ethical principles establish the usefulness and trustworthiness of research and as such research ethics are the mainstay of the academy's defence of research funding.


Research ethics is frequently treated as a footnote to research practice. It is not uncommon for higher degree research students in humanity faculties to face the ethics clearance requirements of their institution as the last act in preparing their research. In times past, it may even have been thought that institutional ethics clearance was another hurdle to be overcome before the real activity of research could be conducted. Such positions place research ethics at the periphery or administrative side of research activities. This article argues for a central place for research ethics and claims that such centrality is not only demanded by our understanding of research but also a fundamental response to the challenge of critics who would claim that research is of limited value or usefulness.

This discussion of research ethics focuses on the humanities and the social sciences. The article consciously focuses on qualitative methods, while accepting that the main ideas apply equally to quantitative methods employed in the social sciences. It explicitly excludes a discussion of medical, genetic and biochemical research. The intended audience is those researchers and beginning researchers who anticipate involving human participants in social sciences research. Such students may be in education, sociology, psychology, anthropology and other social sciences. The bioethical expectations of invasive or tissue experiments are not within the ambit of this discussion.

Text book approach to research ethics

There are a number of good texts in research ethics. These texts have guided researchers and institutional ethics boards towards improved practice and have promoted the teaching of research ethics as a preparation for higher research degree activities (Burgess, 1989; Elliot & Stern, 1997; Penslar, 1995; Sales & Folkman, 2000; Sieber, 1992). The ethical principles are often stated under the three headings or concerns for beneficence, respect and justice elucidated in the Belmont Report (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, 1979; Sieber, 1992, p.18). Beneficence is the intent to do good and that good outcomes predominate from the research. Beneficence is opposed to either deliberate or accidental harm being caused to research participants, and includes the provision of safeguards and treatments to address foreseeable harm. Respect is considered to include respect for the personal values, reputation and individuality of the participants, so that the research honours the views and expressions of the participants. Justice encompasses the principles of fairness, equity and balance of bias for both participants and the researchers so that the research outcomes do justice to the research inputs and that justice is a priority in the treatment of all participants.

Smith develops this basis of three concerns into the five moral principles of Respect, Beneficence, Justice, Trust, and Fidelity (Smith, 2000, p.5). Sieber expands the three 'Belmont principles' to six norms of research.

These she relates to the three ethical principles of beneficence, respect and justice listed above (Sieber, 1992, p.19).

All methodologies have an ethical imperative. Qualitative methods have usually been explicit about their ethical commitments (Anonymous, 2001; DeLorne, Zinkhan & French, 2001; Marshall, 2003; van den Hoonaard, 2001) whereas quantitative methods have often emphasised statistical and other skills (Bridges, Gillmore, Pershing & Bates, 1998).

Research ethics is commonly identified in two main areas. The first area is within the research of higher degree students. Student research frequently requires the presentation and acceptance, for institutional purposes, of a research proposal. Such a proposal is commonly required to include a section on research ethics. The second, and often parallel requirement is the institutional research ethics clearance (Marshall, 2003). Most universities maintain a standing committee of research ethics which has oversight functions for all research within the institution whether it be class, student or staff research. While some energy for these overviews of intended research comes from past malpractice (Gibelman & Gelman, 2001; Lucas & Lidstone, 2000; Steneck, 1994), present practices are reviewed in order to maintain best practice (DeLorne et al, 2001; Weijer, 2001). Similarly, as new areas of research develop, institutional review must adapt to the challenges (DeLorne et al, 2001; Erlen, 2000; Jeffers, 2002). Many external grant applications require this research clearance from the university's staff applicants and similar bodies exist at the level of State and Federal departments.

A definition of research ethics

A number of definitions of research ethics exist. The Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) defines research ethics as follows.
Researchers must be aware of and adhere to ethical principles of justice and veracity, and of respect for people and their privacy and avoidance of harm to them, as well as respect for non-human subjects of research. (NH&MRC, 1997, General Principles #1.5)
The NH&MRC General Principles reaffirm the Belmont Report's three principles of justice, beneficence and respect (NH&MRC, 1999, p.4). The more recent Human Research Ethics Handbook comments upon the NH&MRC (1999) document and introduces the element of integrity (NH&MRC, 2001, p.C3). The Human Research Ethics Handbook then gives a valuable discussion of the four principles of integrity, as a guiding value, and beneficence, respect and justice (NH&MRC, 2001, pp.C3-C16). Integrity echoes the earlier fidelity of Smith (2000, p.5).

