Research Ethics

Ethics are self‐regulatory guidelines for making decisions and defining professions. By establishing ethical codes, professional organizations maintain the integrity of the profession, define the expected conduct of members, and protect the welfare of subjects and clients. Moreover, ethical codes give professionals direction when confronting confusing situations that are ethical dilemmas. A case in point is a scientist's decision to deceive subjects intentionally. On one hand, the scientist may believe that deception is the only way to conduct a particular study, while on the other hand, the scientist needs to be cognizant of and protect the subjects' right to their integrity and dignity.

Many organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, have ethical principles and guidelines to help scientists make responsible decisions in cases where ethical dilemmas arise. The vast majority of modern developmentalists abide by their respective organizations' ethical principles.

Researchers must remain mindful of their ethical responsibilities to participants and remember that their primary duty is to protect their subjects' welfare. For example, a researcher whose study requires extensive questioning of volunteers' personal information should screen the study's subjects beforehand to assure that the questioning is not distressing. Scientists should also inform subjects about their expected roles in the study, the potential risks of participating, and their freedom to withdraw from the study at any time without consequences. Agreeing to participate in a study based on disclosure of personal information is known as informed consent. After the study is concluded, the researcher should debrief the subjects by providing the volunteers with the complete details of the study.

Many critics believe that the intentional use of deception, or concealing the purpose and procedures of a study from participants, is never justified. Deception carries the risk of psychologically harming subjects and also reduces public support for research. Proponents of deception in research, however, view it as necessary when prior knowledge of a study would sway a subject's responses and invalidate the results. For example, when subjects learn that the purpose of a study is to measure attitudes of racial discrimination, the participants may intentionally try to avoid appearing prejudiced.

Even the most ethical and cautious researcher cannot anticipate every risk associated with volunteers participating in a study. However, by carefully screening subjects, informing subjects of their rights, giving them as much information as possible before the study, avoiding deception, and debriefing the subjects after the study, researchers may at least minimize the risks of harm to their subjects.