There is nothing wrong with these categories or principles as they stand. The focus of this discussion is on the teaching of research ethics, or to phrase it better, formation in research ethics. It is acknowledged that formation in research ethics has progressed beyond research codes of conduct, which are often rules and boundaries defining misconduct. Such codes of conduct might be more appropriately described as 'codes of misconduct'. The focus of this article is a discussion of how best to present and discuss research ethics so that beginning researchers are inculcated early in their development with a respect for the ethics oversight procedures, and more importantly, an understanding of the ethical requirements of good social research (Lucas & Lidstone, 2000). Essentially, this article is promoting a paradigm shift from research ethics as a matter of compliance to research ethics becoming an integrated and core concept of reflective research practice.

The argument is not directly concerned with misconduct. While misconduct includes unethical behaviours, misconduct also includes that which is unlawful. These include fabrication or falsification of data, plagiarism and practices unacceptable to the research community regarding the proposing, conducting or reporting of research (Price, 1994). There are indications that examples of misconduct in research are not as rare as one would hope (Fox, 1994; Fox & Branxton, 1994; Hackett, 1994; Herman, Sunshine et al, 1994). Some research communities even include the destruction of primary data within their definition of misconduct (Bostanci, 2002).

The four principles of integrity, beneficence, respect and justice are excellent foundations for discussion (NH&MRC, 2001). Historically, the development of research ethics is overshadowed by medical and ethical abuses, and is founded in recent times in the Nuremburg trials of 1947, the Nuremburg Code, and the Declaration of Helsinki (Carlson, Boyd and Webb 2004). The usual treatment of research ethics in texts and codified presentations do not go far enough and do not represent the full range of the research enterprise. The traditional representation of research ethics in terms of compliance can no longer be accepted as sufficient (Meslin, 2002). This paper argues that there are at least three aspects in which the traditional understanding of research ethics are deficient. These deficiencies are that definitions of research ethics are often too limited and narrow in focus, as for instance

It is not argued that participants need to receive more information than they currently receive. What this article is arguing is that a more holistic approach to research ethics includes a broader framework and hence needs to be a part of any research rationale. More importantly, this article intends to develop a model of research ethics formation based on what is required and beneficial for the research student rather than a focus on bad practice [codes of misconduct] and simulation exercises which are themselves of problematic ethical value (Lucas & Lidstone, 2000).

Ethics limited to data collection

The traditional construction of research ethics focuses the attention on the data collection phase of the research enterprise. Rightfully, this understanding emphasises the need that participants be informed of the purposes and nature of the research and offer their consent for the research activities. They need to be informed of possible risks and be permitted to withdraw from the research at any time they so choose. However, being informed of the purposes and methods of the research might not cover the research intent and the research question. Clearly, there are research questions which we are not prepared to answer for ethical reasons. We are not prepared to repeat the errors of past researchers who may have used whatever methods they could to achieve data.

The ethical concerns for participants should also include their protection from harm due to research publication. This has implications for the style and place of research publications, and cannot be satisfied by merely claiming participants consented to be involved on data collection since publication may have unanticipated consequences after data collection.

Ethics limited to institutional demands

There is a sense that ethical research is what gets past the ethics committee. While this unfortunate perspective is possibly a sign more of past sensibilities than those of today, it is a stronger teaching point that research ethics pertains to all parts of the research enterprise. The holistic approach is more likely to alert intending researchers to their responsibilities throughout the complete research enterprise. The researcher has ethical responsibilities to the range of stakeholders and even gatekeepers of research domain, although not all these individuals are owed equal responsibilities, and also to the profession of researchers. While a prime focus of ethical clearance procedures may focus on institutional accountability, the University or institution cannot fully encompass all the ethical calls for any research project.

Ethics not linked to personal accountability

It is argued that research ethics pertains to the full range of activities that comprise research. As such, it is the researcher as an individual who must take responsibility for ethical behaviour. While it might sit uncomfortably with some, institutional demands often engender an approach that focuses on avoidance or circumvention.

This article argues that ethical research is not the sum of a set of guidelines but the result of personal accountability towards making the research as good as it can be while respecting all the people and institutions that the research touches. This point will be further explored in the latter half of this paper.

A reformed model of research ethics

This article attempts to offer a more holistic and inclusive construction of research ethics. The model allows ethical principles to be focused on the whole research enterprise, from its inception with a research question to the publication of its results and findings.

This model is not the result of perceived neglect of ethical principles nor their improper application. This article does not arise from an analysis of deficit of our presentation of research ethics but rather an analysis that seeks to improve and make more transparent the research thinking. It will be argued in a later section that this increased transparency is a claim for validity of all research and a strong response to those in the community who are sceptical of research and academic researchers (Branxton & Bayer, 1994; Steneck, 1994).

A holistic definition of research ethics

Research ethics does not need to be radically redefined in order to develop a stronger framework. Essentially, a refined definition would strive to be more inclusive of the totality of research activities. This article offers a revised definition of the scope, content and intent of research ethics. It could be stated thus.
Research ethics are the guiding principles, based on values that esteem people and the growth of social structures, that promote and safeguard the integrity of all persons involved in the research: participants; gatekeepers; stakeholders; researchers and research consumers, to promote the good of all without sacrificing the interests of any, so that the research outcomes represent a progress worthy of the time and resources expended.
This definition is an attempt to increase the transparency of the activities and reflections which comprise ethical review of proposed research. The definition promotes an understanding of research ethics which moves away from compliance to the letter of the law or even the proforma of an Approval Application towards an understanding of research ethics which of itself argues that research outcomes are intentionally beneficial and formative, and hence in even modest ways, contribute to the common good. Furthermore, research ethics, as will be more fully argued in a later section, is not merely a matter of compliance but is actually the fundamental ground for the validity claims of good research.

It would seem that such a definition above has immediate consequences for planning and how we speak about research. One way of developing these consequences is to map the headings of a research plan that are affected by this refomration of research ethics. These headings might include the following headings.

It is not intended to unwrap each of the research headings above. Considerations of space in this article restrict the discussion to a brief treatment of major points. The advantage of considering ethical research components of each of these headings is their very familiarity to researchers and the increased transparency of ethical reflection of each heading. As earlier stated, this ethics model comes not from a discussion of deficits or malpractice in terms of research practice (Meslin, 2002; Payne, 2000), but rather a motivation to increase transparency and public acceptance as well as to better explain the research processes.

There is a strong motive for this better understanding of research ethics. It is well argued that the validity of social research stands upon its ethical conduct and, more insistently, the present cynicism and scepticism in some sections of the public and informed readership can only be addressed by the grounded ethical construction, conduct, analysis and reporting of research (Shaw, 2003, p.113).

The ethical issues of data collection are often focused upon informed consent and privacy. Yet other ethical issues do pertain to data collection. Mark, Eyssell and Campbell (1999) advocate a cost benefit analysis in which "the risks to participants are to be weighed against potential benefits of the research" (Mark et al, 1999, p.48). While methodological choices have ethical overtones (McLeod, 1996), the design of the research program is also an ethical issue since the resources and time and trouble of participants should not be lightly requested nor expended (Mark et al, 1999, pp.49-51).

Data analysis is a research activity that has its own ethical requirements. Most would be familiar with a sense of performing only those (statistical) tests that might be required as a minimum or to explore hypothesised relationships. Principled discovery (Mark et al, 1999, pp.52-53) stands in contrast to data mining, as data mining is an automatic and algorithmic approach to retrieving data (Mena, 1999, p.42).

Parker and Szymanski (1996) list ten standards of ethical publication of research findings which establish a sound basis for this often neglected aspect of research. They include: the responsibility to print retractions if findings are later found to be unsubstantiated; due accord to previous authors; not submitting the same article to multiple journals; and an openness to share data when requested (Parker & Szymanski, 1996, pp.162-163).

This article is not alone in calling for increased ethical responsibility in social research. Within a number of social science disciplines there is heightened concern for ethical clarity. Nursing (Jeffers, 2002; Royal College of Nursing Research Society, 2003) and social work (Antle & Regehr, 2003; Gibelman & Gelman, 2001; Richards & Schwartz, 2002) have within the last several years raised concerns about ethical education. It is argued that a more holistic model of research ethics, which moves beyond the traditional focus on the data collection, may address the valid and urgent concerns raised.

This focus on research ethics is not promoting a mindset that excludes or downplays research techniques as feared by some (Hammersley, 1999, p.18). This focus is arguing that an ethic of care combined with an ethic of justice (Edwards & Mauthner, 2002) is both possible and worthwhile. Edwards and Mauthner (2002, pp.28-29) offer nine leading and instructive questions to guide such an ethical formation of a research plan.

Gibelman and Gelman (2001, p.249-250) raise two further matters pertaining to maintaining high ethical standards. The first recommendation is that researchers develop mentoring relationships with more experienced researchers. Clearly this recommendation has benefits beyond those of high ethical standards. The second recommendation is that 'whistle blowing' be more strongly approved in ethics courses. While pointing out that many whistleblowers still suffer career detriments, Gibelman and Gelman (2001, p.50) note that most cases of misconduct are reported by whistle blowing colleagues. Evered and Lazar (1995) suggest three approaches to diminish misconduct: education and the establishment of ethical standards; encouraging practices to diminish pressures that promote malpractice (principally the pressure to publish); and processes to enact consequences for malpractice.

Research ethics as the fundamental basis of research validity

If one accepts that academic and professional research is not universally well regarded, how can researchers respond? This author argues that the best response is to more transparently base our research activities upon ethical foundations. While it is an unfortunate aspect of human frailty that not all professional researchers will be innocent of misconduct, the argument about the usefulness of research needs to be made from an ethical foundation.

When instances of research fraud and cheating are discovered, the research community needs to act firmly. Firstly, the research community needs to respect and protect those who do function as 'whistle blowers' to report misconduct (Evered & Lazar, 1995; Gibelman & Gelman, 2001, pp.250-251). Secondly, the research community needs to ensure that adequate censures for misconduct are in place (Fox, 1994; Hackett, 1994). Thirdly, universities and their research centres as well as government and non government research facilities need to publicise and promulgate their ethical commitments (White, 2002). Fourthly, university curricula need to acknowledge the requirement to form research students and academics in research ethics (Beck & Kauffman, 1994; Kaiser, 2002).

Lastly, research review boards need to focus on moving from technical to personal values. The standard ethical clearance form of Australian universities requests technical information about research practices especially in relation to potential harm that participants might encounter. There is nothing wrong with this. What this article argues is that the research ethics should more transparently require the applicant to substantiate that the research promotes integrity, beneficence, respect and justice (NH&MRC, 2001, pp.C3-C16). In part this shift will require a personal ethical commitment from the researchers towards ethical principles, rather than a simple disavowal of those actions which might be unethical.

While the above point might seem to be a small one, in fact it is substantial. Research quality always rests on the researcher - oversight boards and even research supervisors can only be aware of a small part of the interactions that comprise research between and among human subjects. Good research is more likely to be done by well informed and well intentioned researchers, and research training needs to address both the technical side of research preparation and the human, ethical side of research formation. As research participants, consumers and interested readers better understand that the principles of integrity, justice, beneficence and respect underpin research, these same people are going to be more receptive to the claims and insights of research.

There have been research ethics mistakes of the recent past (Fox, 1994; Meland, 2003; Moreno, 1999; Normlie, 2001). While it has proved difficult to quantify such misconduct (Branxton & Bayer, 1994; Holden, 2002), it is clear that increased oversight of research is on the horizon (LaFollette, 1994). Put bluntly, to the extent that the research profession does not administer itself, then governments will be tempted to administer.

One result of the publication of ethical lapses in research could be a public more critical of research and even consumers increasingly critical of research claims. The means to combat this possible outcome are already to hand and can be readily employed. Universities can take the lead in a triple approach to ensure that research ethics become the foundation of good research. These steps include the following.

It seems that this triple approach need not be too difficult to accomplish. Ethics committees in most universities are already charged with the several of the steps described above. A stronger presence and discussion of research ethics on Research Centre websites will be a first step. Serious and transparent investigations of ethical lapses can only be enacted when such lapses are reported, but the climate that remains open to such reporting can be readily established.

It should be relatively easy to include a seminar or unit of research ethics preparation for higher degree students. While PhD students might need seminar preparation to ensure that their supervisors are not additionally burdened, doctoral students and those whose courses include some coursework will readily find opportunities for a research ethics unit. Further, the university should not be shy of teaching research ethics, even if not all aspects are unproblematic, since this readiness itself will impress the seriousness of the topic upon all.


This article has argued that the present conception of research ethics is too tightly allied to data collection. Research ethics must inform the whole of the research process from shaping a research question to the publication of findings. Research ethics is the major defence and reply to those critical of research practices. To establish a rich and vibrant discussion of research ethics in researcher formation programmes is seen to be the best response to increased criticism of faulty research and attention to ethical lapses. Put simply, the best research will be that research which promotes the beneficence, and integrity of all research participants in a manner that incorporates respect and justice for all involved.

The particular focus of this article has been the social or human sciences. That research not promote beneficence, integrity, justice and respect is simply unacceptable to most researchers. While various oversight measures may need to be better established in some universities, it is most likely that information and education are preferred means to achieving a higher profile for ethical standards and research practices. This education should be grounded in higher research degree programmes and proclaimed as an integral part of the research activity.


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Author: Associate Professor Roger Vallance has been the Director of Research Training since 2004. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University. His research interests in educational and values-based leadership, the education of boys and research methods particularly qualitative methods and research ethics. He has developed and taught in a Master of Leadership programme, and is a Visiting Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the second half of 2005. He can be contacted at rvallance@nd.edu.au [from 2006, rvallance@dwu.ac.pg]

Please cite as: Vallance, R. J. (2005). Research ethics: Reforming postgraduate formation. Issues In Educational Research, 15(2), 193-205. http://www.iier.org.au/iier15/vallance.html

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